“The problem of the twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”– W.E.B. DuBois, Souls of Black Folk, 1903
“Hold that line!”– A popular football cheer
The nineteenth century’s fade into history ended a great broken-field run in which the United States darted towards global industrial greatness while skillfully dipping away from dealing constructively with the issue of race relations.
For black folks, that meant their souls would continue to be strangled by the color line, rendering their gains and achievements, regardless of magnitude, insignificant at best when not outright ignored by the majority of Americans.
Nineteenth Century America
Yet, in a jagged sprint towards the next era, the nineteenth century dazzled with an invention-crazed frenzy, a population boom, and a lust for new industries. Although the West was still wild and settlers were moving there in droves by covered wagon, shoving Native Americans aside, the century brought many triumphs: miners harvested more than $65 million in gold from California mines in 1853; Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone and Edison invented the phonograph, while George Eastman produced his first box camera. Communication would never be the same. Ditto for travel, as the East-West rail connection (San Francisco to New York in six days and twenty hours!) was completed and Henry Ford unveiled his first gasoline-powered engine. Among a myriad of other inventions, we were introduced to chewing gum, elevators, the electric light, and mass-produced cigarettes.
Sports in the 1880s and 1890s
In sports, Walter Camp selected his first All-American team in 1889, and in 1891 Dr. James A. Naismith nailed a peach basket to a gymnasium wall and the “winter pastime” of basketball was born. In 1887, the first all-black baseball team, Chicago’s Union Giants, was formed.
Plessy vs. Ferguson and the Dred Scott Decision
Yet, despite the giddiness of so much progress, the United States also suffered sobering defeats and setbacks in the reality of social change. The century’s run was grounded in divisive confusion. The Civil War came to a halt and so did slavery, leaving the nation’s consciousness stunned (especially in the South), like a blindsided quarterback left reeling by a blitzing linebacker, though freedom did not immediately bode well for black Americans. In 1891, one hundred twelve lynchings were reported in the United States, with the majority occurring in the South. Blacks were the primary victims. Four years before the century turned, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson, paving the way for legalized racial segregation in all walks of American life. But race relations already had taken a decided turn for the worse in 1857 when the Court struck a massive blow to anti-slavery forces with the Dred Scott decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney asserted that the Declaration of Independence was never intended to include rights for Negroes.
Four years later, the Civil War began and raged until 1865.
Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment
Congress had chosen to solve the problem with the “red man” by forcing him into isolation on reservations and now the business was what to do about the black man, the newly-freed black man, numbering over 4 million and unbound from his reservations, Southern plantations. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 eliminated slavery, but there was no real hope that “the problem of the color line” would go away any time soon. The Civil War battlefields were quiet, but the fight had changed face, assuming a multitude of ugly disguises including physical and psychological acts of racial intimidation by whites against blacks.
However, despite this climate, historically black colleges emerged to serve an ample supply of eager students, most of who were illiterate former slaves looking to become mainstream and productive citizens.
“Their interest in education was as though an entire race was trying to go to school,” said Dr. Russell Adams, chairman of the African-American Studies Department at Howard University. “The desire to learn was strong.”
Education has great catch-up speed, and if the newly freed slaves were to make up so much lost ground, learning would propel them to greater levels of assimilation and empowerment. Education had been so staunchly denied blacks in the Deep South that there were laws (“codes”) against slaves learning to read. So it is not surprising that the region is where most black colleges are located. Unlike some Northern schools, which admitted a few blacks, admission to a white Southern college was not even a remote consideration for black aspiring students.
Founders of Early HBCUs
Members of religious groups (Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, et.al.) were among many of the early black college founders. However, some schools initially opened their doors through the financial aid of private individuals, philanthropic groups, or state legislative acts. The Land Grant Act of 1890 required states to fund black colleges in order to receive federal money for white agricultural and mechanical schools.
“Many of the schools started with no money,” Adams said. “The first wave of colleges was the group that was to create the beginning of the literate black middle class and become models for the class below.”
How Early HBCUs were Founded
Some black colleges were designated “normal” schools whose specific task was training elementary and secondary school teachers. Most of the early black colleges focused on basic skills, reading and writing, but some of the schools also emphasized religion, vocational, and agricultural courses. Some schools began in one-room structures, perhaps a very small house or barn, accommodating fewer than ten students, ranging from elementary grades through college. In fact, into the new century, it was not unusual that a black “college” also had a “high school” component. Often, homeowners offered space in their homes for classes, with faculty members supported by a philanthropist. Atlanta University opened in 1865, conducting its first classes in an abandoned railroad boxcar. However, W.E.B. DuBois has called the founding of Lincoln University in Missouri the “most romantic beginning for all black colleges.” The soldiers and officers of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry are credited with the founding of Lincoln for giving $5,000 toward the school’s incorporation. Very few, if any, of the men actually ever attended the school. Their concern was more that black children get an education. Lincoln’s first class was held on September 14, 1866, in an old, dilapidated schoolhouse with a leaky roof. There were only two students that first day and, of course, it rained and a nearby creek flooded. Though a bit soggy, the pupils survived their first foray into formal education and a flood of students began streaming to the school.
Educating Newly Freed Slaves
The American Missionary Association refocused its efforts from Africa to helping newly freed slaves by supplying financial aid to start schools in the South. Fisk, in Nashville, was among the schools it helped to found, opening in January 1866 in what had been an Army barracks used to house black cholera victims. Fisk started with 500 students enrolling in the first week but within three months the school had 3,000 students.
“Fisk was not a classic university,” explained Dr. Reavis Mitchell of the Fisk history department. “Some of the people had no education at all. People were learning to read, learning the alphabet and math, but there were no requirements other than to just show up. They were basic educations, but they moved rapidly. You could go from first to sixth grade in a year and a half to two years.”
Come one. Come all. Come learn.
Read more in Michael Hurd’s book, Black College Football, 1892 – 1992: One Hundred Years of History, Education, and Pride