"Black History Month" with many portraits of individuals associated with Black History Month

Black History Month is an annual celebration of African American achievement and recognition of the role Black Americans have played throughout history. Carter Woodson, a historian, began to encourage public schools in 1926 to teach Black history during a weeklong celebration to broaden the nation’s consciousness on the Black experience. By the late 1960s the weeklong celebration evolved into what is now Black History Month. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama stated, “Black History Month shouldn’t be treated as though it is somehow separate from our collective American history…It’s about the lived, shared experiences of all African Americans…and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America.”

The Rise of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, many African Americans viewed education as the single greatest opportunity to create new futures. Before the abolishment of slavery in 1865, anti-literacy laws prevented enslaved and free Black people from obtaining an education. Although free people of color were allowed to attend universities in states that abolished slavery, they often faced discrimination and harassment. Seeing a need and opportunity for reform, Richard Humphreys founded the Institute for Colored Youth in Cheyney Pennsylvania in 1837. The Institute eventually became Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the first historically Black college or university (HBCU).

The US Department of Education White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity through Historically Black Colleges and Universities, through its amended Higher Education Act of 1965, defines an HBCU as: “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.” From their inception, HBCUs provided Black students access to education denied to them during slavery and segregation. The institutions also provided a safe space to learn, discover and build community.

The Growth of HBCUs

Additional HBCUs were established over time with the greatest number starting in 1867, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. A large surge of new institutions also came into existence after the passing of the Second Morrill Act of 1890. The act required states to fund public institutions for Black students if they still had racially segregated schools. In these states, access to funding and resources were barriers for students in Black communities. This increase in funding led to more Black students attending college and a need for more schools.

Even after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, institutions continued to open with the intention of providing educational opportunities for Black Americans. Those founded after 1964 are known as predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) but are often included in the count of HBCUs. The definition of a PBI, as established in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, includes a minimum number of undergraduate students, a percentage of African American students, and a requirement to have at least 50% of students from low-income or first-generation households. These requirements reflect the intention of HBCUs to serve their core constituencies: students who are of African descent, and/or first-generation, and/or low-income.

A Legacy of Excellence

There are 4,298 degree granting post-secondary institutions in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were a total of 1,626 public colleges, 1,687 private nonprofit colleges, and 985 for-profit colleges (fall 2017). HBCUs represent 2.3% of this total, with 107 institutions. Most of these institutions (59%) offer only undergraduate degrees, 41% offer graduate degrees, and 28% award doctoral degrees. Approximately 89% of all HBCUs are in the southern region of the United States. North Carolina has eleven HBCUs, Louisiana has seven, and Alabama has twelve.

HBCUs are not homogeneous institutions. There are levels of diversity within institutions, not only by academic distinction and socioeconomic status, but also in student demographics. In 2018, non-Black students made up 24% of enrollment at HBCUs compared to 15% in 1976.

Some of the nation’s most well-known post-secondary institutions are HBCUs including: Alabama State University, Tuskegee University, Howard University, University of the District of Columbia, Florida A and M University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Xavier University, Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Virginia State University.

Notable graduates from HBCUs include Thurgood Marshall, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

Impact of HBCUs Today

HBCUs offer all students, regardless of race, an opportunity to develop skills and talents. These institutions educate hundreds of young people who go on to lead in the arts, sciences, business, politics and public service. In fact, HBCUs train a record number of community leaders. Former MIT Provost Phillip Clay wrote in, Facing the Future (2012 Ford Foundation), HBCU students are the next generation of community leaders “HBCU students place a higher value on community service, community leadership and civic and political engagement” than their peers in other institutions.

While HBCUs are no longer the only path to higher education for people of African descent, HBCUs remain an option for students to delve further into their cultural heritage, excel academically and share in a reflective experience.

National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC)

Starting in the early 1700s, sororities and fraternities began as social organizations at colleges and universities across the United States. The first of these was Phi Beta Kappa, known today as the scholastic honor society. These historically white fraternities and sororities often had overt or covert prohibitions barring members of different races and cultural backgrounds.

In response, at the start of the twentieth century, a group of students from HBCUs joined together to form their own sororities and fraternities. Founded in 1930, at Howard University in Washington, DC, the chartering organizations were: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. In 1931, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc., joined the council, followed by Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. in 1937.

Known collectively as the National Pan-Hellenic Council, or “The Divine Nine,” each member organization has unique attributes but share a common core goal: to educate and uplift the Black community from racial inequities. Members of these sororities and fraternities were, and continue to be, heavily involved in several social justice movements such as women’s suffrage, civil rights and Black Lives Matter.

The primary purpose and focus of NPHC member organizations remains community awareness and action through educational, economic and cultural service activities. They work cooperatively with and contribute to other community service groups including agencies such as the NAACP, National Urban League, United Negro College Fund and Congressional Black Caucus among others.

Sammamish Principal Shares HBCU and NPHC Story

Derrick Richardson, Principal of Sammamish High School, is a graduate of Grambling State University(GSU), an HBCU, and a member of Omega Psi Phi. He states:

“As a first-generation college graduate, I am hyper-aware of how education can change the trajectory of one’s life. Malik el-Shabazz, a human rights activist, once said, ’education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.’ My experience tells me that it is not where you start; if you believe in yourself, work hard, and have people who support you, you can go wherever your dreams will take you.

It is for this reason that I am an educator. Every student deserves a champion. Everything that Grambling was for me, I desire for Sammamish students — especially those most marginalized. To continually grow as an equitable community that is inclusive and supportive, we must inspire ALL students to dream, affirm them for who they are, challenge them to be their best, and expect them to succeed. When these conditions are created, every student will have the opportunity to learn and thrive as creators of their future world.”

Read more from Principal Richarson and other BSD educators on BSD’s Facebook page.

Learn More about HBCUs at BSD’s Virtual College Conference

Take part in BSD 2023 Virtual College Conference and view recordings of Black Excellence, Get Your College On.

Watch the 2022 College Conference

Watch the 2023 College Conference

Black History Month District Highlights

In celebration of Black History Month, the Bellevue School District is delighted to share the stories of Black leaders, scholars, athletes and activists who lead the way through their words, deeds and achievements.

Stay tuned to district social media to hear from BSD educators.

Also coming up this month, view a nationwide release of a feature film, Freedom’s Path, by Bellevue High School graduates. A portion of each ticket sold to the movie will be donated to a scholarship fund for students attending HBCUs! Check your local AMC and Regal listings.

The Bellevue School District acknowledges that we learn, work, live and gather on the Indigenous Land of the Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish and Snoqualmie Tribes. We thank these caretakers of this land, who have lived and continue to live here, since time immemorial.