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Echoes of Faith: Church Roots Run Deep Among HBCUs

In the years after the Civil War, there were millions of newly-freed Black children and adults who emerged from slavery worn but eager and determined to get something they never had—a chance to learn how to read the Bible, write their names and words on a page, and be educated. Even before the Civil War, some Blacks in the North were pressing their way forward into church-basement-turned schools and rough-hewn wood frame rooms established just for them mostly by benevolent White Christians.

In 1837, the largess of a Quaker philanthropist established Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, which began as the African Institute, a school for Black children. But years later, religious leaders, local churches, missionaries, and denominations were descending across the South in the 19th century, believing that it was worth it to spend their time and money and do the right thing when they decided to establish seminaries, classrooms, colleges, and even medical schools for Blacks.

John Miller Dickey, a Presbyterian minister, and his Quaker wife were among them. In 1854, Dickey placed Ashmun Institute, now Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, amid rolling farmlands on a wooded hilltop in southern Chester County when he set out to offer training in theology, the classics, and the sciences to young Black men who had no other opportunities for higher education.

But even as he prepared to dedicate Lincoln University (formerly Ashmun Institute), one of the nation’s oldest HBCUs, Dickey struggled to find favor, funding and support from his church and his peers. In fact, on Dec. 30, 1856, the day Lincoln was dedicated, “Hope and fear struggled in each breast as they contemplated the future of the first American College looking to the education of a people ‘despised and rejected.’ With prayer they committed it to God,” wrote William D. Johnson, then a student at Lincoln in 1867. Johnson’s book, “The Nation’s First Pledge of Emancipation,” chronicles Lincoln’s early history.

Led by ‘Consciences and Hearts’

The Board of Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, meeting in November 1866, thought nothing was more urgent than responding to the emancipation of 4 million slaves who were now “at our very door.”

Led by their “consciences and hearts,” the Board of Bishops declared they would act to rescue and educate Blacks. They didn’t wait for Southern states to decide whether they were going to “make some provision for the education of the colored children now growing up in utter ignorance in their midst,” they wrote following that November 1866 meeting.

With the support of the Freedman’s Aid Society, the United Methodist Church responded by establishing 70 schools in the South and Southeast for Blacks between 1866 and 1882. Eleven of them remain.

Today, Bennett College for women, Bethune-Cookman University, Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Huston-Tillotson University, Meharry Medical College, Paine College, Philander Smith College, Rust College, and Wiley College are affiliated with the United Methodist Church (UMC). These institutions “are supported by every United Methodist Church in the United States,” says Cynthia Bond Hopson, executive director of the Black College Fund of the United Methodist Church.

“Each church is assessed an amount to pay, and many local churches and annual conferences (a group of geographically grouped churches) take enormous pride in paying their 100 percent share” to the Black College Fund, which is marking its 40th year, adds Hopson.

In 1866, the first Black institution that the church started was birthed in the basement of Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church, where Moses Adams, a Black preacher, was the pastor. Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss.—named for Richard Rust, then secretary of the denomination’s Freedman’s Aid Society—is steeped in distinction. It’s the oldest of the 11 UMC-affiliated Black colleges and universities, the second oldest private college in Mississippi, the oldest Historically Black College in the state, and one of the remaining five Historically Black Colleges in America founded before 1867.

Today, more than a century separates them from their church founders. But on campuses like Rust College, Bethune-Cookman, and Claflin, denominational heritage is proudly on display, says Hopson, who also enjoys listening to a little bit of church-Black college history when she calls some of her institutions and is put on hold or visits campuses where the iconic UMC symbol—a cross and flame—has a public presence.

But, in 2012, with its Black colleges thriving, educating Blacks is no longer the emergency that Methodist bishops found in 1866 America.

“That’s true,” says Hopson who admits the point hasn’t gone overlooked by those in the pews. And the questions do arise about the denomination’s continued support of Black colleges or whether these same institutions that were first established to support newly freed Black youth now perpetuate segregation.

Bring on the questions, says Hopson, a graduate of Clark College (now Clark Atlanta university), an HBCU.

“These are ones that I welcome because they give me an opportunity to educate people about our students and our schools,” says Hopson, who touts Black colleges that are open to all regardless of race and points out that they are affordable, accessible, and still needed.

“No, we are no longer faced with the same emergency for African-American students, but it’s the underserved student who may be Latino, Caucasian, or any student who needs access to higher education that is the concern today. Education is something that United Methodist [Church] values, is committed to, and is still willing to support,” Hopson says.

Black institutions are among the 120 UMC-affiliated schools, colleges, and universities, supported in part by the church.

The Fruit of Black Dreams

The African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.), founders of Morris Brown College, had a chance to set up classes for Blacks in a White college but decided in 1881 that they could establish their own school and begin educating their own preachers in the south. They named the College for Morris Brown, the second A.M.E. bishop.

“We are unique among the HBCUs because not many were founded by Blacks,” said Stanley Pritchett, president of Morris Brown. “When you look at the Black denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has been pretty progressive since its founding in 1787. Even during the time of slavery, the church was able to come together and form a Black college” in the lower level of Atlanta’s Big Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Historic campus buildings—Fountain Hall, Hickman Hall, Jordan Hall, and Gaines Hall—honor its A.M.E. Church founders and keep Morris Brown connected to its religious lineage, Pritchett says.

Did You Know?



Founded in 1872 in Austin, Texas, by a small group of African Methodist Episcopal preachers at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, Paul Quinn College began as a high school. But it was A.M.E. Bishop William Paul Quinn who envisioned an expanded campus and broader curriculum for its students that included liberal arts and trades. The college was chartered by the state of Texas in 1881.


After 1865, teachers and missionaries from the American Baptist Home Mission Society arrived in Richmond, Va., the former Confederate capital, and spent nearly three decades educating newly freed Blacks as teachers and preachers. They used the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church on Leigh Street as the first home of a school for Black women that was modeled after Wellesley College in the North. From the eventual closure and merger of four of the Mission Society’s seminaries and colleges came Virginia Union University in 1899.


In 1867, two years after the Civil War ended, Augusta Institute opened in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church, considered the oldest independent African-American church in the U.S. The Augusta Institute prepared Black men for the ministry and teaching. Today we know it as Morehouse College.


Shaw University was founded in 1865 by the American Baptist Home Mission Society of the Baptist Church to provide a theological education to freed Blacks.


When the Seventh-day Adventist Church decided to educate Black students in the South, they established an industrial school in 1896. The school became Oakwood College in 1943. Later renamed Oakwood University in 2008, the institution is the only Black university-owned and operated by the Church.


Wanting to give Black and Native American children in the South the Catholic-oriented education she thought they lacked, Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress turned Catholic nun and later saint, used her inheritance to open a high school for these students in 1915. Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament added Xavier University of New Orleans, a four-year college, in 1925. It remains the nation’s only Black Catholic university.

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