Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Renisha McBride. Martese Johnson. And now Tyrone Harris.

All these names remind us how precarious black lives can be. Martin, Brown and Garner were killed in their own neighborhoods. And that’s not all. Even religious settings seem to offer little protection. As we know, nine black people were murdered while attending services at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Through the years, predominantly black spaces such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have sheltered black people. More than that, they provide an important space for the fight for civil rights, equality, and black liberation.

Despite this connection, many wonder what the role is of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) today. I have been researching HBCUs to understand how education and its pursuit by black Americans represent a constant affront to white supremacy.

Historically, educating the formerly enslaved and their descendants represented a truly radical act. And today, as black Americans choosing to attend these schools know (and confirmed by researchers), these campuses are psychologically and socially more liberating than the predominantly white ones.

This is but one reason we still need HBCUs. Their historic role in the pursuit of freedom is yet another.

Key role played by black schools

HBCUs have always been the vehicles for liberty and equality in the journey toward black liberation within America.

Black Americans have long understood the relationship between education and democracy. Following the Civil War, learning the rules of the American and southern political economy was necessary to take full advantage of one’s citizenship rights.

However, at the time, not only did most people believe the formerly enslaved had no desire for education, they also thought black Americans did not possess the mental capacity to pursue it.

The fervent efforts of the formerly enslaved to establish colleges in the post-bellum South ran counter to these beliefs, although the founding of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1854, even prior to the Civil War’s conclusion, proved beyond doubt that black Americans were keen to seek education.

The point is, HBCUs played a crucial role in transforming how America was to understand and envision what it meant to be black following the Civil War. And throughout the years, these schools have served as incubators for future generations of freedom fighters.

It was HBCUs, for example, where the carefully crafted educational strategies that birthed the mass protests and civil unrest of the 1950s and 1960s emerged, a fact that many people today may fail to appreciate adequately.

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