Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently demonstrated her lack of understanding of the origins and purposes of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
In some ways this isn’t a surprise. As an educator, I often field questions about these universities that make it clear that many Americans don’t know why they were founded, or why they continue to exist.
DeVos’ comments, which she has walked back somewhat since she made them, provide an opportunity to set the record straight about the origins and functions of these important institutions.
DeVos’ tweet starts with a sliver of accuracy — there certainly was not equal access to education. From the 1700s to the 1800s, a succession of laws and codes actually made it illegal to teach blacks, both slaves and freepersons, to read and write.
An 1819 Virginia law declared “assemblages of slaves, free negroes, and mulattoes” to be an “unlawful assembly,” subject to fines and corporal punishment. Slaveholders knew that education was ultimately a beacon to freedom. Nevertheless, black Americans persisted.
As early as 1837, abolitionists founded schools expressly for the education of black youths. By 1856, Wilberforce University was founded in Ohio by a biracial coalition.
However, DeVos’ claim that HBCUs came about as an expression of choice is mistaken.
Simply put, before these colleges and universities were created, no options existed for the formal education of black Americans.
Although Oberlin College admitted black students in the 1830s, this was the exception, and virtually all institutions, public and private, did not admit black students. There was no choice, until arguably the 1950s, when the Sweatt v. Painter case declared the ban on black enrollments to be unconstitutional. Even then, de facto segregation meant that integration at predominantly white institutions progressed at a glacial rate.
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund accurately states, “For most of America’s history, African Americans seeking a college education could only get it from an HBCU.” It’s problematic to position barriers such as laws and physical violence — recall James Meredith’s effort to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962 — as “choices.”
HBCUs continue to be a vital educational gateway for black Americans. These 101 institutions produce 22 percent of all black baccalaureate degrees. Among blacks, these institutions produce 80 percent of judges, 50 percent of professors at non-HBCUs, 50 percent of lawyers, 40 percent of members of Congress and 12.5 percent of CEOs.
These benefits have also impacted those outside the black community. One-fourth of HBCUs have student bodies that are more than 20 percent nonblack. Bluefield State in West Virginia, for example, is a predominantly white HBCU.
These institutions welcomed European Jewish scholars when anti-semitism kept them from other American institutions as they fled Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich in the 1930s.
HBCUs have never prohibited enrollment by race. For instance, Howard University’s first class included four white women, and scholars such as historian John Hope Franklin were mentored by white faculty members at HBCUs.
Former Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster and former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, both white men, hold law degrees from HBCUs.
This isn’t the first time the DeVos administration has shown a lack of knowledge about critical aspects of black and American history.
A recent tweet quoted “W.E.B. DeBois” rather than W.E.B. Du Bois. By extension, DeVos’ nominator, President Donald Trump, implied that abolitionist icon Frederick Douglass was still alive in early February. These missteps speak to a greater concern: How much knowledge does this administration have regarding the history and present context of education?
Judging from DeVos’ comments and the hasty retreat issued soon after, we should be cognizant that there will probably be more opportunities to educate this administration.
There is a robust body of scholarship and popular culture that examines HBCUs. Such an oversight is troubling and indicative of a culture of revisionist history and intertwining political agendas.
This incident is a call for an engaged public to scrutinize DeVos and the administration for where her political ambition is interweaved with the mission to support and advance America’s educational system. This charge isn’t a choice — the advancement of American education depends on it.
Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational administration at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the co-author of “The Black College Mystique” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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