The Role of the Church in Historically Black Colleges Essay

“All the world is a school, and in it one lesson is just now being taught, and that is the utter insecurity of life and property in the presence of an aggrieved class. This lesson can be learned by the ignorant as well as by the wise. Education, the sheet anchor of safety to a society where liberty and justice are secure, is a dangerous thing to a society in the presence of injustice and oppression. ” – Frederick Douglas As Frederick Douglas recognized, education was (and still is) the most important means for societal advancement; not only for blacks, but all races.

African Americans have fought the battle for knowledge, all along understanding that knowledge is power. One of the most influential movements for the education and progression of blacks has been the establishment and consequent success of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These institutions have been defined over hundreds of years by a broad four-stage development process; development of not only HBCUs specifically, but of African American education in the United States as a whole. The four-stage process involves Encouragement, Segregation, Desegregation, and Enhancement.

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These stages of African American education in the United States, taken independently, each represent a portion of the powerful connection between the black church, its social justice mission, and the proliferation of HBCUs; taken collectively, they signify change. For many, black churches serve “as the educational backbone and spiritual aspirations of the black community” (Watkins). Born out of the era of Reconstruction, the need for education among blacks was greater at that particular time than at any other point in the nation’s history.

Not only was an entire nation rebuilding from the demise and destruction of the self-inflicted Civil War, but the role played by blacks during the war represented the most significant contribution they, as a people, had played to date in the development of the United States of America. Blacks witnessed the effects of their efforts. They began to comprehend the power of their influence, realizing that by harnessing its strength and refining its tactics, the opportunity for education would be sure to follow.

More importantly, the black leaders (like the aforementioned Frederick Douglas) understood that education would be one of the foundational pillars for the continued advancement of blacks. Not surprisingly, these black leaders came directly from the church. The success of the abolitionist movement would not have persevered without the influence of the African American people, both physically and intellectually. Education was seen as a next-generation movement. It would allow thousands blacks to live a life few had been privileged to experience.

Education was seen by blacks as a basic right; blacks felt they had earned this right after fighting in the brutally destructive war, on behalf of whites nonetheless. Even though proclaimed as free, the place in society for many blacks remained unaffected due to the perpetuation of the view that blacks were ignorant and incapable of being educated citizens (Mosley). The struggle for equality of education would thus be closely tied with the struggle for civil rights—struggles that would last until the latter half of the twentieth century.

The time of Reconstruction was a critical point in the theology of the black church. The invisible institution that for so long breathed life into thousands of suffering slaves and kept the flame of hope alive was now merging with institutional African churches. The initial years of Reconstruction resuscitated African American religion within the church. For many blacks, the reality of living freely brought about social, spiritual, and political issues. The spiritual (i. e. the invisible institution) merged with the social, and the social merged with the political.

This made African American religion, and black churches in particular, a very unique creature during these times. Along with the vital educational support, churches also served several other roles—acting as an agency for social control, providing economic cooperation, and influencing politics. It was because of the centrality of faith in the lives of blacks that made the church the centerpiece of life. Church leaders served as liaisons between the people and the cry for education. It is no surprise that the reverends and ministers were often the most educated.

It was from the church where the call for education rang out, and these educated leaders recognized the need for the call to be answered. During this time, two of the earliest proponents of African American education shared a broad goal for the advancement of blacks, but their respective visions of how to achieve this advancement could not have been more opposite. Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois held extremely distinct and different viewpoints as to how to go about enhancing the black economy and gaining black equality through education. And though neither was best known for his eligiosity, it is not surprising to find connections between these two men and the church, whether good or bad. They came about at a time when the spiritual (i. e. the church) arena, the economic arena, and the political arena were becoming interconnected in the effort to further blacks’ place and role in society. Washington urged industrial education; he believed trade skills were key to economic security. He absorbed an educational philosophy that emphasized the practical training of African Americans in traditional industrial and agricultural occupations (Bracey).

He preached theories of accommodation, gradualism, and maintaining a “separate but equal” way of life; he saw emancipation in blacks’ future brought about by a self-sufficient lifestyle. His views on education were representative of the fact that he was not a naturally-brilliant intellectual (as opposed to DuBois), but a man of action. Washington’s ideas were seen as a more appropriate and effective proposition as opposed to those of DuBois, given the times. Washington would later become the first black person to serve as the president of a university.

