A Brief History: Black Americans in Higher Education

Historical photo of Black American children in school
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Black History includes success stories of numerous Blacks who have contributed to the progress made in higher education. Several Black academicians can be noted as a respected authority in their discipline advancing the field through research and scholarship. Throughout history, Black Americans have endured a long, tedious journey in achieving educational opportunities. During the period of slavery, Blacks suffered tremendous hardships in their pursuit of education in their efforts to learn to read, write and become articulate. Moreover, during the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, few Blacks were able to become literate. Regarding achievement in higher education, baccalaureate degrees were obtained by 29 Black Americans from 1619 to 1850. W.E.B. Dubois profoundly stated that the Black race despite the insurmountable odds produced by slavery has achieved the impossible – literacy in 70 years.1

Most historical Black colleges and universities started in the 1860s and served first as elementary then secondary schools providing the newly freed slaves with a normal education. From 1865 to early 1900, baccalaureate degrees were awarded to 1,195 Black Americans with only 195 earned from abolitionist schools and the remaining 1,000 received from newly found historical Black colleges and universities. In 1854, the American Missionary Association founded the first historical Black college and university which is currently called Lincoln University. Contrary to this claim, Cheyney State University, an outgrowth of the Aspen Institute which began as a high school in Philadelphia, was established in 1852.1

Other early Black colleges and universities included Wilberforce University established by the African-Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio in 1857, Fisk University founded in 1866 by the American Missionary Association after Sherman’s March through the South in 1864, and Florida A&M University which was founded in 1887 as a land grant institution established by the second Morrill Act of 1890. Fort Valley State University, Alabama A&M University, Tennessee State University and Virginia State University were other examples of land grant institutions established by the Morrill Act of 1890. During early America, land grant universities were established to provide education for disadvantaged, underprivileged or marginalized populations, including Black Americans.1

W.E.B. Du Bois and other famous Black scholars

Perhaps one of the most notable scholars in Black History is W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), a Black sociologist who founded the second department of sociology in the United States at Atlanta University. His most significant contributions to the field of sociology include the establishment of a scientific laboratory, professional conferences, and academic journals for research. Among his most commendable achievements is his notable work, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1967/1899) which culminates his research on the persistence and viability of the Black community in Philadelphia in coping with poverty, crime, unemployment, and other social conditions.2

In his research, Du Bois underscored that Black Americans experience a dual heritage involving a conflict of identity which characterizes what he called a “double-consciousness.” This double-conscious involves the plight of Black Americans as they struggle with living in a society that supports prosocial values such as democracy, equality, and freedom while at the same time not questioning an ideology that condones prejudice, discrimination, racism, racial oppression, and injustice. Black Americans suffer from this “double-consciousness” and experience the prevailing consequences that arise in society. The work of Du Bois continues to contribute to scholarly research in social justice, race and ethnic relations and class systems.

In addition to W.E.B. Du Bois, other notable Black scholars include:

  • Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918) finished his dissertation in physics in 1876 at Yale becoming the first Black American to earn a Ph.D. at an American university.
  • Carter Godwin Woodson (1875-1950) founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History as an American historian and became one of the first scholars to study the African Diaspora.
  • Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University as literary critic, professor, historian, and filmmaker.
  • Cornel Ronald West conducts scholarly work as a philosopher, political activist and social critic on how race, gender and class impact American society and how individuals engage in their response to “radical conditionedness.”
  • Patricia Hill Collins specializes in “intersection theory” as a distinguished university professor of sociology emerita at the University of Maryland, College Park focusing on how combined lived experiences based on racial, gender and class identity contribute to the social oppression of disadvantaged, marginalized groups.
  • Derrick Albert Bell Jr. (1930-2011) worked for the U.S. Justice Department and NAACP Legal Defense Fund as a lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist, supervising over 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi.
  • John Henrik Clarke (1915-1998) created Pan-African and Africana studies and professional institutions in academia as a historian and professor.
  • Mary Frances Berry focuses on U.S. constitutional and legal, African-American history as a historian, writer, lawyer and professor.
  • Carol Lani Guinier (1950-2022) appointed as the first woman of color to a tenured professorship as the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and served as educator, legal scholar and civil rights theorist.

