W.E.B. DuBois Predicted the Demise of HBCUs Nearly 60 Years Ago

Nearly 60 years ago, iconic scholar and social critic W.E.B. DuBois addressed attendees at the 25th annual conference of social science teachers, held at Johnson C. Smith University. His speech ‘Whither Why and Now,’ provided stark details on the adaptation of African Americans to full rights of citizenship, and his concern that this adaption would not present the melding of African traditions and ideals with American freedom, but rather, a casting away of the same.

While his speech discussed everything from black Americans’ likelihood of adopting white physical traits, cultural ideologies and policy views, it was a stark assessment of historically black colleges which stood out as a direct warning of the ‘death of blackness.’

“Take for instance the current problem of the education of our children. By the law of the land today they should be admitted to the public schools. If and when they are admitted to these schools certain things will inevitably follow. Negro teachers will become rarer and in many cases will disappear. Negro children will be instructed in the public schools and taught under unpleasant if not discouraging circumstances. Even more largely than today they will fall out of school, cease to enter high school, and fewer and fewer will go to college. Theoretically, Negro universities will disappear. Negro history will be taught less or not at all, and as in so many cases in the past Negroes will remember their white or Indian ancestors and quite forget their Negro forebearers.”

The reviving of this speech correlates with an editorial from Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Harry Williams, who says that HBCUs should consider mergers and consolidation to avoid a wave of closures in the face of dwindling enrollment and crushing debt.

“Many HBCUs are located within miles of one another and share a common mission to educate economically disadvantaged students from underrepresented communities. Some among them have invariably faced real challenges recently in finances, accreditation or enrollment — or all three. Instead of competing for the same shrinking pool of students, might they find opportunities for partnership or, maybe, more radically, merger? Such steps might ensure the vitality and preserve the legacies of many more institutions than future financial projections and demographic changes might suggest is otherwise possible.”

There’s a good chance that without merger and consolidation, about 50 HBCUs will close within the next decade. Too many black students are choosing to attend non-HBCUs, too many large PWIs are making attendance easier and more affordable expressly for black students, and too many black people believe, whether they ignorantly say it out loud or otherwise, that HBCUs are an inferior academic product. 

And because of our own cultural insulation, our belief that forever is an institutional birthright, we do not see the inevitability of closure or refuse to see the options available to save even a semblance of what these schools used to be or to preserve what they could be in the future. We cannot fundraise fast enough, we can pray hard enough but apparently can’t match it with good works.

And the reason why? Dr. DuBois tried to warn us about our attitudes, our allegiances, and our assimilation more than 60 years ago.

“Some are ashamed of themselves and their folk. They regard the study of Negro biography and the writing of Negro literature as a vain attempt to pretend that Negroes are really the equal of whites. That tends to be the point of view of those of our children who are educated in white schools. There are going to be schools which do not discriminate against colored people and the number is going to increase slowly in the present, but rapidly in the future until long before the year 2000, there will be no school segregation on the basis of race. The deficiency in knowledge of Negro history and culture, however, will remain and this danger must be met or else American Negroes will disappear. Their history and culture will be lost. Their connection with the rising African world will be impossible.”

30 comments
  1. I am stunned,how we as a people have so information from our ancestors. Yet, there is a refusal on our part to use it. We keep looking for a savior, but the savior and his teachings are here!

  2. Harry Williams is extremely misguided in his assessment. Well, I am not surprised. He has no real ties (none of his degrees were earned at an HBCU) to an HBCU other than getting a job to be president at one. I Generally, people who are not have a vested interest that who are joined at the hip (Alums) rarely propose any that that speaks to growth and sustainability. They generally end of doping the bidding for “others” who have absolutely no interests in HBCUs. New story but same onld game played on “house negros and filed negroes on the plantation. Therefore, it is not a surprise that he would make such is seriously misguided assertion.

    1. Not misguided at all, Dr. Aubrey. You are aware better than most at the fiscal troubles faced by these institutions. And as a researcher, you know trends don’t lie. We’d be happy to publish a counter-narrative any time you wish to publish one, but this kind of name calling and character dragging we just can’t have.

  3. Dr. DuBois was prescient. As painful as it is to hear this is now, it didn’t seem so then. Perhaps, it was my youth. Thank you for sharing this! So good to have this recording, I was indeed privileged to have been there in person along with the members of our Bennett College Chapter of the Sigma Rho Sigma Honor Society and our sponsor and History Professor the late Dr. George Breathett!

  4. HBCU will always have a place in this society, because everyone, Can’t afford to go to the USC, Duke, Florida State ect… Some individuals want a certain experience, our heritage will always live on. HBCU have great Presidents and they will be here for a long time. Go bears (Miles College).

