Most HBCUs were established in the Southern United States after the American Civil War, often with the assistance of northern United States religious missionary organizations. However, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (1837) and Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) (1854), were established for blacks before the American Civil War. In 1856 the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Ohio collaborated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly white denomination, in sponsoring Wilberforce University, the third college in Ohio. Established in 1865, Shaw University was the first HBCU in the South to be established after the American Civil War.
In 1862, the federal government's Morrill Act provided for land grant colleges in each state. Some educational institutions in the North or West were open to blacks before the Civil War. But 17 states, mostly in the South, had segregated systems and generally excluded black students from their land grant colleges. In response, Congress passed the second Morrill Act of 1890, also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, requiring states to establish a separate land grant college for blacks if blacks were being excluded from the existing land grant college. Many of the HBCUs were founded by states to satisfy the Second Morrill Act. These land grant schools continue to receive annual federal funding for their research, extension and outreach activities.
In the 1920s and 1930s the historically black colleges developed a strong interest in athletics. Sports were expanding rapidly at state universities, but very few black stars were recruited there. Race newspapers hailed athletic success as a demonstration of racial progress. Black schools hired coaches, recruited and featured stellar athletes, and set up their own leagues.
Florida's black junior colleges
After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the legislature of Florida, with support from various counties, started a series of eleven junior colleges serving the African-American population. The purpose was to show that separate but equal education was working in Florida. Prior to this, there had been only one junior college in Florida serving African Americans, Booker T. Washington Junior College, in Pensacola. The new ones, with their year of founding, are:
The new junior colleges began as extensions of black high schools, using the same facilities and often the same faculty. Some, over the next few years, did build their own buildings. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandating an end to school segregation, the colleges were all abruptly closed. Only a fraction of the students and faculty were able to transfer to the previously all-white junior colleges, where they found, at best, an indifferent reception.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 established a program for direct federal grants to HBCUs, including federal matching of private endowment contributions.
The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines a "part B institution" as: "...any historically black college or university that was established before 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation." Part B of the 1965 Act provides for direct federal aid to Part B institutions. Some colleges with a predominantly black student body are not classified as a HBCU because they were founded (or opened their doors to African Americans) after the implementation of the Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court (the court decisions which outlawed racial segregation of public education facilities) and the Higher Education Act of 1965.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter signed an executive order to distribute adequate resources and funds to strengthen the nation's public and private HBCUs. His executive order manifested the White House Initiative on historically black colleges and universities (WHIHBCU), which is a federally funded program that operates within the U.S. Department of Education. In 1989, George H. W. Bush continued to adopt Carter's pioneering spirit through signing Executive Order 12677, which created the presidential advisory board on HBCUs, to counsel the government and the secretary on the future development of these organizations.
Starting in 2001, directors of libraries of several HBCUs began discussions about ways to pool their resources and work collaboratively. In 2003, this partnership was formalized as the HBCU Library Alliance, "a consortium that supports the collaboration of information professionals dedicated to providing an array of resources designed to strengthen historically black colleges and Universities and their constituents."
In 2015, the Bipartisan Congressional Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Caucus was established by U.S. Representatives Alma S. Adams and Bradley Byrne. The purpose of the caucus is to serve as an advocate for HBCUs on Capitol Hill. As of September 2017, there are 62 elected politicians who are members of the caucus.
Every year, the U.S. Department of Education deems one week in the Fall as "National HBCU Week." During this week, several conferences and events are held in Washington, D.C. centered on discussing and celebrating HBCUs as well as acknowledging select scholars and alumni from the HBCU community.