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Stand and Prosper:
Private Black Colleges and Their Students
Henry N. Drewry & Humphrey Doermann

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Chapter 1


MOST AMERICANS have little direct contact with private black colleges, have not visited one, and are not sure what they should expect if they did. This first chapter sketches for the newcomer how these colleges appear today and outlines key forces and trends that shaped them during the past thirty years. For these institutions, however, early history is as important as recent history. In some ways more so. Prior to the 1950s and 1960s, black Americans lived a very different history of civil rights and educational opportunity than did white Americans. The difference is far greater than that portrayed in most U.S. history survey courses that are taught in secondary schools and colleges. Without appreciation of that difference, one cannot understand what an accomplishment of determination and faith the success of many of these black colleges represents today, nor can one properly judge the potential of these colleges for further service to the nation. This chapter ends with an introduction to that separate history. During the 1950s and 1960s, three changes in law altered fundamentally the role of black Americans and of private black colleges in American society. The first, noted in the Preface, was the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which directed that public elementary and secondary schools be racially integrated, and which laid the legal foundation for later court rulings directing integration of public colleges and universities in the South. The second major change was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the third was the Higher Education Act of 1965. Prior to the 1950s, black public and private colleges were, with rare exceptions, the only colleges accessible to black Americans. Black students prepared for a relatively narrow range of professional careers, principally teaching and the ministry. By the 1970s, however, black students were enrolling in historically black and also in predominantly white colleges, with a far wider range of careers open to them than before. Owing to the federal student aid and direct institutional subsidy under the Higher Education Act, private black colleges suddenly found themselves supported by significant government money, and, also for the first time, confronted with aggressive national competition for able students and faculty.

In 1950, prior to the Brown decision, about 90 percent of black Ameri-can college and university enrollment was in historically black colleges, public and private. By 1970 there were approximately 357,000 black American undergraduates, the majority in institutions where few if any Blacks had enrolled previously. One hundred seventy thousand or 48 percent were in historically black colleges. Fifty-six thousand of these undergraduates were enrolled in private black colleges. During the next thirty years, the number of African American students choosing predominantly white institutions grew rapidly. Meanwhile, the number attending historically black colleges leveled off until the 1980s and then, with a sharp increase in women's enrollment, rose again to record levels in the 1990s.1

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several foundation-supported assessments of the status and prospects of historically black colleges ranged in tone from near funereal to cautiously optimistic. Daniel C. Thompson, professor of sociology at Dillard University, a private black institution, wrote in 1973 that "Private black colleges are challenged to institute revolutionary reorganization or face progressive disorganization. Most of these colleges, which have performed so nobly in the past, are now threatened by extinction (progressive disorganization) unless they seriously examine themselves, find the constant support needed, and bravely make the program and structural changes necessary in order to be truly relevant."2

Vivian W. Henderson, president of Clark College, another private black college in Atlanta, wrote that "The historic Negro college will have the responsibility for educating a diminishing but significant proportion of black youth enrolled in higher education Negro colleges will be slow in attracting white students not because of the policy or lack of quality but because institutionalized and entrenched racism is a barrier to the movement of white youth."3

William J. Trent, Jr., executive director of the United Negro College Fund from 1944 to 1964, cautioned against belief in any simple projection: "People generally discuss Negro colleges as if they were all alike, with a common fate. This is nonsense. Negro colleges are located along a spectrum of quality ranging from excellent to poor, just as are other institutions. Further, what will happen to these Negro colleges will cover a broad spectrum of possibilities."4

Although Trent was correct in warning about the dangers of easy generalization, a broad description of this collegiate landscape is possible. Today's forty-five four-year historically black private colleges can be divided into three groups according to enrollment size. Ranked in thirds, by size, the largest of the colleges enroll between approximately fifteen hundred and six thousand students. These colleges offer a strong variety of well-taught liberal arts and precareer subjects, generally pay higher faculty and staff salaries compared with the smaller black colleges, and often send a significant number of graduates on to major graduate schools. In many respects, they are competitive with white liberal arts colleges of similar size. About half of the largest-enrollment private black colleges are also in the largest Southern cities: Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Miami.

