The nation’s oldest historically Black college, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. (Courtesy Photo/Twitter)

By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
Special to the AFRO

U.S. News and World Report cites the federal government’s  Education Act of 1965 as defining HBCUs as “any historically Black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the (U.S.) Secretary of Education to be a reliable authority…”

According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, there are 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in America today: 90 are four-year public and private schools of higher learning and 11 are two-year community colleges.

Alabama is the state with the largest number of HBCUs at 16.  

However, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania is the first and oldest HBCU. Founded on February 25, 1837 with a generous contribution from a Quaker benefactor, Richard Humphreys.  Cheyney was started to educate Black people and to prepare them to teach.

Cheyney University’s website states Cheyney’s first title was the African Institute. Then its name was changed to the Institute for Colored Youth. Finally, in 1914 it was renamed the Cheyney Training School for Teachers. Its mission evolved from training in agriculture and trades to educating teachers and awarding them degrees.

U.S. News and World Reports ranks American institutions such as hospitals, colleges and universities. The periodical ranked 77 HBCUs using a mixture of criteria ranging from student SAT scores to graduation rates. Cheyney was ranked #55 (with Spellman of Atlanta listed as #1, Howard University of D.C. number 2 and Xavier University of Louisiana ranked third among HBCUs).

Among Cheyney University’s best known graduates are:  Bayard Rustin, a civil rights advocate, peace activist and fighter for workers’ rights.  He helped A. Phillip Randolph organize the first planned March on Washington Movement in 1941 and was chief organizer of the March on Washington in 1963 for Martin Luther King, Jr.  Also, Robert W. Bogle, publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest Black owned newspaper, graduated from Cheyney earning a B.A. degree in Urban Studies. And most notably, the late Ed Bradley, known as an award-winning CBS ‘60 Minutes’ correspondent, is probably the best known and perhaps most beloved alumni of Cheyney University.

Lincoln University opened for education business on April 29, 1854. The Oxford, Penn. institution of higher learning was founded by John Miller Dickey, a Presbyterian minister, and his spouse, Sarah Emlen Cresson, a Quaker. Originally named the Ashmun Institute, it was renamed Lincoln University for the newly assassinated president of the United States in 1866. Lincoln’s mission from the start was to be an institution for the scientific, classical and theological education of colored youth of the male sex.” It eventually proposed to expand its offerings to include law, medicine, pedagogy and theology schools.  White students were admitted in time for two of them to graduate with the first baccalaureate class in 1868.

The two most famous graduates of Lincoln University were classmates, Thurgood Marshall, the first Black appointed to the Supreme Court, and the poet and community activist Langston Hughes. Other graduates of Lincoln are Cab Calloway, the jazz singer; Gil Scott Heron, the jazz poet; Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana and Clarence Mitchell Jr., the chief lobbyist for the NAACP. 

Finally, Wilberforce University was founded in 1856 by the Cincinnati, Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Its mission was to give classical and teacher education to Black youths. In 1864, Daniel Payne, an AME bishop and an original founder of Wilberforce, negotiated for the purchase of the university and thereby became the first Black American college president.  

The state of Ohio funded Wilberforce, starting in 1887 and its program expanded until Central State University split off from it.  Wilberforce was named for an 18th Century anti-slavery activist named William Wilberforce.  

William Julius Wilson, a prominent sociologist graduated from Wilberforce as did former New York Congressman Floyd H. Flake. Soprano Leontyne Price is an alum and also Baltimore businessman and civil rights activist Raymond V. Haysbert was a graduate of Wilberforce.  

HBCUs are a driving force of upward mobility of African Americans. Many were started as teachers’ colleges by church organizations. The four HBCUs in Maryland are: Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.All are public universities.

HBCUs are responsible for 22% of the bachelor degrees awarded to African Americans nowadays. But generally speaking, Historically Black Colleges and Universities have produced 40% of the members of Congress, 12.5% of CEOs, 50% of college professors at non-HBCUs and 80% of judges. 

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