By far, there are several more prominent Black scholars. These were just a few. Below I have also included some of my own scholarly research and publications in my discipline and field of study:

Racial disparities in higher education

College enrollment

According to the most recent data, Blacks only make up 13.5% of the total college enrollment compared to whites who make up 55.9 percent of the enrollment in both two-year and four-year public and private institutions.3 Earlier SAT score data has reflected that Black youth are less likely to enroll in college. The rate of college enrollment for Blacks in 1976 was 9.4% but declined to 8.6% in 1986. Therefore, the racial gap in college enrollment between Blacks and whites widened between 1977 and 1986.4

Considering the intersection of sex and race in analyzing disparities in college enrollment, “white men experienced a loss of enrollment (-0.9%) while Black men experienced the only enrollment decline among minorities (-7.2%) between 1976 and 1986. Black female high school graduates aged 18 to 24 entered college at a relatively stable rate (32% to 29.3%) while the percentage of Black males entering college declined approximately 10% (from 35.4% to 27.8%).” Still, both Black males and females declined in college enrollment despite increases in high school graduation rates. 5

Graduate enrollment has declined for both whites and Blacks, with Blacks experiencing a sharper decline. For example, according to Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, between 1976 and 1985, graduate enrollment for Black students declined by 19% compared to white students who experienced a decline of 5.4% between 1976 and 1984.5

College completion

Based on the most recent data, although educational attainment has increased for all groups, racial and ethnic disparities continue to persist. Disparities become even more evident when race intersects with sex. When analyzing the educational attainment of all persons 25 and older earning bachelor’s degrees or higher in 1970, 14.4% were white males while 4.2 % were Black males. Corresponding disparities among white females and Black females also existed, with 8.4% were white females earning bachelor’s degrees or higher compared to only 4.6 % who were Black females.6

By the year 2019, educational attainment for all both whites and Blacks increased but disparities remained. Of all persons 25 and older earning bachelor’s degrees or higher, 40.8% were white males while only 28.4% were Black males. Similarly, 49.2% were white females while only 29.5% were Black females.7

Moreover, of the 54,664 doctoral degrees conferred in 2017, 69.5% of the recipients were white while only 6.7% of the recipients were Black.8

Based on earlier data, Black males experience higher attrition rates and lower retention rates in higher education. I vividly remember as I matriculated through college from completion of my bachelor’s degree to my doctoral degree, I witnessed the number of Black males enrolled in college steadily decrease as I advanced higher in my education.

In 1984, 23,018 bachelor’s degrees were earned by Black males compared to 24,634 earned in 1976. Conversely, Black females earned 33,488 bachelor’s degrees in 1976 compared to 34,455 earned in 1984.9 Between 1976 and 1981, the number of master’s degrees awarded to Blacks decreased by a rate of 16%, a decline four times greater than for whites. Moreover, the percentage of doctorates earned by Black males declined by 54%, from 684 to 317 between 1977 and 1987, marking a sharper decline in comparison to white men. Similarly, the number of white women earning doctorate degrees increased at a rate of 36% compared to Black women who earned doctorate degrees at an increased rate of 4%.10

Black faculty and administrators in higher education

Employment rates for Black faculty on college and university campuses continued increasing until 1976, coming to a plateau and eventually a steady decline. The representation of Black faculty in their respective faculty ranks slightly changed from 1975 to 1985. Among all racial groups, Blacks had the smallest increase of 2.7% in full-time faculty positions compared to a 7.3% increase for whites. Although Blacks experienced a small increase, there was a slight drop in their relative share of faculty positions.4 Black females have experienced a greater increase in faculty positions than Black males. Between 1976 and 1986, Black females experienced an increase of 4.3%, from 8,852 to 9,230, compared to Black males who experienced an increase of 1.5%, from 10,894 to 11,053.4

Moreover, there is an overrepresentation of Blacks in the lower faculty ranks compared to whites. For example, Blacks held only 2.2% of all full-time professorships nationwide compared to holding 3.8% and 5.3% of associate and assistant professorships respectively, and 5.6% of instructor positions.4 Of full professorships held, 0.6% were held by Black women, 1.6% were held by Black men, 9.9% were held by white women and 83.2% were held by white men. I can personally identify with this trend, seeing that I am the only full professor in my department, and I am Black.