The majority of these colleges and universities do not concentrate on graduate studies, although several offer a few post-baccalaureate specialties. For example, Clark Atlanta University has a long history of Ph.D. work. Howard University, Washington, D.C., is a research university with a full spectrum of professional programs. Xavier University of Louisiana provides the only graduate pharmacy program in New Orleans. Hampton University and Tuskegee University recently launched doctoral programs in science, Tuskegee University trains doctors of veterinary medicine, and Virginia Union University offers doctoral study in theology. Several universities and colleges offer master's-level studies.5

The middle third of these colleges enrolls between eight hundred and fifteen hundred students. These colleges are more likely to be found in middle-sized Southern cities such as Tuscaloosa, Orangeburg, Nashville, and Augusta. Although they have enjoyed some of the same successes as the larger colleges, they have sometimes had to struggle harder to maintain enrollment growth and quality.

The smallest colleges in the final group enroll two hundred to eight hundred students. They more frequently welcome students not well prepared for college by their prior schooling. These often are first-generation college students and students from rural Southern homes. During the past three decades, some of these very small colleges languished for years at a time under indifferent leadership and a few narrowly escaped closing down. However, some of the same colleges at different times have enjoyed excellent leadership and showed a remarkable capacity for rapid improvement.6

The four-year accredited private black colleges are listed here, in the three different enrollment groupings based on 1995 enrollment statistics. If their past is a guide, several colleges in each of these groups will grow or shrink significantly, and so move into a different category. Perhaps because many of these colleges are relatively small, with few finan-cial reserves, the volatility within this group is greater than one might encounter, for example, among the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, or the Ivy League:

I. Largest fifteen historically black private colleges
Benedict College, Columbia, South Carolina
Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida
Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia
Dillard University, New Orleans, Louisiana
Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia
Howard University, Washington, District of Columbia
Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia
Morris Brown College, Atlanta, Georgia
Oakwood College, Huntsville, Alabama
Saint Augustine's College, Raleigh, North Carolina
Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina
Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia
Tuskegee University, Tuskegee,Alabama
Virginia Union University, Richmond, Virginia
Xavier University of Louisiana, New Orleans, Louisiana
II. Fifteen next-largest colleges
Claflin College, Orangeburg, South Carolina
Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee
Florida Memorial College, Miami, Florida
Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, North Carolina
LeMoyne-Owen College, Memphis, Tennessee
Miles College, Birmingham, Alabama
Paine College, Augusta, Georgia
Paul Quinn College, Dallas, Texas
Philander Smith College, Little Rock, Arkansas
Rust College, Holly Springs, Mississippi
Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Mississippi
Voorhees College, Denmark, South Carolina
Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio
III. Fifteen smallest-enrollment colleges
Arkansas Baptist College, Little Rock, Arkansas
Allen University, Columbia, South Carolina
Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina
Barber-Scotia College, Concord, North Carolina
Edward Waters College, Jacksonville, Florida
Huston-Tillotson College, Austin, Texas
Jarvis Christian College, Hawkins, Texas
Knoxville College, Knoxville, Tennessee
Lane College, Jackson, Tennessee
Livingstone College, Salisbury, North Carolina
Saint Paul's College, Lawrenceville, Virginia
Southwestern Christian College, Terrell, Texas
Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama
Texas College, Tyler, Texas
Wiley College, Marshall, Texas

Close inspection of the list reveals that even within the three enrollment groups there is much variety of purpose and clientele. Tougaloo College and Talladega College, for example, are not high-enrollment institutions, but have produced a significant number of graduates who subsequently earned doctoral and professional degrees. Although a majority of the largest-enrollment colleges draw more than half their students from out of state, three of them--Bethune-Cookman, Dillard, and Shaw--enroll more than 60 percent of their students from in-state.


Except for the different racial mix, a first-time visitor to one of these colleges will find much that looks familiar. Approximately 95 percent of the students and more than half the faculty and staff are African Ameri-can.7 As with colleges throughout the nation, most black colleges began with two- or three-story brick buildings with white wooden trim, often reminiscent of early New England colleges. But all are not the same. Dillard University in New Orleans mixes colonial and plantation-style buildings in an orderly, spacious campus plan. Urban colleges such as Morehouse and Xavier include both the early low-rise buildings and later urban high-rise design, reflecting a need to accommodate on limited city sites a larger enrollment than the founders anticipated. Tougaloo College, built on a former slave plantation, samples the architecture of several periods: the president's office is in the original plantation owner's house, next door to a large 1960s rough-concrete library, and a block from a utilitarian 1990s humanities building.

