Chapter 5 Overview
Alabama Historic Black Colleges & Universities
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Alabama and other states were established after the Civil War to provide educational opportunities to thousands of newly freed slaves and later to skirt segregation policies prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The schools established in Alabama under this premise were: Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU), Alabama State University, Concordia College, Miles College, Oakwood University, Selma University, Stillman College, Talladega College, and Tuskegee University.
During the period of slavery, blacks in the United States were prohibited from education and learning. But even at this time, enslaved people thirsted for knowledge and viewed education as the key to their freedom. In Alabama, enslaved people pursued various forms of education despite laws barring them from learning to read and write. These stealth efforts included underground reading rooms in which educated slaves taught each other to read, learning from the slave owners’ wives, who were occasionally sympathetic toward the children of slaves, and being taught by abolitionists.
After the Civil War, the daunting task of educating more than four million formerly enslaved people, with nearly 440,000 in Alabama alone, was shouldered by the federal Freedman’s Bureau and many northern church missionaries. In 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau began establishing black colleges in Alabama and elsewhere in the South, employing staff and teachers with primarily military backgrounds. Most black colleges were institutions of higher learning in name only during the first decades of their existence, however. These facilities generally provided primary and secondary education, a feature that was true of most early white colleges.
Alabama’s private black colleges—Miles College, Oakwood College, Selma University, Stillman College, Talladega College, Concordia College, and Tuskegee University—were founded by black and white churches and missionary societies actively working with the Freedmen’s Bureau. Some of the more prominent black churches involved were the African Methodist Episcopal and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, whereas the most important white organizations were the American Baptist Home Mission Society and the American Missionary Association. But there were others as well. The benevolence of these latter organizations was often tinged with self-interest and occasionally racism. Their goals in establishing these colleges were to convert the formerly enslaved people to their brand of Christianity and to rid the country of the “menace” of uneducated African Americans.
Black education in Alabama received a boost in 1890, when the federal government promoted public black colleges under the second Morrill Act. Whereas the Morrill Act of 1862 had provided federal lands with which to fund and locate schools, the 1890 act stipulated that states practicing segregation in their public colleges and universities would forfeit federal funding unless they established agricultural and mechanical institutions for the black population. Although the wording of the Morrill Act called for the equitable division of federal funds, these new black institutions received less funding than their white counterparts and thus had inferior facilities. Alabama A&M University and the Tuskegee Institute were among the institutions supported by these federal funds.
Encyclopedia of Alabama: Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Alabama, By Marybeth Gasman, University of Pennsylvania
Published: January 24, 2008 | Last updated: March 6, 2017
Chapter 5 overview from The Future Emerges from the Past, Celebrating 200 Years of Alabama African American History & Culture.