The Role of the Church in HBCUs
"All the world is a school, and in it one lesson is just now being taught, and that is the utter insecurity of life and property in the presence of an aggrieved class. This lesson can be learned by the ignorant as well as by the wise. Education, the sheet anchor of safety to a society where liberty and justice are secure, is a dangerous thing to a society in the presence of injustice and oppression." – Frederick Douglas As Frederick Douglas recognized, education was (and still is) the most important means for societal advancement; not only for blacks, but all races. African Americans have fought the battle for knowledge, all along understanding that knowledge is power. One of the most influential movements for the education and progression of blacks has been the establishment and consequent success of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These institutions have been defined over hundreds of years by a broad four-stage development process; development of not only HBCUs specifically, but of African American education in the United States as a whole. The four-stage process involves Encouragement, Segregation, Desegregation, and Enhancement. These stages of African American education in the United States, taken independently, each represent a portion of the powerful connection between the black church, its social justice mission, and the proliferation of HBCUs; taken collectively, they signify change. For many, black churches serve “as the educational backbone and spiritual aspirations of the black community” (Watkins). Born out of the era of Reconstruction, the need for education among blacks was greater at that particular time than at any other point in the nation’s history. Not only was an entire nation rebuilding from the demise and destruction of the self-inflicted Civil War, but the role played by blacks during the war represented the most significant contribution they, as a people, had played to date in the development of the United States of America. Blacks witnessed the effects of their efforts. They began to comprehend the power of their influence, realizing that by harnessing its strength and refining its tactics, the opportunity for education would be sure to follow. More importantly, the black leaders (like the aforementioned Frederick Douglas) understood that education would be one of the foundational pillars for the continued advancement of blacks. Not surprisingly, these black leaders came directly from the church. The success of the abolitionist movement would not have persevered without the influence of the African American people, both physically and intellectually. Education was seen as a next-generation movement. It would allow thousands blacks to live a life few had been privileged to experience. Education was seen by blacks as a basic right; blacks felt they had earned this right after fighting in the brutally destructive war, on behalf of whites nonetheless. Even though proclaimed as free, the place in society for many blacks remained unaffected due to the perpetuation of the view that blacks were ignorant and incapable of being educated citizens (Mosley). The struggle for equality of education would thus be closely tied with the struggle for civil rights---struggles that would last until the latter half of the twentieth century. The time of Reconstruction was a critical point in the theology of the black church. The invisible institution that for so long breathed life into thousands of suffering slaves and kept the flame of hope alive was now merging with institutional African churches. The initial years of Reconstruction resuscitated African American religion within the church. For many blacks, the reality of living freely brought about social, spiritual, and political issues. The spiritual (i.e. the invisible institution) merged with the social, and the social merged with the political. This made African American religion, and black churches in...
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