Author discusses his book on the history of historically black colleges

Author discusses his book on the history of historically black colleges


Adam Harris’s new book tells the story of how the governments — local, state, federal — and the private sector have largely failed historically black colleges. The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — and How to Set Them Right (HarperCollins) is a mix of stories, of the way states broke promises to black colleges and the way some Black people fought for their rights and those of their institutions. There are many sad stories — of white political leaders doing the absolute minimum possible. But there is also an argument in the book for more funds and better treatment of Black colleges.

Harris is a staff writer at The Atlantic and a former reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He responded to questions about the book via email:

Q: How did historically black colleges arise in the U.S.?

A: HBCUs were established primarily after the Civil War to educate Black students who were largely shut out of the rest of higher education and sprouted up in several different ways: Some were the result of philanthropy, others grew out of religious affiliations like the African Methodist Episcopal church, and others benefitted from public funding. But, from the beginning, the institutions struggled to maintain consistent financial support. For example, upon its founding in 1871, Alcorn State University, the oldest public Black college in Mississippi, received a “guaranteed” appropriation of $50,000 a year for at least a decade; but as the so-called Redeemers swept back into public offices, bringing with them a “white revolution,” the appropriation was cut to $15,000 in 1875. A year later, they reduced it again to $5,500 a year. Meanwhile, at some private institutions, when northern white philanthropists’ interest in Black education waned, so too did funding to Black colleges.

Q: Who was Lloyd Gaines?

A: There were a series of higher education cases in the mid-20th century which made it to the United States Supreme Court and set the stage for the court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Lloyd Gaines’s case was the first successful challenge. Gaines was born in Water Valley, Mississippi, but had moved to Missouri with his family when he was 15 years old. He graduated from high school with honors, and went on to earn a degree from Lincoln University in Missouri — a historically Black university — in 1935.

Gaines dreamed of being a lawyer, but there was no law school for Black students in Missouri; and the flagship state university, the University of Missouri, did not accept Black students into its programs. Instead, the state employed a workaround, sending Black students out-of-state with small sums of money to satisfy their legal responsibility under “separate but equal.” Gaines, with the help of the NAACP, sued the state, alleging that it was a farce to say this arrangement satisfied existing law. States, themselves, needed to at least provide a separate option. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with Gaines. But he was never able to realize his dream of attending law school in Missouri and becoming a lawyer. He disappeared before he had the chance to. His story shows the personal toll these battles take on those fighting for justice.

Q: Did any states — at any time — meet their obligations to historically black colleges?

A: At various points over the last century and a half, states have matched federal funds for their Black land-grant institutions, and provided them substantial appropriations. However, the most common through line among public historically Black colleges is that state lawmakers consistently acknowledge their failure to adequately fund the institutions and then set a cap on the money that would fix the discrepancy.

For example, in the early 1900s, Kentucky contracted William T.B. Williams, a professor at Hampton Institute, who formerly taught at Tuskegee University, to examine its historically Black college and help understand what was necessary to turn Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute for Colored Persons, now Kentucky State University, into an institution that rivaled Tuskegee. Williams was unsparing in his criticism. The buildings were unfinished. The girls’ dorm lacked fire escapes. The boys’ dorm was literally in a mud puddle. There was no power or lighting or machinery in the electrical plant. Teachers were underpaid. To make the school like Tuskegee, Williams wrote, would require “radical departures” from the way things had been done before. The state offered $40,000 to fix everything. It was nowhere close to what was necessary. Several decades later, when the Truman Commission released its report, “Higher Education for American Democracy,” in 1947, it named Kentucky as the state with the greatest disparity in funding between its white institutions and Black institutions at 42-to-1.

Q: Will philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott truly change the outlook for black colleges?

A: While philanthropic gifts have been helpful, and welcome for Black colleges over the last year — the question for philanthropy is always whether or not the levels of giving will continue. Despite a record year of giving in 2020, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s database of large charitable donations, only one of the top 100 gifts to colleges and universities in 2021 have gone to a historically Black college. As such, it’s difficult for the institutions to lean on philanthropy as a salve for more than a century of systemic discrimination that was created, defended, and maintained by a string of state and federal policies.

Q: What can be done for black colleges today to promote equity in higher education?

A: A greater federal investment in the institutions would be a good start. Though states have to run a balanced budget, they could reform their funding models in a way that would benefit Black students and other minoritized populations, and the institutions they attend — whether that is HBCUs, Hispanic serving institutions, predominantly Black institutions, community colleges, or other colleges. Other institutions — those who profited from slavery and segregation while Black colleges languished — may also have a responsibility to share some of the wealth they gained while locking Black students out with the colleges that educated those students.



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