< Renewed Attention on Historically Black Colleges, Universities
By Dan Friedell
24 July 2021

Would you turn down a top national university for a historically black college and university, or HBCU, in the United States?

Nikole Hannah-Jones did.

Hannah-Jones is the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who created The New York Times' 1619 Project. She was recently offered a job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC. The school is one of the top national universities. The offer came without tenure, a lifetime appointment for a professor. The decision brought criticism and protests.

Nikole Hannah-Jones will be the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Nikole Hannah-Jones will be the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

In early July, UNC leaders changed their minds and voted to award tenure to Hannah-Jones. But instead, she accepted a teaching position at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C.

On the same day, Howard also announced the appointment of best-selling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates wrote about his experience as a young Black man growing up in Baltimore, Maryland. His 2015 book Between the World and Me won a National Book Award.


Howard is one of more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. HBCUs started as a place to educate African-Americans as they continued to be barred from most universities after the Civil War.

The late U.S. President George H.W. Bush once said, "At a time when many schools barred their doors to Black Americans, these colleges offered the best, and often the only, opportunity for a higher education."

In the southern state of Louisiana, the state's university, Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, opened in 1860. But the school did not accept Black students until the early 1950s. So Blacks could only continue their higher education at Southern University, also in Baton Rouge, which opened in 1880.

Most HBCUs lie in the area from southern Texas to eastern Pennsylvania. While most students are Black, anyone can go to an HBCU. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that non-Blacks made up 24 percent of the students at HBCUs in 2018.

Mark Ballard writes for The Advocate, a newspaper in Baton Rouge. At the beginning of 2021, Ballard wrote an article called "Historically Black Colleges come into prominence with Joe Biden."

Ballard wrote about Vice President Kamala Harris, who went to Howard in the 1980s. He also noted Raphael Warnock, a new U.S. Senator from Georgia, who attended Morehouse College, another HBCU in Atlanta. Ballard observed: "Never before have so many HBCU graduates been tapped to serve in the highest levels of government."

It is not as hard to get into HBCUs as other universities. As a result, the schools do not rank highly on lists of top universities. The publication U.S. News and World Report is known for its college rankings. It considers Howard University as one of the best HBCUs. Among top national universities, however, Howard is rated as the 80th best as compared to 28th for UNC.

"So Morehouse and Howard, I think, are kind of discriminated against because of what their mission is, but I also think they have a first-class education and have attracted major, major faculty to their colleges."

Well-known Black Americans who went to HBCUs include civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison, and movie director Spike Lee.

Changing times for HBCUs

For some time, financial support from government and wealthy donors was not widely available for HBCUs and their students. A 2016 paper about the state of Black education noted that in 2014, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore received $1.6 billion from the government and others, more than received by all HBCUs in the country.

But that is changing, too.

When Hannah-Jones and Coates joined Howard University, their positions were supported with a $20 million donation from the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and a donor who did not want to be named.

MacKenzie Scott's recent donation is another important marker. Scott, one of the world's richest women, is the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In 2020, she gave away about $4 billion to several organizations, including about 20 HBCUs. That amount came on top of President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan to add over $2.6 billion to HBCUs.

Jolorie Williams is an executive with the beauty products company Revlon. She came up with a plan to offer $5,000 to 20 students at HBCUs. She said it was a way to invest in young African-Americans after the killing of George Floyd and the social justice protests of 2020.

Williams went to Florida A&M, an HBCU, in the 1980s. She said she wanted to be sure Revlon's donation did not get lost at schools that already have plenty of money.

"I did not want to be one of many, I wanted to be one that was really making a difference, that could break through."

Jabari Johnson is a 19-year-old from the state of Maryland. He will start his second year at North Carolina A&T in August. He wants to be an engineer. Like other Black students, Johnson could have gone to other colleges but his first two choices were HBCUs.

"Going around, seeing people who have the same background as me, that grounded me. And seeing people like me that want to do well in their life and want to strive for greatness at this school, really makes me feel at home."

"I felt like I was home," he added. "I felt like this was the place for me."

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Caty Weaver.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

Would you consider going to an HBCU if you came to study in the U.S.? Tell us in the Comments Section and visit 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

tenure – n. the right to keep a job (especially the job of being a professor at a college or university) for as long as you want to have it

opportunity– n. a chance to do something

article – n. a piece of writing about a particular subject that is included in a magazine, newspaper, etc.

prominence – n. the state of being important, well-known, or noticeable : the state of being prominent

tap – v. to choose (someone) for a particular job, honor, etc. — often + for

ranking – n. a list of people or things that are ordered according to their quality, ability, size, etc.

faculty – n. the group of teachers in a school or college

donor – n. a person or group that gives something (such as money, food, or clothes) in order to help a person or organization

background – n. the experiences, knowledge, education, etc., in a person's past

strive – v. to try very hard to do or achieve something

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