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.”