Higher Education


Higher education, until the beginning of Reconstruction and long thereafter, was practically unavailable to African American students across the nation.

Reason for Segregated Educational Institutions

White southerners believed that they held a white supremacy over the African American population and that African Americans should not be allowed an equal education.  The southern states agreed that giving African Americans educational freedom would increase their economic, social, and political status, which is why many states rejected minority applications to higher educational institutions, to maintain their white hierarchical position.  All white universities wanted to keep their white reputation, and they were able to do so because of the nineteen southern states that created an unfair dual higher education system with separate white and black colleges and universities.

Historically Black Colleges

Part 1 of 2 of Historically Black logo series.


The few minority students who were allowed a college education would be only allowed permission into an all African American college, which were greatly inferior to the all-white universities in many different ways such as faculty, resources, and finances.    The Institute for Colored Youth, the first higher education institution for blacks, was founded in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, in 1837. The Virginia State College for Negroes (VSCN), Virginia’s first public institution of higher education for African Americans, originated in 1882 in Petersburg, which was originally the only college source for all blacks in Virginia.  The lack of a higher education in Virginia for minority students led many African Americans to migrate to a different state or face being neglected from increasing their own educational and social statuses.

Presently, there are around one hundred historically black colleges and universities in the United States with an enrollment of more than three hundred thousand students based on information from the National Center for Education Statistics.   The number of enrolled African American students in college is rising due to increased confidence and African American self-determination.

African American: commencement ceremony

Before the 1960s, enrollment by African Americans was almost impartially limited to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Only a small number of African Americans attended predominately white institutions in the North prior to the Civil War. Legal challenges between the 1930s and 1960s began to open up opportunities for African Americans to attend graduate schools at predominantly white institutions.   It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that historically black colleges and universities began a standard four-year college curriculum.

History of the Desegregation of Higher Education

Particularly in the South, states have legally controlled segregation and have sought to exclude African American students from attending higher educational institutions.  As a result in 1862, the Federal Government reacted to the southern states with the passing of the first Morrill Land Grant Act. The first Morrill Land Grant Act began the process of allowing colleges and universities to become widespread to minority students and provided a basis for the development and creation of higher education institutions. It was specifically designed to offer equality to higher education by providing a stable funding source for “black” and “white” institutions. The act provided support to many states by developing at least one mechanical and agricultural college, and by administering close to thirty thousand acres to each state for educational purposes. Years later, in 1890, the second Morrill Land Grant Act extended its provisions to more southern states and increased the act’s effectiveness.  After the passage of the second act, public land-grant institutions specifically for African Americans were established in each of the southern and border states. As a consequence, some new public black institutions were founded, and many formerly private black schools became public.

With the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, legal discrimination was declared illegal resulting in African American enrollment at predominately white institutions to increase. Following the struggles of 1964, the actions of the Higher Education Act of 1965 provided individuals increased accessibility into colleges and universities to those who were previously unable to attend higher educational institutions because of gender, race, and economic circumstances.   It provided grants to institutions of higher education which encouraged scholarships and loans for students, research, improvements to facilities, and support for teacher training and improvement that was much needed.  Many African Americans took advantage of this new opportunity that awaited them but they faced much discrimination from their school and classmates.  Discrimination that has even continued in colleges up to the present day, regardless of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbid racial discrimination but could not eliminate it.  Discrimination can be seen in the attendance of some current colleges because they have remained predominantly white, while other colleges have kept a population of essentially African American students.

Many colleges and universities have failed to comply with legislative and judicial outcomes resulting in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund to file suit against the Office of Civil Rights for failing to enforce their anti-discriminatory laws in 1971. Since that year, several states have constantly been struggling to comply with legislative, as well as judicial, requirements for the exclusion of discrimination.


Bob Brown. Richmond Parents Protest Desegregation Policy. 1959. Richmond,

Changes made to the higher education system in Virginia first occurred in the professional and graduate curriculum between the 1950s and 1960s, when the first black students were allowed in a few graduate programs at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary.

The first Chinese-American cadet allowed in Virginia higher education was drilled at Virginia Military Institute in 1904, and in the 1920’s a Chinese-American graduate earned his master’s degree at the University of Virginia in chemistry.  In the 1940’s a Chinese man earned his master’s in physics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, which occurred long before VPI admitted its first African American student in 1953.  The delay of the acceptance of African American students indicates that other minorities were much more accepted into America’s society than African Americans.   This is why the first African American students to enroll at Virginia Polytechnic Institute were in 1953 and not until 1955 did the first African American students enroll at the University of Virginia; additionally the College of William and Mary remained segregated until the year 1960.  The next advancement of desegregation in Virginia was in 1968 when Virginia Military Institute was the first college in Virginia to allow its five African American students to their choice of majors, allowance into barracks, sports involvement, and leadership positions.

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