Black College History Month: Black Colleges and Civil Rights, remembering the greensboro four

In honor of Black history month, every day for the month of February, we would like to highlight ways HBCUs have contributed to the larger American and even global societiey.  Without these institutions, the world would be a drastically different place.  It is unfortunate that so many of our contributions go overlooked and even intentionally dismissed by the dominant powers that be.

First and foremost, homage must be paid to the founder of Black history month, Carter Godwin Woodson.  The second African American to receive his PhD from Harvard, Woodson received his first faculty post at the great Howard University.  There, he served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, and founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (Shout out to ASALH, try to attend one of their conferences if you can, they are amazing) More importantly, Woodson mentored and challenged numerous black students at Howard and later at West Virginia Collegiate Institute (Now West Virginia State University).

The moral and intellectual training provided by scholars like Woodson at Black colleges directly led to the development of a new type of man (and woman) or what Alain Locke called, the New Negro.  An ever-increasing social and economic atmosphere of disenfranchisement, frustration of returning World War II soldiers created an extremely volatile environment in America, and pushed these “New Negroes” to find new methods of having their demands heard.

One of the first[1] and most important moments of the Civil Rights Movement occurred on this day, February 1 (1960).  Four students from North Carolina A & T University, in Greensboro, North Carolina sent shockwaves through America when they sat-in at a local segregated Woolworth in downtown Greensboro.  After being denied coffee, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., Joseph McNeil and David Richmond returned the next day with even more students to occupy the segregated lunch counters.  In spite of being viscously attacked, humiliated by having condiments thrown and smeared all over them, these students acted with dignity, courage and power.

(Most) Black colleges were breeding grounds for protests movements.[2]  No where in America (except the black church… maybe) were students from similar socio-economic backgrounds, who shared similar goals for their people, were easily assembled.  There were many organizations such as fraternities and sororities (Ice!) that were already established that could serve as nuclei of new protests organizations, or chapters of the SNCC.  Furthermore, students at black colleges naturally created a national network of communication.

Students at schools like A & T, and NCCU, Howard and others used these networks to their benefit.  That March, ten Black students from Wiley and Bishop Colleges occupied Woolworth lunch counters in Marshall, Texas.  Largely organized by, Rev. Harry Blake, a 1959 graduate of Bishop College, Blake had been influenced by SCLC President, and HBCU alum (Morehouse) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[3]

By the end of February, protests had begun in over 31 cities.  Thanks to the effort of black colleges (and many other contributors) by July, Woolworth’s had completely desegregated its lunch counters throughout the entire South.  So on this first day of Black history month, let not thier sacrifices and the humiliation that our ancestors had to endure be in vain.  Let us remember their achievements, the lessons they taught us and use them for good.


[1] Not considering the Long Civil Rights Movement.  Also, by first, I mean events to be nationally recognized.

[2] Administration at more conservative black schools often warned their students to avoid protest movements.  Schools like Spelman, Shaw and Hampton.  However,many students from these schools still participated.

[3] See Donald Sears article on Bishop-Wiley Protests movement

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