by Barry Barlow
This year marks the 160th anniversary of the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act which established land grant colleges and universities. These institutions were federally supported and demonstrated the government’s support of post-secondary education in America. When slavery ended and formerly enslaved men and women sought post-secondary education, they were often denied. In spite of passage of the 15th Amendment, the rules of Jim Crow, especially in the former Confederate states, superseded the Constitutional rights given to newly freed slaves. Jim Crow laws, sanctioned by lawmakers and others, included denying Black Americans admission to land grant and other educational institutions.
In 1890 the second Morrill Act was passed. This act specifically targeted Black Americans, granting them access to post-secondary education. In fact any that failed or refused to provide postsecondary education to Black Americans would lose their federal funding. Under the second Morrill Act 19 HBCUs were established. As with the land grant institutions established under the first Act, the HBCUs were to receive the same level as funding under a formula established under the Hatch Act which also required the state to match the federal government’s portion. However, since the beginning of their existence, states have refused and continue to fail to meet their funding obligation under the Act which has resulted in decades of HBCUs being underfunded and neglected by the body responsible for providing them funding. The actions of the states beg this question: If we know that state legislatures are intentionally withholding their required funding match to HBCUs, why are we still (160 years later) leaving that decision to them?
There are enough examples of willful under funding by state legislatures toward HBCUs in such states as Maryland, Florida, North Carolina and recently Tennessee to make the case that the funding of land grant HBCUs need to be better managed and enforced by the federal government. Take for example, a recent state report placing the decades long failure to properly fund Tennessee State University for between $150-540 million. Nothing can explain this oversight other than the willful failure by those who have the responsibility to provide funding to HBCUs but who fail or refuse to because they know there will not be a consequence for their willful neglect. They know that the presidents of these HBCUs often lack the backing to demand better accountability for fear of losing their job or suffering other reprisals that may further damage the institution. But we can be their voice. Just as the government took action in passing the second Morrill Act because states could not be trusted with opening land grant school access to newly freed enslaved people, we need to demand those running for office at the state and federal level commit to passing legislation that will provide greater assurance that HBCUs will receive funding in parity with PWI. It shouldn’t be left up to those who oppose their existence.
(Barry Barlow is the president of Zeta Alpha Alumni Association, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.)