Du Bois believed that academic education was more important that trade education. He thought Washington’s emphasis on industrial education kept African Americans trapped in lower socioeconomic classes. Instead, DuBois confronted the powerful Eurocentric traditions of education, culture, language, sociology, and politics head-on. Not well received because of the brashness of his “revolutionary” ideas (especially in the South), he sought to help alleviate the “double identity” crisis that plagued so many blacks and to promote that his theory of the “talented tenth” be responsible for uplifting the uneducated masses.

He understood the significance of education, as evidenced by the following words he penned: “Of all the civil rights that the world has struggled and fought for, for five thousand years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental” (Auguste). He was an educational innovator, answering and defining the issues of black-liberal education in a segregated world (Bracey). Despite obvious differences, DuBois and Washington both had a sizable impact on higher education for blacks; each needed the other to achieve his agenda.

Washington would go on to found Tuskegee Institute, which provided training for the skills necessary for industrial and commercial labor; DuBois was instrumental in the formation of the Niagara Movement, which later became the NAACP. These two men (alongside many others) paved the way for a new generation of activists by calling for change in education. This new generation would fulfill not only the call for change in the academic realm, but also in the call for justice and civil rights of all black communities (Mosley).

Out of Reconstruction, an educational system for blacks was created out of necessity. Nowhere were other institutions willing to educate blacks, regardless of legal freedom. The creation of this educational support structure was driven by two factors: fear and survival—fear of having to continue leading an uneducated life; and survival, for blacks would never be productive members of society if the educated whites always held an intellectual advantage.

These feelings are summarized in the following quote: “The sum of knowledge amassed by mankind touches all men. This is what we had better learn if we are to survive. How can one effectively compete against a member of the majority if he has no acquaintance with the ideas and mores which cause that member to operate the way he does? It goes without saying that we must learn all we can about the triumphs and disasters of our own people” (Wormley-Thomas). Creation of this educational structure was not met without challenges, however.

Whether social, financial, political, or religious, the various roadblocks were difficult to overcome, for “struggles within the dominant power structure and among black institutions have been almost entirely over matters of funding, money, and politics—the making of public policies toward higher education” (Bracey). Formal education for blacks began with the establishment of “free schools”—schools serving all free people, regardless of race. Out of this format came “Sunday school”. It was not the form of Sunday school that is traditionally thought of today, where much time is devoted to worship services and Bible study.

Rather, it was truly school—time set aside for extended academic lessons, often basic reading and writing. Little worship intervened during this time for learning; but religion was ever-present, for the church was the location where the teaching physically took place. The church’s investment in black education paid dividends not only for the students, but for America. During the long days of Jim Crow segregation, HBCUs educated the lawyers, doctors, teachers and ministers that built black communities throughout the country, particularly across the South.

They were responsible for educating the pioneering activists who built the Civil Rights Movement which broke Jim Crow’s back. It was during the Civil Rights Movement the enrollment at historically black colleges and universities exploded (Smith). Students not only were now given an opportunity for more accessible (and equal) education, but they saw the profound impact that black leaders—HBCU educated—had on the social and political landscape of the country. Perhaps for the first time, black students were able to see the tangible results and witness the material influence of legitimate African American education.

For many educated blacks, “college shattered forever their acceptance of the white man’s characterization of the black as an inferior being” (Watkins). HBCUs have made significant changes in communities, helping to alleviate any apprehension that black students may have toward other schools. HBCUs work to solidify their relevance, allowing black students to more thoroughly understand and appreciate their culture and history. As the United States of America entered into the latter half of the twentieth century, numerous groundbreaking legal proceedings furthered the cause of African American education.

With many all-black colleges and universities already established, it was time to for African Americans to not only see legitimate, visible advancement in the struggle for equality, but time for the citizens of the United States to evolve. The country needed to become a place of social change—a place where race was no longer the sole determinant of one’s future. This change was brought about by numerous legal proceedings. Examples include, briefly: Brown vs. Board of Education, the Higher Education Act of 1965, the G. I. Bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Regents of the University of Cal v. Bakke, , and of course affirmative action. Over the decades, these church-founded colleges and universities have developed a finely tuned balance between their religious roots and their secular missions (Lomax). As institutions of higher education accredited by secular agencies, and as educators of students who will need to compete for jobs, they offer courses that prepare their students for employment. But because of the deeply rooted religious qualities, their education provides another element: an education emphasizing moral character and community service.

