Howard. Hampton. Spelman. Morehouse. Historically black colleges and universities rose to prominence in the U.S. following the Civil War as a means to educate young black men and women who were denied entry to the segregated education system. But even today, decades after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed — outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin — many college-bound black scholars choose to attend HBCUs for the rich, singular educational and cultural opportunities they offer.
"It is a Wakanda to a certain degree," Chadwick Boseman, star of "Black Panther," recently told The AP, likening his alma mater Howard University to the fictional African nation in his film. "You're meeting people from all over the diaspora — from the Caribbean, any country in Africa, in Europe. So you're seeing people from all walks of life that look like you but they sound different."
Despite economic stresses, that dynamic legacy endures today, with 101 HBCUs graduating thousands upon thousands every year — alumni who, according to a 2015 Gallup report, are "thriving" at higher rates than their black contemporaries who attended predominantly white institutions. Here, a look at the legacy and proud traditions that make these vaunted institutions so special and beloved. (Pictured: Fans at a Howard football game in 1946.)
Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesStudy HallAt Howard, the 150-year-old Washington, D.C., university that counts former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and author Toni Morrison among its notable alumni, business major Eugene Brown finishes his homework in 1946. In addition to core academic tracks found at most other institutions, HBCUs provide students with an education conscious of African and African-American history and culture — topics that tend to get little coverage on most high school curriculums.
Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesGraduation DaySurrounded by her family, June Dobbs receives her diploma at Spelman College — a historically black women's college in Atlanta — in 1948. Dobbs would go on to become a pioneering sex therapist and educator. For many African Americans, HBCU attendance is a family affair, with generations continuing the legacy.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveSit-InHBCUs have played an important role in the fight for equality since their founding, helping give voice to America's progressive youth. Here, students from North Carolina A&T College participate in a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter reserved for white customers in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. That act sparked a movement, with thousands around the country staging their own sit-ins in protest.
Cecil Williams/Getty ImagesDown With SegregationStudents from Claflin University take part in an anti-segregation march in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1960. Several of the most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement called an HBCU "alma mater": Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), Kwame Ture (Howard), and future U.S. Rep. John Lewis (Fisk).
Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesBlack Lives MatterToday's collegiates continue to make their voices heard. Here, several Howard students march in a demonstration in Washington, D.C., following a grand jury's decision not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson after killing unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesModel StudentA woman poses for an art class portrait at Howard in 1946. HBCUs have been fertile ground for creative minds, including the likes of Langston Hughes (Lincoln), Zora Neale Hurston (Howard), Alice Walker (Spelman), Nikki Giovanni (Fisk), Spike Lee (Morehouse), Common (Florida A&M), and Erykah Badu (Grambling).
Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesSister SisterThe Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority holds a meeting at Howard University in 1946. The sorority was founded in 1908 at Howard and now boasts 105,000 chapters around the world. (Two other black sororities originally founded at Howard but popular across campuses nationwide include Delta Sigma Theta and Zeta Phi Beta.) For many students, Greek life is an integral part of the college experience, encouraging community, service, academic achievement, and future professional connections.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty ImagesRite of PassageAt Nashville’s Fisk University in 1969, pledges from the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, popularly known as “Ques,” parade down the street in Black Panther garb as part of their initiation ceremony.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty ImagesStepping OutPledges from Omega Psi Phi practice at Nashville's Fisk University in 1969. Stepping is often at the center of friendly but fierce competitions between historically black Greek organizations, with each fraternity or sorority bringing their signature moves.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty ImagesA PioneerCivil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, center, poses with a group of students after resigning as president from the college she founded, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1943. The school recently made headlines when divisive Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, already under fire for this statement about HBCUs, was invited to deliver the commencement address and a number of graduates booed and turned their backs.
Several rising stars in the political arena attended HBCUs, including Howard graduate Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California rumored to be eyeing a presidential bid in 2020, and Florida A&M graduate Keisha Lance Bottoms, the recently elected mayor of Atlanta. (And let’s not forget the presidential candidate of many a tweeter’s dreams: Oprah Winfrey studied communications at historically black Tennessee State University.)
Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated/Getty ImagesAnd the Band Played OnIn 1968, Grambling State University (with their marching band in tow) took on Morgan State University in a historic game at Yankee Stadium in New York (the the first historically black college football game played in the city). The marching band tradition runs deep at HBCUs, especially at schools like Florida A&M University (whose “Marching 100” has performed everywhere from the Super Bowl to the Grammys). Today the Honda Battle of the Bands — in which HBCUs march it out, not for a title but for sheer glory — packs the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesTicker TapeSchool pride takes centerstage (and main street) at a parade during a football game between Howard University and Shaw College in 1946. For nearly 100 years, HBCUs have competed in the black college football national championship. Howard has won the title seven times.
Robert Riger/Getty ImagesMVP"Bullet" Bob Hayes, the Olympic-sprinter-turned-Dallas-Cowboys-wide-receiver, back in his college days running track for Florida A&M in 1962. President Lyndon B. Johnson phoned Florida A&M football coach Jake Gaither personally to request Hayes represent the country at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Hayes would win two gold medals and tie the world record for 100 meters. Some of the most iconic, barrier-busting black women in athletics — like runner Wilma Rudolph and tennis player/golfer Althea Gibson — also got their start at HBCUs (Rudolph at Tennessee State, Gibson at FAMU).