General Education

6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About HBCUs

6 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About HBCUs
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Allison Joyner August 29, 2019

If you thought their marching bands were impressive, wait until you see their alumni.

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Imagine you're at a college football game, waiting with anticipation for a halftime show you'll be sure to remember. Or maybe you're among a crowd of onlookers at a parade, listening to a marching band that could bring even the most reluctant dancer to their feet. These bands combine classic instruments with modern moves and the rich history of schools like Southern University and A & M College, Jackson State University, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Without a doubt, it's their unparalleled sound and style that make for most peoples' introduction into the world of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Before the Civil Rights Act, the vast majority of U.S. higher education institutions prohibited black Americans from enrolling in their programs. Most colleges and universities in the Southern U.S. banned black students for a century following the abolishment of slavery, while postsecondary establishments in other parts of the country imposed quotas or limited admission. Given the climate, HBCUs were crucial to providing black Americans with access to higher education.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines HBCUs as "any historically black college or university established before 1964, whose principal mission was and is the education of black Americans." But there's so much them than that.

6 things you might not know about HBCUs

1. They're not small in number.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are currently 101 HBCUs located across the U.S. Of them, 50 are public institutions, and 51 are private nonprofit institutions. With fifteen under its belt, Alabama is the state with the highest number of historically black higher colleges and universities.

Nine schools call Atlanta home, making it the city with the most HBCUs. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania and Lincoln University are the oldest HBCUs in the country, each educating students for over a century and a half.

North Carolina's Shaw University was the first HBCU established in the South. These schools offer a variety of educational opportunities, including associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs.

2. Their alumni are impressive as heck.

HBCU graduates include civil rights activist and Morehouse College grad Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tuskegee University alumn Lonnie Johnson is a NASA engineer and the inventor of the Super Soaker, which has been among the world's bestselling toys every year since its release.

Howard University alumni include Nobel Laureate author Toni Morrison and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Colbert King. Lincoln University claims Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes as a former student. Spelman College alumna Rosalind Brewer is the Chief Operating Officer at Starbucks.

Joycelyn Elders, a Philander Smith College graduate, was the first black American appointed as Surgeon General of the United States. And let's not forget West Virginia State University's own Katherine Johnson, whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. spaceflight. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

3. Their marching band roots go way back.

The concept of the marching band dates back to 13th-century West Africa, specifically the Egun masqueraders of the Yoruba tribe, who would play musical instruments and dance during funeral processions. Other historians highlight black military bands formed during the early Colonial-era who later, took their talents to HBCUs following World War I.

The marching bands that we know and love today got their college football game debut during the Biddle College (now Johnson C. Smith University) and Livingstone College game in December of 1892.

4. They've made their mark on pop culture.

Filmmaker and Morehouse College graduate, Spike Lee, directed one of his first major motion pictures, "School Daze," on the campus of his alma mater, Clark Atlanta University. The 90s hit sitcom, "A Different World," was based at a fictitious HBCU and addressed many social, political, and economic issues that college students continue to face today.

Canadian rapper, singer, and songwriter, Drake, is known for referencing HBCUs in his songs—and wearing collegiate hoodies and jerseys in his music videos and in public. In the 2002 film, "Drumline," Nick Cannon portrays a freshman drummer and hopeful member of the fictional Atlanta A&T University marching band.

5. They're more diverse than you think.

The assumption that HBCUs are only for black students is far from the truth. NCES data indicates that in 2017, non-black students made up 24 percent of enrollment, compared to 15 percent in 1976.

Schools like Alcorn State University have started Educational Equity and Inclusion departments to create an environment where all members of the school community feel empowered to achieve success.

6. Their Greek Shows are a rite of passage.

If you think halftime is only for marching bands, think again. Enter "stepping," a dance that requires a dancer to use their entire body to produce rhythms and sounds, done mainly through footsteps, spoken word, and handclaps. In addition to drill teams, church choirs, and cheerleading squads, National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) fraternities and sororities have helped make the dance famous by performing it during "Greek Shows" to celebrate student initiations into Greek life.

The Greek Show tradition dates back at least to the 1950s. Today, countless Greek organizations at HBCUs create new moves to pay tribute to their Greek-letter organizations. Many perform at local and national competitions across the country.

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This article was updated on March 30, 2020 to reflect that Greek Shows originated no later than the 1950s.