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First Museum Committed to Sharing the Stories of Historically Black Colleges Opens

The HBCU Museum in Washington, D.C., launched March 9 and has plans to expand to a second location in Atlanta

Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee, was a historically black college founded in 1866. (Public Domain)
smithsonian.com

In the mid-19th century, when just a scattering of traditionally white colleges in the United States were willing to accept black applicants, the first historically black colleges— the Institute for Colored Youth founded in 1837 (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), the Ashmun Institute in 1854 (now Lincoln University), and Wilberforce University in 1856—emerged to give African Americans access to higher education.

Though the end of the Civil War in 1865 brought the freedom and momentum for African American education to expand throughout the country, namely in the South, black students were largely still blocked from traditional instutions. So they continued to have to create their own.

According to ​Samara Freemark of American RadioWorks, black ministers and white philanthropists opened schools in church basements and people’s homes to give formerly enslaved individuals eager to learn an education in the South and beyond.

Some of these school eventually blossomed into full-fledged colleges and universities, and more than 100 of them, collectively known as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, still exist today. And now, the first museum in the world dedicated to highlighting HBCUs has opened its doors, Anne Branigin reports for The Root.

Visitors at the museum, located in a 638-square-foot storefront on 7610A Georgia Ave NW, Washington, D.C., can see the history and impact of HBCUs on black culture in America through historic photos and memorabilia from the schools and some of their best-known graduates.

In an interview with the Washington Business Journal’s Rebecca Cooper, executive director Terrence Forte says he wants the museum to “bridge the gap for those who might not know about historically black college and universities’ stories.” Forte, who founded the museum with his family (both of Forte’s parents are graduates of Howard University), says the opening of the space, which serves as a welcoming center, is the first phase of a four-stage plan to open a larger for-profit museum in the D.C.

According to Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, more than 90 HBCUs were established between 1861 and 1900. (HBCUs are defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as a college or university established before 1964 with the mission of educating black Americans.)

Since then, black colleges have been responsible for some of the country’s most successful doctors, scientists and engineers. Though HBCUs represent just around 3 percent of colleges and universities in the U.S., according to 2016 statistics by the U.S. Department of Education, they're responsible for 27 percent of African-American students graduating with bachelor's degrees in STEM fields.

The museum, which opened its doors March 9, comes at a time when HBCUs are seeing increased demand, due in part to an increasingly polarized political climate.

"Enrollment at many HBCUs, which surged in 2016 and 2017, cannot be disentangled from students’ rising concerns about a world that seems to consistently devalue and dehumanize them," as National Geographic reported earlier this year.

In addition to providing a history lesson, the HBCU Museum's website details big plans going forward—they include funding a scholarship program, providing weekly tutoring sessions for local high school and college students, and organizing business seminars and conferences. A second museum, in Atlanta, is also in the works.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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