The concept of white superiority, as practiced first in the Antebellum Old South and later during Reconstruction, Redemption, and the Jim Crow eras, had no greater ally than ignorance. The white, southern, elite hegemony fully understood that a person who lacks education was a person who could be dominated and subjugated — thus their conscious attempts to deny a full education to African Americans after the end of slavery. Southern leaders certainly attempted to keep people of African descent away from any form of higher education, but African Texans worked just as diligently to gain access to institutions of higher learning. As you can imagine, white Texans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century refused to open their schools to blacks, so African Americans created their own institutions, which began a rich heritage of historically black universities in Texas.
Immediately following the Civil War, the federally established Freedmen’s Bureau took the lead in instituting primary and high schools for freed slaves, and they were aided greatly by northern churches and black denominations such as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The advancements were welcome, but it became obvious through the 1860s that any true progress would necessitate the establishment of institutions of higher learning.
The first such college established specifically for African Texans was Paul Quinn College, established in Austin in 1872 and named for a former Methodist bishop. Under the leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Paul Quinn’s primary mission was to train pastors for black Methodist churches, although it also educated teachers and provided a full liberal arts program. The struggling school moved to Waco in 1877, where its principal function became instruction in vocational professions. It moved to Dallas in 1990, and today occupies the former campus of Bishop College.
Through the 1870s and 1880s a number of private black colleges began in Texas including Wiley College in Marshall (1873), Tillotson College in Austin (1881), Bishop College in Marshall (1881—moved to Dallas in 1961), Mary Allen College in Crockett (1886), Texas College in Tyler (1894), St. Phillips in San Antonio (1898), Butler College, also in Tyler (1905), and Jarvis College in Hawkins (1912). All of these institutions were church-affiliated schools and offered the same basic curriculum, primarily designed to train teachers for black schools, although—reflecting the prevailing idea of the time—most offered a limited vocational program.
The state of Texas actually built one of the earliest state-supported schools for blacks in the South with the opening of Prairie View State Normal School, which is now Prairie View A&M University, in 1878. A land-grant college located near Hempstead, Prairie View’s instruction was primarily limited to agricultural and vocational training—exactly the role the white elite hegemony sought to limit blacks within—although it added teacher training in the 1880s. Constitutionally, and following the concept of “separate but equal,” the state had promised to build and fund a fully functional liberal arts college on par with the University of Texas, but never had such an intention and kept Prairie View underfunded and out of view. However, the school did miraculously survive and still offers a quality higher education and a wide array of degrees and programs.
Texas Southern, the second state-supported historically black university, opened its doors as an attempt to maintain the concept of segregation. A lawsuit brought by Heman Sweatt in an attempt to desegregate the University of Texas’ law school threatened to shatter the state’s reliance on “separate but equal.” The state legislature, in an attempt to influence the suit, allowed the state to take over Houston College for Negroes in 1947 and renamed it Texas State University for Negroes. They hastily authorized a law and graduate school all in an attempt to keep the Supreme Court from ruling in Sweatt’s favor. Their actions ultimately had no effect as the justices ordered UT to admit Sweatt. The new university remained, and in 1951 the name became Texas Southern University.
All of these institutions shared one thing in common: they struggled to find a financial foothold. While white colleges and universities of the day could depend on generous donations from wealthy benefactors, their African American counterparts had no such financial windfall. Whites either did not care if they survived, or explicitly hoped they would fail; the move from slavery to freedom did not create a significant black wealthy class that could underwrite such schools. Harassed, underfunded, and constantly struggling against great odds, perhaps the most phenomenal thing about these schools is that they did survive and they established a rich tradition of leadership. Education can serve as a great equalizer, and when a mass of Americans finally began to demand the South change its segregation ways many of the leaders instrumental in that struggle were granted their degrees and knowledge from these small but powerful institutions.
East Texas Historical Assn. provides this column. Scott Sosebee is executive director,firstname.lastname@example.org.