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Reconstruction-Era Politics Shaped Historically Black Colleges and Universities

A photograph shows the front of a large building with multiple columns and a bell tower.

Alcorn State University, Oakland Chapel, Alcorn State University Campus, Alcorn, Claiborne County, MS. Image by Jack E. Boucher via Library of Congress

Last month, Governor John Bel Edwards proposed a potential $1 billion cut to Louisiana’s higher education budget. In response to this news, the president of Southern University, a public university in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, called for support from the public and asked them to oppose these funding cuts. Over the past several years, Southern University System in Louisiana—the only historically black college system in America—has faced significant financial turmoil. Like many public black colleges, Southern is struggling to survive.

Southern University is featured in one the most powerful segments in Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, the latest film by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson, which airs on PBS on February 19. The film highlights the value of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in America by tracing their history from slavery to present. The segment on Southern University links the history of HBCUs to twentieth-century themes of student activism, black self-determination, and violent repression.

Yet the film pays little attention to the founding of public HBCUs like Southern, which, in many cases, we owe to nineteenth-century black politicians who used their influence to press for the creation and development of colleges and universities. Today, as HBCUs continue to face brutal funding cuts and neglect, state governments would do well to remember and honor that history.

After black men were enfranchised in the former Confederacy in 1867, many became key players in state-wide discussions about educating white and black children and young adults. Black politicians helped lead such conversations in city councils and state legislatures, thanks to African Americans’ protected voting rights and effective political organizing.

Across the American South, ascendant cohorts of black political officeholders and their white Republican allies made public education for all children a state responsibility for the first time. They also advocated state support for higher education. For example, Southern University was founded when a group of Louisiana black politicians proposed the school during the 1879 state constitutional convention.

Tell Them We Are Rising highlights the role of northern missionary societies, black churches, and the federal Freedmen’s Bureau in nineteenth-century school building, but black office holders were another force that crucially altered the landscape of higher education in the South. In 1871, a biracial coalition of radical Republican leaders in Mississippi’s state legislature authorized the purchase of an abandoned white college campus, named it Alcorn University, and designated it for black higher education. The school was deemed so important to black advancement that Hiram Revels, the first black man ever elected to the U.S. Senate, resigned his seat in Washington to serve as Alcorn’s first president.

Mississippi’s then-governor, James Alcorn, interested in retaining black voters’ support, championed the cause of public higher education—albeit in segregated institutions—on the basis that all citizens should have affordable access to higher learning. That the legislature chose to name the state’s first black university after Governor Alcorn underscores the significance of Reconstruction-era interracial coalitions in promoting state-wide education reform.

The decades between the Civil War and the hardening of Jim Crow in the 1890s were characterized not only by violent white opposition to black schools but also by black leaders’ work as strategic political brokers and alliance-builders. In the 1880s, black Virginians aligned with former conservatives to win control of the state government. Their progressive platform abolished the poll tax, increased spending on black schools, and summoned black jurors for the first time.

Alfred Harris, a black representative in Virginia’s House of Delegates, capitalized on the coalition’s momentum in 1882 when he introduced a bill to establish a university for—and run by—African Americans. Harris argued passionately that the school should be structured to give black men and women a chance to prove they could run a large public institution. He called on the legislature to set up the school with an all-black faculty and, more importantly, a majority-black board of directors.

When a conservative representative balked at the idea of black control of the university, Harris held his ground, asserting that black Virginians could manage what they intended to make a “first-class institution of learning.”[1] The independent, biracial coalition that controlled the General Assembly approved an act to establish Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute along the lines Harris had proposed. The school, now known as Virginia State University, continues to educate thousands of young black men and women each year.

For more than 150 years, HBCUs have been key sites in black leadership development. Even after national desegregation, HBCUs remained crucial to black education and civil rights activism. As historian Martha Biondi notes, in 1968, sixty-one percent of all black college students attended an HBCU, and the preservation of public HBCUs became an explicit, if underappreciated, part of the Black Power movement’s mission and legacy.[2]

Today, HBCUs represent just 3 percent of all colleges and universities in the United States, but they graduate 20 percent of all African Americans who earn undergraduate degrees. Included in the ranks of public HBCU alumni are civil rights activist Medgar Evers (Alcorn State University), Microsoft chairman John Thompson (Florida A&M University), and media mogul Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University).

State governments are crucial to the future of HBCUs, as are robust alumni giving and equitable federal policymaking. State officials need to value these institutions, not only for their rich historical legacies but also for their ongoing role in educating and affirming underrepresented populations. It is important that state governments invest in HBCUs, and voters should help hold them accountable.

Leigh Soares is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Northwestern University. Her work explores black politics and institution building in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Her dissertation on public black colleges in the post-Civil War South is currently being supported by the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation.

[1] “Normal School: Speech of Mr. A. W. Harris (colored) from Dinwiddie,” Richmond Daily Whig, February 15, 1882, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

[2] Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 142, 173.

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