Like American colleges generally, many historically black colleges expanded in the 1960s, aided by low-cost federal construction loans. Their campuses contain occasional familiar-looking glass-and-steel box buildings--dormitories and classrooms--which looked modern and functional when they were built, but have since developed maintenance problems and may no longer meet modern building codes. Finally, as with most colleges today, the major new buildings on historically black college campuses have been designed with more attention to attractiveness and comfort--as well as to utility--than generally was true twenty or thirty years ago.

Richard P. Dober is senior consultant for a planning group that advises trustees and architects about campus design and college building projects in the United States and abroad. Over the past forty years, he has visited private black colleges many times, assessing their physical plant for The Ford Foundation in the 1960s, and reviewing building and renovation proposals for the Bush and Hewlett Foundations in the 1980s and 1990s. He finds the quality of planning and construction in recent years at private black colleges comparable to that on college campuses elsewhere. The campus for Spelman College, an elite private black college for women, is not the same as the campus for Bryn Mawr College, an elite, predominantly white women's college. Spelman has not enjoyed signifi-cant outside financial support for as long as Bryn Mawr. But Dober thinks their planning standards are comparable today in ways that were not true in the 1960s and 1970s. Here are his impressions:

These private black colleges, often located in small and middle sized communities, are visible cultural centers, sources of jobs, and symbols of pride. Often to get to them, you cross the tracks, pass through modest if not impoverished neighborhoods, and enter the campus, surprised and experiencing a more pleasant place.
  At some institutions, the older edifices were splendid examples of enterprise and skill. Designed by the locals, built with bricks manufactured on the site and with lumber planed there, crafted and erected by the faculty, staff and students--their scale, detailing and simplicity were architecturally attractive. How sad, then, to see nearby the government regulated and funded, minimal contemporary structures that seemingly ignored the aesthetic lessons evident in the historic buildings.
  Equally evident were the contrasting landscapes; the newer areas bleak, the older parts of the campus visually comforting in their tree cover, lawns and shrubbery.
  Worst of all, in memory, now and then, here and there, was the physical decay in the older and better architecture; the neglect explained away by financial difficulties which forced the campus administrators to give higher priority to people and programs than to physical spaces.8

Unfortunately, the financial difficulties are not just administrative excuses. Private black colleges live on lean budgets--some extremely lean. Average tuition received per student in these colleges in 1996 was $6,347, or 62 percent of the amount received per student by all four-year private colleges. Yet private black colleges maintain approximately the same ratio of students to faculty as do most U.S. four-year private colleges (15 to 1 versus 15.6 to 1). Not surprisingly, faculty are paid less.9 Among United Negro College Fund (UNCF) colleges, the average salary of a full professor was $48,145 in 1996-97 or 28 percent less than the average for full professors at other comprehensive four-year private institutions. The gap for instructors was 14 percent.10 In 1996, private black colleges spent about 7 percent less per student on educational and general expenses than did all four-year private colleges and universities. As with private colleges throughout the nation, the percentage of faculty at private black colleges with doctoral or professional degrees increased significantly in the past twenty years: from 41 percent of all faculty in 1977 to 62 percent in 1997.

Many black college graduates, particularly from residential colleges, have said that their undergraduate years provided an important transition from family dependence to adult self-direction, and that their personal development in college was as important to them as their academic experience. More often than one might ordinarily expect, the authors in their conversations with alumni and with faculty at private black colleges encountered the word "nurturing," or personal anecdotes amounting to the same thing. A published example is in the autobiography of Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations:

In retrospect I realize my years at Howard were important to my personal development. I was mature enough upon graduation to regret the lackadaisical attitude I had toward my studies when I started college, but it was college that helped me mature. By the time I graduated from Howard, I had learned to embrace the strengths of the black middle class. I learned to interact in formal social settings, refined my manners and conversation skills, and began to carry myself with self-assurance. Howard picked up where Mrs. Bowen and Gilbert Academy left off. It was the same philosophy--academic achievement and exemplary behavior. I had not fully mastered either concept, but I had grown to appreciate the wisdom of having those abilities in one's repertoire.
  Had I failed to come to terms with my identity as a middle-class black person, I would never have accomplished very much in the civil rights movement or won elective office.11

William H. Gray III, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund, made a similar observation:

I don't know how we measure the contribution of truly dedicated hardworking teachers. But I do know that when we ask how the graduates of historically black colleges and universities are so often able to compete with the graduates of the most prestigious universities in the nation, it always seems to come back to the faculty role models . . . It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of faculty in the success of these colleges and their graduates.12

What can we say about these colleges and the major challenges their leaders faced in recent years? Put too simply, the 1970s were a particularly tough time to lead a private black college. The decade included continued social unrest, many demands for administrative reform, sharply increased competition for excellent students, and increasingly strong pressure to change what was taught and how. For most colleges, the 1980s and 1990s were less difficult, although certainly not easy. In these years, an improved national economy gave virtually all private colleges a chance to demonstrate their resiliency. Many private black colleges, like colleges elsewhere, used this time to assess and change their educational strategies: giving increased attention to writing skills and computer literacy, reducing reliance on lecturing, and adjusting course content to accommodate increased student interest in international affairs and in new career opportunities.


