The Real Story Behind Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The Real Story Behind Historically Black Colleges and Universities

By Adam Ramsey

Seated portrait of American educator, economist and industrialist Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, at his desk, early 20th century.


Because the history of Black education is integral to the history of the U.S. civil rights movement.

By Adam Ramsey

It was opening day at the Cotton States and International Exposition in downtown Atlanta, a 100-day convention in the autumn of 1895, and the mercury threatened to hit triple digits. Over the coming weeks and months, 800,000 people would attend the massive exhibition — one typical of an era in which business leaders wooed investors by sharing technological innovations at such grand events. 

Except this one was very different. On the first day, September 18, a former slave stood before a 4,000-strong, predominantly white crowd and delivered a speech that the renowned history professor David Levering Lewis would later refer to as “one of the most consequential pronouncements in American history.” The man on the podium was Booker T. Washington, and his Atlanta Compromise speech would go on to shape the U.S. civil rights movement and racial equality.

People like Du Bois began to wonder if these Black elite were giving up too much … 

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Today, his speech is often characterized as a statement of racial surrender, an accommodation to racist Southerners and acceptance of segregation and subservience, as summed up by Washington’s now infamous line: “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” But appreciating Washington’s speech and its consequences — particularly his infamous ideological clash with W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed a brighter future for African-Americans meant making more noise, not less — requires first understanding the history and evolution of Black education and white repression.


“The state of Black education in the South was basically nonexistent” in the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, says Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It took the first Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 to revolutionize American higher education, but Black students were, unsurprisingly, excluded. This eventually led to the creation of a second Morrill Act some 28 years later. By 1890, higher education needed to include freed slaves, and 17 historically Black land grant colleges in the former Confederate states were created — many a part of the 100-plus historically Black colleges and universities around today.

Prior to this, any school or college for Black students existed thanks to the perseverance of Black ministers, Northern philanthropists or the federally sanctioned Freedmen’s Bureau. Together they helped establish some stand-alone schools across the South, which offered limited access to a basic education. But educating the hundreds of thousands of freed slaves after the Civil War was well beyond their capabilities. “The primary objective was literacy for all, at any age,” says Muhammad. This meant meeting the needs of grandchildren and grandmothers alike, he explains, and “then there was vocational training, basically taking the industrial arts and grafting it onto the Southern laboring class, which was Black.”

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Booker T. Washington speaks at Carnegie Hall for his Tuskegee Institute Silver Anniversary lecture; that’s Mark Twain seated in the front row.

Source George Rinhart/Getty

This approach was strongly favored by Washington, in no small part due to his own personal experiences and hardships. He had been born into slavery and fought for his education as a child. It was at school, he wrote in an essay for The Atlantic, where he discovered a spirit of self-help, industrial activity and drive, which “caused me for the first time to realize what it meant to be a man instead of a piece of property.” Even Du Bois, who comparably had one of the finest educations available at the time, hesitated to “criticize a life which, beginning with so little had done so much,” as he wrote of Washington in his classic, The Souls of Black Folk. 

Muhammad says this is integral to understanding Washington’s view of Black progress. “There’s no question that, for Booker T. Washington, being born a slave fundamentally shaped his world view,” he explains, noting the great transformation Washington had seen firsthand. For him, “Black people had come a long way,” and he believed that Blacks, newly freed from the tyrannous shackles of slavery, first needed to keep their heads down, work hard on the simple things and not demand too much, too quickly. But that was far too little for Du Bois, who called such an educational approach a “program of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights.” Compared to Washington, in other words, Du Bois “always had a much greater expectation for what was possible for Black people, including himself,” says Muhammad.

But beyond Du Bois’ upbringing, the failure of Washington’s approach was compounded in the years that followed, when white violence against Blacks hit a new, bloody nadir. The five years following his address included Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Wilmington race riots in 1898 and the general proliferation of lynching, murder and sundown towns, from which Blacks were intimidated in leaving before sunset.

There was an emergence of a “new strain of racial terror, which was often directed at successful Black people — those essentially following Booker T. Washington’s recipe for success,” says Muhammad. “So people like Du Bois began to wonder if these Black elite were giving up too much … in the service of accommodating white Southern racism.”

So while “[Washington’s] talk and position gave a lot of cover to accepting the diminishment of Black people,” Muhammad says, it also, looking back, sheds light on the educational history of Blacks in America, speaking volumes about their opposing ideologies.