There’s no doubt that U.S. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have provided access for individuals who have been historically marginalized and oppressed in U.S. society simply because they were African American/Black. In fact, HBCUs were the only option for many African Americans/Blacks well into the 20th century. HBCUs, as defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965, are “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.” At the same time, the doors of HBCUs have always been open to those who do not identify as African American/Black.
Today, 107 HBCUs still provide postsecondary access for African Americans/Blacks with other options, and they provide access for African Americans/Blacks who would not attend college without an HBCU taking a chance on them. As proof, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) notes that HBCUs make up just 3% of the colleges and universities across the United States, but graduate 25% of African Americans/Blacks who receive undergraduate degrees.
The gains of HBCU graduates are also remarkable despite modest financial resources at HBCUs. In a recent Gallup study, HBCU graduates were thriving more than non-HBCU graduates in five categories of well-being: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. In addition, a report by the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania highlights several studies conducted by Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn, director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise and Professor of Higher Education at The Ohio State University. Strayhorn found positive outcomes for HBCU graduates, such as higher-status occupations and more developed Black identities. While his findings highlight positive Black identities generally, what happens when individuals’ full Black identities, or the intersections of their identities, are not embraced at an HBCU?
In 2009, the “appropriate attire policy” at Morehouse College—a small, all-male HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia—drew the attention of the nation when it released a new dress code policy, which included a ban on cross-dressing. In 2013, a Muslim student attending Hampton University—a private HBCU located in Hampton, Virginia—was asked to retrieve her student identification card to “prove” her Muslim faith in order to wear a hijab. In 2015, Shaw University—a private HBCU in Raleigh, North Carolina—was cited by the U.S. Department of Education for discriminating against a student with cerebral palsy after accepting the student and then later rescinding the student’s acceptance because the university could not appropriately accommodate the student’s disability. So while HBCUs are praised for embracing African American/Black students, the aforementioned stories show how many African American/Black students are pushed toward the margins at HBCUs. At the same time, given recent social movements highlighting racial injustices, these students need HBCUs more than ever.
The Black Lives Matter movement, founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza in 2012 after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, has ushered in a national conversation and greater awareness about anti-Black racism. And perhaps the most important point of the movement is that it fights for all Black lives as it focuses on those who “have been marginalized within Black liberation movements” and, we would add, those who have been historically marginalized at HBCUs. The movement aligns with what Black women, such as Patricia Hill Collins, Anna Julia Cooper, Bonnie Thornton Dill, bell hooks, and Sojourner Truth, have written or spoken about for decades, and what Kimberlé Crenshaw eventually coined as intersectionality. Crenshaw’s articulation of intersectionality can be defined as the marginalization and systemic oppression of Black women who are “theoretically erased” when discussing discrimination, oppression, and marginalization in siloed ways (e.g., just racism, just sexism). This includes ignoring the intersections of their identities (e.g., race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religion) and how Black women are further marginalized because of the interlocking systems of oppression working against them.
When discussing intersectionality as a useful framework to promote college student success, every college and university administrator I’ve known claims to want all students to reach their educational goals . Still, programs, policies, and practices across colleges and universities often marginalize and oppress students; because of this, not all students can reach their potential or the educational goals that administrators says they fully support. HBCUs, which we support and have praised at the top of this article, must be better, do better, and must embrace Blackness, just Blackness—or all of who African American/Black people are. (Blackness, just Blackness follows a cadence borrowed from Gloria Ladson-Billings, the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who spoke about justice, just justice.)
In 2015, students at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, highlighted the racial marginalization and oppression that many African American students face at predominantly White institutions across the nation. For us, similar social justice movements across college campuses also highlight those with multiple marginalized identities who often have no place to reach their full potential. For example, the Black, lesbian, first-year student who has to decide whether to attend a predominantly White institution, where her race is marginalized, versus an HBCU, where her sexual orientation is marginalized, may be choosing between two institutions that are not accepting Blackness, just Blackness. As HBCUs promote missions of social justice and racial advancement, this is our clarion call for HBCUs to live out the full potential of their powerful creeds and fully support, fully embrace, and educate African Americans/Blacks who have been historically marginalized across the nation and on HBCU campuses.
Spelman College—an all-female college in Atlanta, Georgia—is currently wrestling with living out its mission as it is considering admitting transgender women for the first time in its history. Shaw University was wrestling to live out its mission as it quickly acknowledged its error, readmitted the student with cerebral palsy, and made appropriate accommodations for the student. Morehouse College was wrestling to live out its full mission when it offered its first LGBT course in 2012. Paul Quinn College—a small private HBCU in Dallas, Texas—is wrestling to live out its mission with its “Put Students to Work” program, with the goal to reduce graduates’ debt loads.
More HBCUs must wrestle to live out their missions by moving beyond respectability politics and creating pathways where all African African/Black students are educated on campuses where they learn, live, and thrive. HBCUs must embrace Blackness, just Blackness, so no student has to question, “Historically Black for whom?”
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Harper, S. R., & Gasman, M. (2008). Consequences of conservatism: Black male students and the politics of historically Black colleges and universities. Journal of Negro Education, 77(4), 336–351.
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Means, D. R., & Jaeger, A. J. (2013). Black in the rainbow: “Quaring” the Black gay male student experience at historically Black universities. Journal of African American Males in Education, 4(2), 124–140.
Patton, L. D. (2011). Perspectives on identity, disclosure and the campus environment among African American gay and bisexual men at one historically Black college. Journal of College Student Development, 52(1), 77–100.
Patton, L. D. (2014). Preserving respectability or blatant disrespect: A critical discourse analysis of the Morehouse College Appropriate Attire Policy and implications for intersectional approaches to examining campus policies. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27(6), 724–746.
Patton, L. D., & Simmons, S. (2008). Exploring complexities of multiple Identities of lesbians in a Black college environment. Negro Educational Review, 59(3–4), 197–215.
Strayhorn, T. L., Glover, S. T., Kitchen, J. A., & Williams, M. S. (2013). Negotiating multiple identities: A critical narrative inquiry of how Black gay men “make it” at historically Black colleges and universities. NASAP Journal, 15(1), 42–56.
Strayhorn, T. L., & Scott, J. A. (2012). Coming out of the dark: Black gay men’s experiences at historically Black colleges and universities. In R. T. Palmer & J. L. Wood (Eds.), Black men in black colleges: Implications for HBCUs and beyond (pp. 26–40). New York, NY: Routledge.
*These readings are not endorsed by the authors, but each reading explores the experiences of Black/African American students with multiple marginalized identities attending HBCUs.
Donald Mitchell, Jr., Ph.D., is assistant professor and program coordinator for the M.Ed. in Higher Education program at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His work theoretically and empirically explores the effects of race, gender, and identity intersections within higher education contexts, with a particular interest in historically Black fraternities and sororities and historically Black colleges and universities as microsystems and macrosystems of analysis.
Adriel A. Hilton, Ph.D., is the immediate past chief of staff and executive assistant to the president at Grambling State University, where he served as senior advisor to the president. He previously served as an assistant professor and director of the Higher Education Student Affairs program at Western Carolina University. In addition, he served as the inaugural assistant vice president for inclusion initiatives at Grand Valley State University.