  5. The discussion of merger and consolidation is worthy of a time and venue. In the end, institutions may find neither option viable or desirable. But the community of HBCUs, especially private institutions should, at the very least, schedule the dialogue. It is not prudent to predime that because we always have been we always will be. . . There is a potential strength beyond just surviving if we consider the possibilities of creating a new vidion for some of our institutions. Envision two universities six blocks apart merging into the second largest employer in a rapidly developing section of a major city. Eliminating duplicate programs, spending, and refundant competition for the same students. Powerful, mission driven, game changer.
    Just a thought. . .lets not just think outside the box. Let’s TALK about getting rid of the box.

  6. My senior year of high school in a Midwestern city, even with the large number of black students, my school was forgotten during the annual HCBU recruitment week. NONE of my classmates ever attended an HCBU. I ended up at a Lutheran college where I hated every minute of it. Sure, I graduated, but I used to wonder about missing out on the experience until I went to grad school and met a young man from Morehouse who told me that my degrees wouldn’t help him in his ambitions. I became very glad I did not go, if that’s how I would be evaluated by potential partners.

  7. I would respectfully ask, what are your counter suggestions to what Harry Williams has mentioned? Many Black HBCUs are faced with declining enrollment, fiscal problems and many are not creating viable programs for the modern era. So other than criticizing someone who has pointed this out and is identifying solutions, what do you view as a way forward?

  8. That sounds good but isn’t entirely true. Many HBCUs tuition is very close if not more expensive than most PWIs. In fact, Florida A & M is more expensive than Florida State. He’s clearly not saying that the experience isn’t valid but is pointing out that consolidation may create the opportunity to preserve many universities which are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

  9. I remember how we learned about ourselves through Black History in our schools when we were in high school, at Gambling, in our churches, and family gathering. We were proud to boast about which HBCU we attended. Our schools, athletes, and identity has been bought, sold, given away, and stolen using money, lies, trophies, and trickery. Our books are no longer published and read to our children. I can go on and on.

  10. Just bc one of our greats predicted this demise of our HBCU culture he also provided alternatives in that same speech. So we as alum must continue to fight for our HBCU and just as African-Americans we still have to fight to save our history and culture in todays increasing racist society.

  11. FSU( $22,575) is not cheaper than FAMU($22,420) the cost of FAMU is negligibly cheaper.

    The total tuition and living expense budget for in-state Florida residents to go to Florida A&M is $22,420 for the 2015/2016 academic year.

    Residents of Florida pay an annual total price of $22,575 to attend Florida State University on a full time basis. This fee is comprised of $4,640 for tuition, $10,304 room and board, $1,000 for books and supplies and $1,867 for other fees.

  12. HBCU contraction in a more free and open enrollment environment at PWIs, as Dr. DuBois noted may be inevitable.
    But the manner in which HBCUs develop is within our control if we think clearly about them (mergers etc.) and implement effective plans for their continuance. Crucial to their growth , however, is ending mismanagement in administration and bring greater creativity to that task. Also a full embrace of African American cultural and intellectual tradions is key to asserting the uniqueness if these institutions and the special gifts they offer in approaching the arts and sciences and contributing to their development.

  13. Said to say DuBois was spot on. Why? Because blacks continue to undervalue themselves as a people. A majority of Black folks feel HBCUs are not equal to PWIs. They feel if you don’t go to a PWI you will have less opportunities afforded to you. It’s a shame but this is what a majority of Black folks feel.

    To all the people who feel this way – It’s not the school that matters, it’s what your field of study is! I know someone who has a Master degree from one of the top Journalism schools in the US and she still (5 years later) is not working in her field. We as Black folks need to stop majoring in these EASY, DEAD-END majors. My advice to people reading this is to really chose your field of study wisely and go to a place where you are comfortable and will not be in a ton of debt upon graduating. Don’t let anyone undervalue you. #HBCUGrad #HBCUForever

  14. To solve the HBCU problem. I truly believe HBCUs should become specialty schools. Spelman is a great model for this. We need to stop trying to compete with PWIs by offering 2000 majors and just offer a hand full that we do exceptionally well. Spelman – Business, VSU – Agriculture, Howard – Film, etc It sad to say but until we start attracting our best and brightest, HBCUs will continue to die. Also alums need to give back. It’s alums fault that HBCUs are closing.

  15. As a parent of two that attend HBCU’s, his assertions are not off. The biggest issue our HBCU’s face is a lack of integrity from the folks in charge. Putting folks in position to steal from students, which makes it hard to attract quality professors and keep students.

  16. Désiré Baloubi

    As much as I believe in preserving our history, our cultural heritage, and all the rest of it, my instinct with all the energy from my brain still tells me it is high time we paid close attention to that piece of wisdom from W.E.B. DuBois.

    Could we close our eyes for a moment and imagine the transformative power that might result from merging Shaw University, St. Augustine University, and North Carolina Central University? And we should even add Johnson C Smith University in Charlotte within the same state, why shouldn’t we?