During the 1970s, most experienced college presidents reported that the authority of their office was constantly being challenged--by students, by faculty, and sometimes by alumni. One effect of the Vietnam War and the Watergate years was that strong individual authority acquired a tarnished name. The Spelman College board of trustees appointed its first faculty trustee in 1970.13 A few other private black colleges adopted a similar change, as did many predominantly white colleges. Student demonstrators occupied administrative offices to protest official college positions on everything from rules of student conduct to U.S. foreign policy. Decisions such as choosing a new president--once solely the province of private trustee discussions--were now initiated by broadly based search committees.14 There is no question that in most colleges, the 1970s produced a fundamental change in the limits of individual presidential authority.

At the same time, the oil shortage of the mid-1970s triggered double-digit cost inflation, the most rapid within memory. Operating budgets were tight. With the general enrollment of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old black freshmen experiencing a moderate downward trend in the private black colleges, many of their presidents faced the uncomfortable choice of experimenting with tuition increases, stretching operating budgets even further, or spending from endowment principal (if there was an endowment).15

An important new source of revenue did emerge in these years, but it proved to be a mixed blessing. Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, the federal government provided grants to students to attend college anywhere in the United States if they demonstrated financial need, were admissible, and maintained satisfactory academic records. Title III of that act also provided direct institutional subsidy to historically black public and private colleges. During the 1990s, according to one estimate, those federal funds together amounted to almost half of an average private black college's annual budget, either through direct payments, or from student tuition and fees financed with federal and state aid.16 The "mixed blessing" part was that this same availability of student aid money helped northern and western predominantly white colleges to seek greater variety among their students, and thus stimulated an unprecedented recruitment competition for the best-prepared black high school graduates. During the same period, the flagship white public universities in the South also opened their doors much wider to black students. Any black college president who took the long view was unlikely to complain, since the new competition meant that for the first time, able black high school graduates enjoyed something like the same national range of college choice that had been reserved for Whites only a few years earlier.

But the effects of the new competition on many black colleges were severe. This was particularly true for colleges with strong academic reputations--those which were attractive recruitment targets--but which lacked either extra scholarship money or the recruitment organization to meet quickly the new challenge. For example, at Fisk University, enrollment dropped from 1,610 in 1974 to 1,149 in 1978 and to 694 in 1983. The average freshman SAT verbal scholastic aptitude score decreased from V412 in 1968 to approximately V340 in 1976, a signal that reading comprehension and independent study skills among entering freshmen were weaker than they had been. Fisk achieved partial recovery in the 1980s, at least as measured by the percentage of entering freshmen that ranked in the top fifth of their high school graduating class. Twenty-seven percent of Fisk freshmen in 1976 had been in the top fifth of their high school graduating class; by 1982, the percentage had risen to 44 percent.17 Carrell P. Horton, former professor of psychology and dean of academic affairs at Fisk describes her observations of those years in Chapter 12.

The new government funds permitted all colleges to enroll more of the poor and needy. But they also permitted predominantly white colleges and universities to recruit black students so aggressively that the scholastic leading edge of black public and private colleges was temporarily blunted. Of all the changes of the 1970s, this probably provided the greatest challenge to the leadership of private black colleges.

Leaders of private black colleges during the 1980s seemed generally to have more control of their fate than in the prior decade. There were fewer new external challenges. However, there was continuing need to respond to the challenges that had flooded in during the 1970s. As noted earlier, part of the leadership energy would go toward adapting and improving educational programs. Presidents also stepped up their search for operating and capital funds. Many colleges raised tuition more rapidly than they had previously done, and some launched larger and more comprehensive capital fund drives. In colleges such as Spelman, Clark, and Xavier, where great change took place, fundraising consultants from well-known national firms were retained and became regular visitors at their trustee meetings. In these colleges, admission staffs grew; fundraising staffs were enlarged and reorganized both to seek private capital funds, and to learn to deal with the federal agencies responsible for student aid, building construction loans, and Title III institutional subsidy. Despite a great deal of work, however, the tangible gains--such as improved operating budgets, or larger enrollments--seemed only slightly to outnumber the losses. A clearer answer to the fundamental issues of the 1970s would not emerge for a few more years.