The high level of community activism by black churches, especially in the South, has been instrumental in the continued success of these established educational institutions. The dedication to quality education has become a hallmark of HBCUs. For example, private historically black colleges and universities rank highly amongst their peers, as evidenced by Morehouse College’s recent No. 1 ranking among the nation’s 252 liberal arts colleges (Lomax). Historically black colleges and universities have also been exemplars of how institutions with different religious affiliations can work together in harmoniously toward a common goal.

Many schools are indeed affiliated with denominations widely associated with the African American community—Baptist, AME, United Methodist, and the United Church of Christ to name a few. But Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, the nation’s leading educator of future black physicians and pharmacists, is a Catholic institution. And Oakwood University in Alabama is closely affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This goes to show the breadth and depth of how the enhancement of African American education is continuing to flourish.

The influence that these “non-traditional” African American religions have had on the more traditional institutions has only strengthened them (Lomax). HBCUs have long practiced this transformative education through a commitment to shaping both the minds and characters of their students (Coleman). Examples of HBCUs include: Morehouse College, Fisk University, Howard University, Spelman College, Hampton University, and Tuskegee University. These top schools were founded on the ideals of educating young African Americans to become outstanding leaders and intellectual thinkers.

Many HBCUs have produced activists who helped break down barriers of segregation and transform our nation; others have become present-day leading politicians, doctors, lawyers, ministers, etc. Notable alumni include: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), U. S. Rep. John Lewis (and Rev. Dr. Val Lassiter) (Fisk University), Marian Wright Edelman (Spelman), Septima Poinsette Clark (Hampton), and Lionel Richie (Tuskegee University). Each of the aforementioned alumni was profoundly impacted by religion.

The role of religion was instrumental in shaping the ideas and values that allowed each person to excel and bring about change in their own respective manner. Today, historically black colleges and universities continue to produce upstanding citizens, capable leaders, and some of the nation’s top intellectual minds. African American education is now on a level playing field, with equal legal treatment and improving financial backing. Continued support by many successful alumni instills hope for an even brighter future of higher education for African Americans.

As of the beginning of the 2010 academic year, seven historically black colleges Forbes’ prestigious “America’s Best Colleges 2010” list. In total, 105 colleges have been established, with an estimated total enrollment just over 370,000 students (thinkhbcu. org). In a nation in which religions are too often pitted against civil society—and against each other—America’s HBCUs provide an example of how communities of faith work harmoniously with society, and how differing religions work with each other for mutual benefit.

For if a black college or university can rise up and overcome the many challenges set before it, little else should stand in its way toward continuing to shape the minds and spirits of young blacks. HBCUs play a crucial role in preserving black heritage by instilling pride in the black youth and training black leadership. These institutions will continue to be: a) a place of community engagement, responsible for individual empowerment b) a place of social scholarship, representing an academy of substance and c) most importantly, a theological place of spiritual capital (Austin, Sr. .

Works Cited

Auguste, Margaret. “African-American Education in the 19th Century. ” Suite 101- Insightful Writers (2010). Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www. suite101. com/content/africanamerican-education-in-the-19th-century-a193753>. Austin, Sr. , Rev. Gerald. “The Role Of The Church In Community and Economic Revitalization. ” Weblog post. Urbanham. Birmingham Community of Urban Lifestyles, 31 Oct. 2008. Web. 24 Nov. 2010. <http://urbanham. com/site/index. php/2008/10/the-role-of-the-church-in-community-and-economic-revitalization/>. Bracey, Earnest N. Prophetic Insight- The Higher Education and Pedagogy of African Americans. Lanham: University of America, 1999. Print. Coleman, Monica A. “Transforming to Teach: Teaching Religion to Today’s Black College Student. ” Teaching Theology and Religion 10. 2 (2007): 95-100. Wiley Online Library. 27 Mar. 2007. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://onlinelibrary. wiley. com/doi/10. 1111/j. 1467-9647. 2007. 00322. x/full>. “HBCU Facts. ” ThinkHBCU. org. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www. thinkhbcu. org/hbcu_facts. htm>. Lomax, Michael. “Churches Played Vital Role in Historically Black Colleges’ Success. ” Editorial. CNN