To this day, you can still hear dissatisfied (and rightfully so) Afro-Americans bemoaning “Where’s my 40 acres and a mule!?” Asked more symbolically than as a matter of fact, this phrase represents years of frustration and “deferred dreams” within the African American Community caused by failed promises and outright apathy at the hands of the American government. However, after the Civil War, freedmen and women for a brief moment in time did receive compensation, today we call that compensation Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but to freedmen, it was their day of awakening, they were finally receiving their 40 acres and a mule or what I am calling “40 ACRES AND A EDUCATION.”
The point of this blog is not to retell how the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association helped to establish twenty-five schools for “advanced” learning between 1866 and 1872. This is not a blog about men like Samuel Armstrong or Oliver Otis Howard and their dedication for black education. Rather, the point of this blog is to show what education and the opportunity to receive education meant to African Americans.
We designate these schools as “Historically” Black Colleges, but often forget why they are historical and more importantly how they made history for millions of people, and trained generations of prominent and successful African Americans, transforming them from victims of centuries of racial and physical oppression to agents of historical change and Men and Women of renown.
By tracing several examples of former slaves, poor farmers, young men and women, this blog will retell what these schools and the opportunity to receive ANY form of education meant for Afro-Americans. Some stories are best told in the words of those who lived it, below are several examples of individuals and their monumental journeys to secure education:
Charles P. Adams, of West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. Prior to entering Tuskegee, Adams had little knowledge of reading and writing, he wrote,
“I cannot begin to make anyone understand my delight when I first saw Tuskegee, the beauty of it; and then later, when I began to understand and appreciate the system which prevails here. Then it was that I came to realize the needs of my folks at home. I shall stay five years in all. The thing constantly before me now is to go back, and in some way help the people around my home, and at the same time build myself up. My uncle is glad now that I came. I had a letter only a little while ago from him, in which he urged me to make the most of my opportunities here, ‘because,’ he wrote, “when you come back a great deal will be expected of you!”
Booker T. Washington, Hampton Institute class of 1875.
“One day at work in the coal-mine, I happened to overhear two miners talking about a great school for coloured people somewhere in Virginia.” That school of course was Hampton Institute. “This was the first time that I had ever heard anything about any kind of school or college that was more pretentious than the little coloured school in our town.” I resolved at once to go to that school, although I had no idea where it was, or how many miles away, or how I was going to reach it; I remembered only that I was on fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton. This thought was with me day and night.”
Rather than recounting Washington’s amazing adventure to get to Hampton, what may be of more benefit here is to give an excerpt of what going to Hampton meant for him and his community.
“Perhaps the thing that touched and pleased me most in connection with my starting for Hampton was the interest that many of the older coloured people took in the matter. They had spent the best days of their lives in slavery, and hardly expected to live to see the time when they would see a member of their race leave home to attend a boarding-school. Some of these older people would give me a nickel, others a quarter, or a handkerchief.
“Finally the great day came, and I started for Hampton. I had only a small, cheap satchel that contained what few articles of clothing I could get. My mother at the time was rather weak and broken in health. I hardly expected to see her again, and thus our parting was all the more sad.”
A letter from Spelman founder Sophia B. Packard highlights what these schools meant especially for Black women. In a letter to Laura Spelman Rockefeller’s husband, John D. Rockefeller, she highlights the history being made by her institution:
“Our school numbers over 400 women and girls, the largest school for the colored and this only two and a ½ years old and the only one exclusively for girls in the south. These are just awaking from their life-long darkness and struggling with all their powers to get up into the light, counting no sacrifice too great if only they can be permitted to learn of Christ and his word. They do not like to lose one day even, so earnest were they to petition us to suspend our school exercises only on the 25th when it was expected we should have the same recess of ten days as the other institutions throughout the city.
She continued, “Can you not make a donation that will establish this as a permanent Institution and so in exercise a fostering care and heartfelt interest, that with God’s help it will bring salvation to this people. Give it a name, let it if you please be called Rockefeller College, or if you prefer let it take your good wife’s maiden name or any other which best suits you. Thank God he picked Spelman, it has a much better ring to it!
These are just a few examples of how black colleges became historical. I would need an entire book to give the thousands of examples of pilgrimages made by African Americans to reach these institutions all across the South and the Atlantic. Nonetheless, schools like Howard, Hampton, Wilberforce, Fisk, Florida A&M, Morehouse, Claflin, Lincoln and so many others meant so much more than 40 acres and a mule ever would. Take time to think what the HBCU experience has meant for you.