Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Tuskegee, Xavier -- these are just a few of America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities, known as HBCUs. HBCUs are accredited historically black institutions of higher learning established before 1964. While many of these colleges are located in the South, there are HBCUs as far north as Michigan and as far west as Oklahoma. While some HBCUs are public and others private, all of them serve a principle mission to educate black Americans.
Several Morehouse and Spelman college students who we interviewed recently discussed the diversity they see on campus. They told us that HBCUs are "not exclusively black" and also serve international students and students from other ethnicities. Morehouse junior Jarrad Mandeville-Lawson, who comes from Matawan, New Jersey, identified himself as "Nigerian, Italian and Greek," and said, "My high school is majority Caucasian so I don't actually have those strong African-American traits that people would assume I would have." In 2008, Joshua Packwood became the first white valedictorian in Morehouse's history.
Students from both schools talked about their schools' nurturing environments. At Morehouse, one of America's few all-male campuses, the students talked about the school's strong tradition of a brotherhood. Mandeville-Lawson told us, "We're going to constantly have our brother's back and uplift them.....These are my brothers. I'm going to do everything possible to make sure they stay strong and to get them where they need to be." Spelman senior Gabrielle Horton echoed Mandeville-Lawson's sentiments. "When you think of Spelman you think of the 'Spelman Sisterhood' ... You're indoctrinated with that your first year ... They have their brother's back, we have our sister's back. And that's something we just carry with us every day," Horton said.
Today, more than 300,000 students are enrolled at the more than 100 HBCUs across America. HBCUs tend to be small schools. In 2009 only three had enrollments of over 10,000 students. Spelman and Morehouse each have between 2,000 to 3,000 students. The students we interviewed said smaller schools come with some advantages. Junior Kirstin Evans said, "At Spelman, I know every single one of my professors....So just like the intimate environment that Spelman holds, it's something that other students lack at bigger institutions."
The two Atlanta campuses are steeped in history and tradition. While neither school is the oldest HBCU -- that honor goes to Philadelphia's Cheyney University -- both schools were founded in the latter half of the 1800s. Horton remarked about Spelman's campus, "I think you have the sense of legacy that it's not just about you, and it is about your ancestors who came before you who were at these prestigious institutions and you have a legacy to carry on." Morehouse junior Reginald Sharpe said that the college's tradition and history were part of his decision to attend the school. "I knew that Morehouse was going to raise my appreciation for my heritage and cause me to take a trip back in time to realize who I am as an African-American, a young man in society," Sharpe said.
Sharpe mentioned that he likes to enter historic Sale Hall, where graduations were once held, and "breathe the air. It's a sense of belonging that I sense here."
We visited Sale Hall, and our guide told us that during Martin Luther King Jr.'s time, the big room upstairs was used as a chapel and that the students back then had assigned seats. As I stood in front of the room, I have never felt closer to history. Right in front of me was a teenaged Martin King's seat, who sat in the front row in Sale Hall more than a decade before he would become the foremost civil rights leader of the 1960s.