Black schools conquer divide

January 18, 2002

Segregation of university education in the United States ended a generation ago with the enforced enrolment of black students at universities across the South. But African-American students are still electing to go to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that opened just before the end of the civil war, when America's newest citizens were freed slaves who had been denied formal education.

Nineteenth-century laws severely restricted the civil and legal rights of freed blacks by espousing a "separate but equal" doctrine. They forbade black access to white schools, restaurants, hospitals and public places.

Today, many educators and students suggest that the all-black schools have outlived the social and cultural climate of Jim Crow segregation and are obsolete.

In Insight magazine, Walter Williams, an economist at George Mason University, said: "I've long held the opinion that black schools served a purpose very well back at a time when blacks were denied the chance to go elsewhere. (But) one of the problems with black universities is that, in general, they don't have the academic standing and rigors of predominantly white schools."

Historically, there was no choice for students such as Helen Hyde, who was raised in a middle-class environment in a segregated city. Ms Hyde entered Talladega College in 1934 at the age of 15. She had always planned to attend college, but her only choice was a school for African-Americans.

"I lived in a segregated town, so I wasn't thinking about going to school with white people," she said. "I think blacks need a black experience."

Of 3,500 American colleges, only 105 are historically black. According to the United Negro College Fund, the oldest African-American higher education assistance organisation, last year historically black colleges and universities awarded nearly 30 per cent of African-American first degrees.

Over the years, the schools have trained more than 35 per cent of black lawyers, 50 per cent of black engineers and 65 per cent of black physicians. Lincoln University, which is often described as "America's Black Harvard", was founded in 1854. It has nearly 1,900 coeds and lists among its graduates poet Langston Hughes; America's first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall; Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah; and Nigeria's first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe.

But for many blacks who attended predominantly white universities, the decision was based on what could be achieved after the academic experience. The priority was meeting people - usually white - who could help them achieve the "American dream".

After a year at Cheyney University, Jacquelynn Puriefoy transferred. Ms Puriefoy, now 57, said: "I found the curriculum at Cheyney faulty, and felt that I could get more out of an integrated, diverse but predominantly white campus experience," she said. "Learning how to interact with blacks, whites and everybody else was more likely to help me succeed in the working world."

Phil Sumpter, 29, was raised in a predominantly white neighbourhood. Growing up, his exposure to blacks - educationally and socially - was limited. Mr Sumpter chose an HBCU.

"Going to Lincoln gave me a stronger sense of self-identity," he said. "There was an openness about American hypocrisy... and a lot of the lies about our place in society were exposed. The experience made me a better person."

Between 1986 and 1994, enrolments at HBCUs increased 25 per cent, but these schools face daunting challenges. They receive far less funding from the private and public sectors than their white counterparts. In 1960, the combined endowment for HBCUs was less than the endowment of Northwestern University, a white four-year college in Chicago, alone.

Howard University, one of the four black schools that receive the most charitable donations, has an endowment of $152 million (£105 million) compared with Harvard University's $7 billion.

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