    This may be false analogy or “fake” comparison, as they say these days, but late Dr. Kwame N’Krumah, first President of Ghana, fought hard and died honorably for a similar cause in his relentless plea that has remained until now the best— if not the ideal—solution to the demise of an entire continent: Africa Must Unite! I was born and raised in West Africa. I also lived and studied in Europe as a black African male, and here I am and have been here in the US for nearly a quarter of a century. …… We may keep praying and writing about this, but nothing will change until we do something about it, and that’s all I got to say.

  17. Is that a true statement, that it’s more expensive at FAMU than Florida State? It certainly was not the case during my time in Tallahassee, when I had to take a class at FSU that was either full or not available at FAMU. Credit hour fees were identicle. But things can and do change.

    As it regards DuBois’ comments, he was a complex man whose views evolved throughout his life. He ultimately renounced his citizenship and moved to Ghana, so in many respects, his comments reflected a recognition of an American society of insiders and outsiders. For a black man and woman to become insiders, DuBois seemed to be saying they would have to eschew their blackness. Part of that was his own elitism and bias, part of that was his observation of some black people’s behavior.

    As a practical matter, black people walk a fine line everyday, and occasionally face decisions which may challenge their principles. This happens in group and individual circumstances. DuBois seemed resigned to conclusion that black people would generally compromise their principles. I disagree.

  18. My comment was in response to someone saying that everyone could not afford to go to PWIS such as USC, Duke and Florida State, etc. In reality, many HBCUs are just about the same price as PWIs.

  19. DuBois was on point on everything from his observations on race to how lawyers stack laws in favor of business, even his views on China were prescient. His observations on how we as a people can ensure education for ourselves and our children speak for themselves, as Roland Martin observed “we will rue the day when we have to beg others to educate our children”…

  20. Dr. DuBois was prescient. I was privileged to attend the event with other members of our Bennett College Sigma Rho Sigma Honor Society and our history professor and sponsor, the late Dr. George Breathett, Hearing him as a young person was indeed significant. Hearing his message now is painfully eerie as we live out, yet fight to prevent his revelation.

  21. When will we, HEAR, and ACT consistent with what we hear, and see happening every day!? When??? What will it take?

    Benjamin Mays quotes from Jet Magazine…. mid to late 80″s

    Maybe we will go down as a race of people who never recovered from the ravages of slavery. There are more extinct civilizations and peoples than there are in existence.
    -Dr. Benjamin Mays

    We may be fast becoming a vanishing race. And it may be that at the end of the 22nd century a White writer will pick up a pen and write how we survived slavery, and how we helped America defeat the British, only to have vanished from the earth. The reason he will write is because Black people didn’t care.
    – Dr. Benjamin Mays on drugs and Black on Black crime

  22. WOW! Are we still at this day and time still becoming offensive when the truth hits us in the gut and wake us up? Look at the declining number of African American students at our HBCUs and the increase in top African American students going to PWIs. This is not because HBCUs can not produce, this is a direct correlation to the lack of resources, low endowments, low participation of African American Students in the STEM or STEAM fields, the low number of patents produced by HBCUs versus PWIs that generates economic wealth and growth at a high level, the lack of creating start-up companies around patented products, the lack of license revenue and the lack of technology transfer at our HBCUs.

    Do understand, that there are a lot of great things that are happening at our HBCUs that are not being publicized, but we still lag far behind PWIs. Do your research and we will not be so eager to combat the truth.

    On another note, look at the research dollars at PWIs versus HBCUs. There is no comparison. Note that when we begin our careers and take courses that are funded by our jobs, those courses are not from our HBCUs but PWIs. Note that for the most part, we work for the federal government or white companies, so quit becoming offensive and change this picture. Further, in regards to research, our government and large private industry companies partner with PWIs in applied and advanced research to solve the challenges in the real world and mostly basic research at our HBCUs. By the way, most of our HBCUs cannot participate largely due to the lack of resources and infrastructure.

    As alums of HBCUs we do not give back to our HBCUs in the same manner as those giving back to PWIs. Don’t believe it, just research it.

    Also, our HBCUs lag far behind PWIs in obtaining contracts from the federal government and private industry. This is where the big dollars are. HBCUs deal mostly in grants and not contracts. There are a few HBCUs that are starting get into that arena. Currently, I am involved with a group that is helping HBCUs to get onto that contract playing field and increasing STEM students. This is what we have to do, become advocates for change at our HBCUs and quit complaining. Also, we have to understand that we have an issue a lot of times with leadership at our HBCUs that are eager to change.

    As a reminder, we can not increase economic wealth at our HBCUs unless we change and come outside the box to expand the horizon for HBCU students.

    By the way, I am speaking as a proud graduate from an HBCU that I truly love. This is what gave me the foundation and platform for my success in my career. I truly love what HBCUs represent.

