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America's Historically Black Colleges: A Narrative History, 1837-2009

reviewed by Marybeth Gasman - December 08, 2011

coverTitle: America's Historically Black Colleges: A Narrative History, 1837-2009
Author(s): Bobby L. Lovett
Publisher: Mercer University Press, Macon
ISBN: 0881462152, Pages: 350, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are a contentious topic. Although they have a long and proven history of educating African Americans and almost single-handedly creating the Black middle class, they are often labeled as vestiges of segregation and even racist by some who do not understand their history or mission. In America’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities: A Narrative History, Bobby Lovett traces the development and contributions of the HBCUs from their beginnings before the Civil War through the current day.

Based mainly on secondary sources, the book discusses the early development of HBCUs and the role that White and Black philanthropists played in that development. Lovett includes the perspectives of many of the key characters in this development, including the likes of educator Booker T. Washington, philanthropist James Dillard, philanthropist John F. Slater and many others. He does a particularly good job of depicting the diverse opinions among Black leaders during these early years, demonstrating how critics like W.E.B. Du Bois sometimes brought negative attention to HBCUs in his attempt to challenge these institutions to do better and how Black presidents such as John Hope pushed back against Du Bois and his actions.

Another aspect of the book that is particularly well done is the weaving together of the HBCU history with American history and the history of higher education. Lovett does an admirable job of helping the reader understand the influence of national issues such as the New Deal or the G. I. Bill on HBCUs. Unlike some histories of HBCUs, this one does not operate in a vacuum. When talking about HBCus, Lovett is careful to discuss and probe their relationships with local communities and their contributions to these communities.  He helps the reader understand the socio-economic conditions in which HBCUs operated and how these conditions shaped the student body as well as the lives of faculty and staff.

Another area of interest in the book that rarely gets attention in HBCU histories is that of HBCU faculty and their contributions to research. Lovett discusses the work of scholars such as Charles H. Thompson, Ralph Bunche, Charles S. Johnson, and Carter G. Woodson, among others. These individuals edited journals; focused research on the situation for Blacks in the United States; organized conferences related to education, economics, and politics; and spoke out in both Black and White communities on the intellectual potential of Blacks.

Like other works on HBCUs, Lovett chronicles the many court cases that have shaped the current state of HBCUs, including Geier and Fordice. He not only gives details on what lead to the cases and the context during court deliberations, but he helps the reader understand how these cases continue to influence the operation and sustainability of HBCUs today. Lovett’s characterization of the legal cases is fairly well done, but might have benefited from consulting Peter Wallenstein’s work on desegregation.

Perhaps the most beneficial part of Lovett’s book is its focus on providing an overall glimpse of the landscape of HBCUs. He takes the reader through the current day, highlighting accreditation woes, funding problems, and HBCUs interaction with the state and federal government. He also considers some of the challenges that these institutions face in the future, including leadership and financial support. Of note, and quite fresh in its approach, Lovett includes an epilogues focused on the “gifts” that HBCUs have given to the United States. Among these gifts, he includes the high production of Black military officers; the legal programs that have produced countless lawyers and judges; the medical schools that have served as the training grounds for doctors, nurses, and pharmacists; and the art, music, and theater that has been groomed at HBCUs.

There are a few areas of the book that could use improvement and that may do readers a disservice. For example, Lovett claims that one of the book’s main foci is that of White and Black philanthropy and its role in developing and sustaining HBCUs. As mentioned above, he does include sections related to this topic. However, this idea is underdeveloped as a major theme. Consulting James D. Anderson’s work The Education of Blacks in the South and even my own Envisioning Black Colleges more closely would have bolstered Lovett’s understanding of the complex role of money in the development of HBCUs. This is especially needed as Lovett moves forward in his discussion of the mid to late 20th Century. The United Negro College Fund, in particular, has played an enormous role in the development and sustainability of HBCUs and could have used more coverage in the book given how detailed Lovett is elsewhere.

Likewise, Lovett’s sections on HBCUs and the Civil Rights Movement could have been strengthened by consulting Joy Williamson-Lott’s work much more closely. In addition to her book Radicalizing the Ebony Tower, Joy has written several key articles that place students front and center in the Black freedom struggle. In all of her work, she keenly captures issues of academic freedom and institutional control as they related to faculty and students, respectively, during the struggle.

There is also a growing body of research that looks at HBCUs after Brown v. Board and before the start of the HBCU desegregation cases. This literature could have been tapped to give the reader a better sense of the struggles that HBCUs began to face after desegregation, including a lack of support by philanthropists, attacks by researchers, and skepticism by the general public and state governments. Although Lovett includes a chapter titled “The Complexities of Integration,” he does not consult this literature in full.

Lovett includes information on a variety of topics that are central to the development of HBCUs, basing most of his assertions on secondary sources. However, his book would have benefited from more original research, providing the readers with new information and perspectives on HBCUs. Overall, Lovett’s book provides an excellent overview of HBCUs for those unfamiliar with these institutions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 08, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16618, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:22:21 AM

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About the Author
  • Marybeth Gasman
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    MARYBETH GASMAN is professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an expert on historically Black colleges and universities and the author of Envisioning Black Colleges and Understanding Minority Serving Institutions.
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