Some Choice

Betsy DeVos Whitewashes the History of Black Colleges

She wrongly described the institutions that were most African American students’ only choice as simply another choice.


Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

No sooner did President Trump sign an executive order Thursday expressing support for historically-Black colleges and universities than his public-school loathing, voucher-obsessed Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, released an incredibly clueless statement claiming that HBCUs—a necessity born out of systemic racism and failed governance—were a shining example of school choice.

“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” said DeVos. “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish."

To call the only choice for generations of African Americans hungry for education another choice is profoundly wrong, the latest example of Trump and his team displaying a level of ignorance that should make everyone question their capacity to accomplish their vaguely stated goals.

Here’s a brief history lesson on the final day of Black History Month for the secretary:

America’s oldest HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania—originally named the African Institute—was founded in 1837 by Richard Humphreys. Humphreys was a Quaker from the West Indies who was appalled at the lack of educational and job training that African Americans received. He grew frustrated with how blacks would constantly lose employment opportunities to white immigrants who could receive the required training. And in 1829 he included in his will the creation of an institution “to instruct descendants of the African race in school learning.”

In 1834, the Flying Horse race riots consumed Philadelphia. The riots were primarily motivated by white anger at high white unemployment that they blamed on African American competition for jobs. White Philadelphians terrorized African Americans and destroyed their property for days. These riots further divided the city and galvanized the state’s abolitionists and anti-abolitionists. And in 1838, a year after the founding of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania passed a new constitution that rescinded the vote from free blacks.

The other HBCUs in the North that sprung up prior to the Civil War followed a similar pattern, and were also dependent on benevolent gifts from white Americans. In the South, blacks were largely barred from receiving an education, and the first HBCUs appeared during Reconstruction and were largely supported by northern abolitionists who moved to the South with the explicit purpose of educating freed blacks.

Additionally, freed blacks in the South allocated large portions of their new income to the education of their families, which the state wouldn’t provide for. Apart from food, clothing and shelter, freed blacks in the South spent most of their remaining income on education or finding family members who had been sold away during slavery.

During Reconstruction, the federal government under the Freedman’s Bureau heavily invested in the education of African Americans and supported the efforts of abolitionists in the South. Washington, D.C.’s famed Howard University was founded in 1866 and named after Union general Oliver O. Howard who also ran the Freedman’s Bureau.

Hampton University was founded in the 1860s to educate freed blacks who escaped the South during the Civil War who were considered “contraband of war” by the Union Army. Morehouse college in Atlanta was founded during Reconstruction in 1867.

From the beginning, HBCUs have been a byproduct of African Americans having no legitimate educational opportunities, eventually coupled with an ambitious expansion of public education by the federal government. These institutions of higher learning could not be farther removed from DeVos’ voucher-dependent educational philosophy.

And not unlike the pre-Civil War era, the education and growing influence of African Americans in society alarmed white Americans who responded with terror and the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. By the end of the 19th century, Southern states had drafted new constitutions that effectively stripped blacks of voting rights, and instituted segregationist Jim Crow policies that stripped African Americans of educational opportunities.

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A few hours after her first statement, DeVos Tweeted an implicit apology for it, writing that “your history was born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War.”

But things just didn’t get right after Reconstruction and before we were all born. The racist regressions in America lasted through the civil rights era, and only recently have African Americans had viable higher learning opportunities beyond HBCUs. Both of my parents attended HBCUs in the 1960s, and while they have fond memories of their college years they also recall how few options there were for most African American students.

Perhaps DeVos should talk to them, or at least read up on our not so long ago history.