A Short History of African American Education in the United States

February is African American History month, and no matter what color our skin happens to be, this celebration is an integral part of our story as a nation. In order to look to the future of education, we need to acknowledge the past and how it has created our current system. We should never forget that for institutionalized racism denied those of African descent a shot at a better life through education.

So let’s explore the history of education for African Americans as we continue to dismantle systematized prejudice that prevents bright, hardworking, ambitious and talented young people from achieving greatness.



John Miller Dickey and his wife, Sarah Emlen Cresson founded the Ashmun Institute, the first school of higher education for young black men, later renamed Lincoln University after President Abraham Lincoln.



Wilberforce University, the first black school of higher learning owned and operated by African Americans, was established by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. President Daniel A. Payne became the first African American University president in the country.



Howard University’s law school in Washington DC was the country’s first black law school. It now offers Business, Medicine, Architecture, Engineering and Computer Sciences.



The first college for black women in the U.S. was Spelman College, founded by Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles. To this day known for its quality liberal arts education, among Spelman’s alumni are Alice Walker who authored The Color Purple and actress, Esther Rolle.



Booker T. Washington was born a slave and went on to become one of the most prolific and powerful educators in the country. He founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. In 1896, George Washington Carver began teaching there as director of the department of agricultural research, gaining international fame for his agricultural contributions.



William Leo Hansberry offers the first curriculum in African civilization in the US at Howard University.



Frederick Douglass Patterson creates the United Negro College Fund to help support black colleges and black students.



Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., was the first acknowledgement by the Supreme Court that segregation, or “separate but equal” in public schools is unconstitutional.



The Little Rock Nine were the first black students to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends federal troops to ensure the students’ safety.



James Meredith is the first black college student to enroll at the University of Mississippi or “Ol’ Miss.” There was so much resistance from white students that in order to enter his classes, he had to be escorted by US marshals.



Despite Governor George Wallace physically impeding their entrance on the first day of school, Vivian Malone and James Hood registered for classes at the University of Alabama.



San Francisco State University becomes the first four-year college to offer a black studies department.



In Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court (5-4) upholds the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action policy, ruling that race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when selecting their students because it supports “a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”



Despite ongoing and organized effort, African Americans represent a fraction of college teachers. A survey of the nation’s highest-ranked research universities, the most selective liberal arts colleges, and the 50 flagship state universities showed Mount Holyoke College had the highest percentage of black faculty of any of the 100 colleges and universities at 9.7%. According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, the 2007 national average was 5.4%.



Enrollment among 18- to 24-year-old African Americans in higher education increases to 32.6% from 21.2% in 1988.



President Obama signs an executive order creating the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. “Significantly improving the educational outcomes of African Americans will provide substantial benefits for our country by, among other things, increasing college completion rates, productivity, employment rates, and the number of African American teachers.”


The constitution promises that every one of us has the right to a decent education and yet the struggle for it is very much alive today for African Americans. When we vote, when we volunteer, when we sign petitions and share information on social media, we help realize the dream that all children will be lifted up through learning.



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About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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