Perhaps it is too soon to say what the results are for the college presidents of the 1990s. Certainly colleges everywhere continued to benefit from a national economy that featured extremely low inflation, full employment, and, for colleges fortunate enough to have an endowment portfolio, a sharply rising stock market. During the decade, several historically black private and public colleges reported informally that they were once again beginning to attract the kinds of students who had been so successfully recruited by the most selective northern and western colleges in the previous two decades. Respected national magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, for the first time published feature stories about individual students who, faced with excellent college choices of all kinds, chose to enroll at private black colleges.18 But the struggle for survival is not over. Faculty salaries and student financial aid budgets still must rise significantly to be competitive with those of predominantly white colleges and universities. Teaching loads in most historically black private colleges remain heavy enough so that little time and energy remain for such things as reorganization of curriculum or large-scale implementation of new teaching techniques. These things could be said of most of the colleges in the nation, except perhaps the most prosperous ones. However, the private black colleges--even in the best of times--make up a collegiate network that is low on reserve assets. So much energy is required to meet the challenges of earlier years and to keep current programs respectable that, in most instances, the colleges' reserve strengths are limited.

Many long-term observers of these colleges say that the most noticeable occurrence of the past fifty years is that private black colleges are, among themselves, much less alike than they were in the 1950s.19 Several colleges, favored by location, leadership, and good fortune, have grown in size, attractiveness, and financial strength. Others, with different locations and circumstances, and with less adaptability, by comparison still appear to be struggling. However, fifty years ago it would have been foolhardy to predict that even a few private black colleges would become sufficiently successful at attracting and managing endowment funds so that, on an endowment-dollars-per-student basis, they now are comparable to well known universities elsewhere. Table 1.1 shows that among 344 private institutions surveyed, three private black colleges made it to the middle of such a ranked list, and one appears near the end. These four are Spelman College, Hampton University, Howard University, and Bethune-Cookman College.

We think it is reasonable to expect that several other private black colleges within the next decade will, in such matters as endowment, faculty qualifications, and student career achievement, measure increasingly well compared with many other nationally respected colleges and universities. To do this, they will need to continue to define a clear vision of purpose. In different ways throughout the book, this emphasis of the authors is repeated and becomes almost a refrain: if their leaders can maintain vision and focus, the private black colleges will remain signifi-cant and also will carry forward a distinctive history that is important to the institutional diversity of American higher education and to the texture of American society.

The next seven chapters turn to history: the history of black higher education, and the unusual difficulties that were so important to its development. For some readers, this may be more history than seems necessary. For most, however, these chapters will add to a better understanding of both the present status of private black colleges and their role in all U.S. higher education. Richard Kluger, author of a history of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, explains at the beginning of his book why this close examination of background is important.

From the start, the United States aspired to far more than its own survival. And from the start, its people have assigned to themselves a nobler destiny, justified by a higher moral standing, than impartial scrutiny might confirm . . .
  Of the ideals that animated the American nation at its beginning, none was more radiant or honored than the inherent equality of mankind. There was dignity in all human flesh, Americans proclaimed, and all must have its chance to strive and to excel. All men were to be protected alike from the threat of rapacious neighbors and from the prying of coercive state. If it is a sin to aspire to conduct of a higher order than one may at the moment be capable of, then Americans surely sinned in professing that all men are created equal--and then acting otherwise.20

As an example, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 said clearly and simply: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." However, fifteen years later the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights permitted continuance of the institution of slavery for almost a full century. Many states during that time passed laws making it illegal to teach Blacks to read and write. In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court said that Dred Scott, a slave, was property, not a citizen, and without standing to sue in federal court.

Soon after the Civil War, three amendments to the Constitution promised equal rights to black Americans. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) provided that "No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws." The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) stated that the right of citizens to vote "shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." But during the ensuing decades, Blacks who attempted fully to exercise these rights encountered denial, hostility, and little help from the courts.

The emergence of nationally competitive, distinctive black colleges seems impressive under any circumstances. It is doubly so when one observes the large discrepancy between promise and reality--in human rights and in educational opportunity--that existed for black Americans during most of the nation's history.

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