    Yet, there is so much more that I can say, but I will end at this time and just say lets fight to win our Sisters and Brothers from Black on Black Crime, Drugs and Incarceration, which impacts their and our children, which are the main reasons for the decline in African Students graduating from high school and going to college. Also, we must begin to involve our students that are not going to college to focus on the trades where you can become economically successful. Everybody is not college material, but we can still become successful in life.

    Lets be a force for change in enhancing economic growth at our HBCUs.

  23. I’m not sure I understand the Morehouse grad’s comment but rest assured, attending an HBCU is an awesome, life affirming experience that builds both friendships and professional networks that last a lifetime. It’s all love. If you have an opportunity, I encourage you to attend, teach, or become an administrator at an HBCU. It will deposit something wonderful in your life.

  24. I find it troubling that Mr. Williams of the Thurgood Marshall Fund could listen to this speech by Du Bois and miss his core point, which is that Black people may suffer collective annihilation if we a) forget our history, our culture and our values and b) cease to support the institutions that consistently deliver on these three non-negotiables.

    We must challenge our HBCUs to deliver on new innovative ways of teaching that history and culture and to develop social and hard scientific studies that advance Black life chances and values. We cannot surrender this mission to PWIs. It is also interesting that Mr. Williams did not emphasize Du Bois’ injunction that we need to teach socialism and to challenge White American abuse of power around the globe and at home. As he stated in the speech, from 1948 to 1958, he was robbed by the US Government of his ability to travel freely because he was falsely accused of being an agent of a foreign power. Mr. Williams nor anyone else should listen selectively to Du Bois and forget that Du Bois saw scholarship as an opportunity to make life better for everyday people. As we prize appointments and accolades from the Ivies, we have strayed far afield of Du Bois’ direction.

    Du Bois does raise the possibility of the obsolence of HBCUs if they cease to be supported by Black people. Therefore, the challenge he is really laying before the group of NC educators is directed to Black people not just to HBCUs to consolidate or perish. That is Williams, not Du Bois. Interestingly, Mr. Williams, nor too few of our leaders take the logical conclusion from Du Bois—that every Black family should contribute to the advancement of HBCUs. We need to set this as a race-wide goal. If we could secure consistent funding from the 42 million Africans in the U.S., the question of our schools’ collective survival is a moot point.

    Consolidation of our schools should be a fallback position after we have wrung our pockets and begun to donate, donate, donate to an HBCU fund that eclipses the UNCF’s current capacity.

    Although I attended PWIs for undergrad and grad school, I made the choice to serve at an HBCU and do not regret my choice for one moment. These schools our national treasures and legacy. We owe it to our ancestors and our future children to keep every single one of them open unless they choose to consolidate.

    @SamoryBa
    Samuel T. Livingston, Ph.D. | MOREHOUSE COLLEGE | Associate Professor, Director | African American Studies Program|830 Westview Drive, S.W. | Atlanta, GA 30314
    470.639.0601 (p) | samuel.livingston@morehouse.edu | http://www.morehouse.edu

  25. Thank you Dr. Livingston… “Du Bois does raise the possibility of the obsolence of HBCUs if they cease to be supported by Black people. Therefore, the challenge he is really laying before the group of NC educators is directed to Black people…. ”

    We must support our institutions; Every graduate can give something; many can give much more. For alumni support to average less than 10% at most HBCU’s is a tragedy of our making. One has to be concerned that consolidation with PWI’s will lend itself to a substantial reduction in the numbers of African American College graduates, as will the demise of HBCU’s generally. Dr. May’s prophesy MUST BE PROVEN WRONG… If it is to be, it is up to … US!

  26. Wishful thinking on our part, there will always be a need for our HBCU’s but their existence has already become suspect in numbers and quality. Too many of us do not support these Institutions financially and those that exist are supported primarily by the politics and the philanthropy of white folk. We should heed the warnings of this great giant of intelligential thought or suffer the consequences.

  27. It is very hard to predict the future. Most predictions miss the mark considerably. Such seems to be the case with Mr. DuBois. There is a very rigorous interest in black scholarship among black people today and it is now possible to majors in Black Studies at many universities, including, I assume, at HBCUs which I do not believe was true 60 years ago. There are more black scholars and teachers who are researching and publishing histories of black culture than 60 years ago. I think DuBois would be more inclined today to feel that the future of black folks as a results of more awareness of the connectedness of people of the Black Diaspora

    I, also, think we should carefully read what Mr. DuBois said. He stated that there may be a need to consolidate the HBCUs to insure their future survival. Rather than lament the dearth of support by HBCU alums, (which is true) the institutions should be exploring the possibilities to strengthening black institutions of higher learning through consolidation. It seems a better alternative than allowing more of them to go out of business.

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