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HBCUs: Segregated, But Not Segregating

It’s become a sad, predictable routine. Whenever a news story about public historically Black colleges or universities (HBCUs) appears online, reader feedback forums explode with jeers stating that such institutions have “outdated missions,” practice “racial exclusion” and ought to be shut down.


The voices have become louder ever since the chairman of the Georgia Senate’s higher education committee proposed merging two public HBCUs, Albany State and Savannah State universities, with two nearby predominantly White colleges. In his words, the action would help tear down “the old vestiges of segregation.” Although ASU and SSU would keep their names, there is no promise to preserve their current missions.

Despite attempts to shroud such positions in the language of “integration,” they are at odds with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stance on HBCUs and the role they should play in post-Jim Crow America.

King, an alumnus of the historically Black Morehouse College, consistently stressed that eradicating segregation in higher education was not about getting rid of HBCUs. As he once explained, HBCUs were “segregated” but they were not “segregating institutions.”

It is important to understand the meanings of the terms King used. A segregating institution is an instrument used by one race to uphold its political, economic and/or social dominance through methods that work to the detriment of other races. Quite differently, a segregated institution is a body that is adversely affected by those policies.

In Southern state education systems, the segregating institutions were the constitutional conventions, legislatures and governing boards that established and enforced “separate-but-equal” schools. The normal, industrial and/or agricultural colleges for colored students were clearly the segregated institutions because they were the ones disadvantaged by those discriminatory actions.

The very concept of “separate-but-equal” denotes inequality. When one race assigns a “separate” status to another and then unilaterally determines the terms of that “separate” condition, it inherently divides citizenship into first- and second-class categories.

Here, the logical fallacy of telling public

HBCUs to “integrate” becomes clear. Integration is the process of deconstructing a system of second-class citizenship set up by a segregating institution and reversing the damage it caused. HBCUs did not harm Whites or relegate them to an inferior position; they never even had the power to do so. As such, it is disingenuous to call on them to “integrate” as if they were actually segregating institutions.

While King saw no problem with HBCUs remaining majority Black, he worked hard to help them attract students and employees of other races. In his eyes, the funding gap between predominantly White universities and HBCUs was the key obstacle to increasing White enrollment and staff. Thus, in explaining his dedication to the United Negro College Fund’s mission, he remarked: “In supporting [HBCUs] we are only seeking to make sure that the quality and caliber of these schools are of such nature that they will be appealing to all people.”

The desegregation settlements forged in response to the 1973 Adams v. Richardson federal court case, initiated by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, have helped many public

HBCUs draw more Whites in a manner consistent with King’s example.

Florida’s settlement, for example, pushed lawmakers to establish professional programs such as allied health, journalism and architecture at Florida A&M University and upgrade historically underfunded schools like pharmacy. These programs, along with law, consistently attract sizable White enrollment. Their funding also empowered FAMU to successfully compete for more top-rate professors of all races, which resulted in greater faculty diversity.

Those who want to bring more Whites into HBCUs should seek out constructive solutions such as these, rather than harmful measures that punish HBCUs simply because they are majority Black. The level of support we give to HBCUs is a critical test of our commitment to King’s dream. All public land-grant HBCUs, for instance, have agricultural science missions, but few have full-fledged veterinary medicine programs. By opening the way for HBCUs to train more veterinarians, state legislators could help them enroll more Whites and fulfill a need that is critical to protecting the country’s food supply. We can work for equality like King, or we can abandon it by promoting a definition of integration that is contrary to his. The choice is ours.

— Larry O. Rivers is a graduate of FAMU and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Vanderbilt University. He can be reached at [email protected].


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