Blacks “have experienced greater gains in securing administrative positions than faculty” appointments. In 1985, “Blacks comprised 7.6%” of administrative positions at colleges and universities. Black women have made more advancements in administrative positions than Black men. Although Black men have experienced a 14% increase in holding administrative positions, their participation rate has decreased “from 4.7% in 1975 to 4.2% in 1985.”4

In accordance with earlier data, research continues to underscore that substantial inequities for Black faculty and administrators remain. Using descriptive data from secondary analysis, Perna investigated the status of Black faculty and administrators based on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The sample was comprised of Black faculty and administrators at public higher education institutions in the South. The researchers defined status as characteristic of “employment in accordance with Blacks holding baccalaureate degrees.”11

Research findings indicated that disparities remain for full-time Black faculty and administrators in higher education. Disparities for Black faculty are more pronounced than for Black administrators. Moreover, disparities were greater among Black faculty ranked as full professors than Black faculty who held the rank of instructor. Similarly, disparities were greater for Black faculty who had achieved tenure than for non-tenured Black faculty. While the nation’s institutions of higher education have made some progress in increasing the representation of Blacks among undergraduate and graduate students, virtually no progress has been made in increasing the representation of Black faculty.11

Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action refers to a federally sponsored program implemented to guarantee equal opportunity and support diversity in the workplace and institutions of higher education. Affirmative Action represents programmatic efforts designed to correct past discrimination and alleviate current discrimination against disadvantaged or marginalized groups. Beginning in the 1960s, educational institutions were mandated by federal affirmative action programs to make “good faith efforts” to ensure that qualified minorities were provided with equal opportunity through including them in recruitment and training programs.12

In institutions of higher education, Affirmative Action programs seek to reduce discrimination against disadvantaged or marginalized groups by increasing equal opportunity. Through such efforts, groups such as Blacks who were traditionally excluded and underrepresented in higher education, can now have increased access. Advocates for Affirmative Action have viewed the exclusion and underrepresentation of minorities in higher education as a problem. For example, Black students represented only 5% of undergraduates, 1% of law students and 5% of medical students.13 Over the past ten years, Black students have gained more access to opportunities in higher education through Affirmative Action programs; however, racial, and ethnic disparities in college admission still exist.14

Due to numerous court battles, states began to pass legislation that banned the use of affirmative action in public colleges and universities. Long and Bateman (2020) conducted a comprehensive study of the long-term effects of this legislation and found a statistically significant decrease in Black student enrollment due to bans on affirmative action programs at 19 public universities. Additionally, a disparity of 14 percentage points existed between Blacks and Hispanics in college enrollment for states that banned affirmative action programs. The research concluded that such a decline in college enrollment for Blacks contributes to chronic income inequality, resulting in an increase in economic disparities over the past 25 years.15 Although economic disparities between Blacks and whites have decreased recently, experts predict that it will take Black youth at least 50 years to catch up with white youth.14


Dr. Jewrell Rivers


Written by Dr. Jewrell Rivers, Professor of Sociology, Marriage and Family and Criminal Justice at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College




1 A Short History of Blacks in Higher Education, Humphries, 1994-1995

2 The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, W. E. B. DuBOIS

3 Gender, Race, & Ethnicity, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2019

4 American Council of Education (ACE) Report, 1987 and 1988.

5 Setting Our Own Agenda: Exploring the Meaning of Gender Disparities Among Blacks in Higher Education, Valora Washington and Joanna Newman, 1991

6 Statistical Abstract of the United States, U.S. Census Bureau

7 Digest of Education Statistics, NCES, 2020.

8 Characteristics of Recipients of Research Doctorates, FY 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education

9 More Young Black Men Choosing Not to Go to College, Collison, Michele N-K, 1987

10 Decline in doctorates earned by black and white men persists. Study finds; Foreign students and U.S. women fill gaps, Magner, Denise, 1989

11 The Status of Equity for Black Faculty and Administrators in Public Higher Education in the South, Research in Higher Education, Vol. 48, Perna, Laura; Gerald, Danette; Baum, Evan; Milem, Jeffrey

12 History of Executive Order 11246, U.S. Department of Labor, 2002

13 National Conference of State Legislators, 2013

14 Understanding Social Problems | 11th Edition, Mooney, Linda A., Ph.D.; Clever, Molly, Ph.D.; Van Willigen, Marieke, Ph.D., 2022

15  Long-Run Changes in Underrepresentation After Affirmative Action Bans in Public Universities, LongMark C. and BatemanNicole A., 2020



As a Professor of Sociology, Marriage and Family and Criminal Justice, Dr. Rivers has used a flipped classroom approach to enhance student-instructor relationships. To learn more, watch his recorded webinar session “The Power of the Learning-Teaching Relationship” from our 2023 Empowered Educator Online Conference.