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Tennessee State University Accepts Its First Students (1912)

TouchOfGreatOriginally founded as Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School in 1909, Tennessee State University (TSU) began accepting students on this day in 1912. TSU has grown into a major institution that serves thousands of students each year. Join Dr. Bobby Lovett in A Touch of Greatness: A History of Tennessee State University as he explores the tumultuous history of this major Southern university as it struggled to enlighten, expand, and survive.

Dr. Bobby Lovett joins us today to give us an overview of America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

 A Short History of America’s Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

The story of the development of America’s black colleges is a fascinating, complex, difficult but intriguing 177-year-old history. Americans had nine institutions of higher education by 1776. From 1837 to 1862, church-affiliated leaders established more colleges including three institutions for Negroes. Several traditionally white institutions (TWIs) including ones in the South accepted a few Negroes. The federal Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) aided the establishment of public colleges in each state and Northern state land-grant colleges accepted a few Negro students. Southern states established separate land-grant colleges for black and white citizens. A few American colleges began to offer graduate studies by 1876. Most TWIs barred Negro students, and only one black American held a Ph.D. degree by 1900.

Through the hard and benevolent work of black and white missionaries, mostly Northern-based, there emerged an estimated 800 freedmen’s schools by 1900. By 1920, some 240 of these operations had high school or “college” labels. Northern philanthropic agencies and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation pressed regional accreditation agencies—especially the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools—and the federal and state governments to provide targeted support to nearly 120 of the Negro schools and convert them into accredited colleges. The pressure continued throughout 1930-1942, resulting in the beginning of graduate studies at several HBCUs. Some 109 historically black colleges and universities survived and thrived in post-World War II America.

However, in 1954, the US Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) began to desegregate American society. But Brown did not erase deeply embedded American racism. Some of the desegregated inner-city institutions in or near heavily minority race neighborhoods rapidly lost white students and white financial support, yielding after 1965 a new American racial phenomenon: 465 predominantly black or minority colleges/universities (PBCUs) that enrolled a third of minority post-secondary education students including Chicanos, Latinos, Native Americans and African Americans. Amongst these PBCUs, the remaining 105 HBCUs helped comprise America’s 4,500 colleges/universities. Minority students comprised nearly half of the students in the for-profit colleges. Enrollment of blacks at HBCUs declined from 95 percent of America’s total black college students in 1955 to 16 percent by 2010.

Under serious threat, between 1970 and 2005, the public HBCUs successfully sued nineteen states in federal court for inequitable funding and unfair program allocation. That movement yielded new undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs and more public funding for major public HBCUs. The desegregated milieu also endangered the private institutions such as Fisk University, Bishop College, and Knoxville College. Private institutions had comprised the majority of the HBCUs, but with little or no government support and pitiful endowment funds several of them closed, merged, or consolidated with other institutions. The public HBCUs also suffered threats of the loss of accreditation and student appeal due to budget deficits, a dearth of quality leaders, faculty candidates and student athletes, and poor fundraising among the alumni.

Yet, by 2010, the HBCUs represented 2.5 percent of all American colleges and universities. They continued to graduate nearly a quarter of blacks with college degrees, and remained among the top 10 percent of America’s colleges and universities that served as the bachelorette-institution-of-origin for African Americans receiving master’s and doctorates in math, sciences, engineering, and professional fields awarded by the TWIs and others. The HBCUs enrolled some 309,258 students by 2012. Some 44,000 HBCU students took at least one course online via computers. Indubitably, the intriguing, miraculous, resilient, sheer will to win tradition and sometimes painful story of America’s HBCUs provides a valuable lesson for all to learn about the American past, the present, and perhaps our future, in particular in regard to system of higher education.

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