Betsy DeVos’s remark about HBCUs isn’t just a mistake… it's revisionist history.

By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Betsy DeVos) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Pillow

Betsy DeVos has had a hard go of things lately. She is barely a month into the job and she has already encountered protests and scandals.

DeVos has now angered people with her take on Historically Black Colleges and Universities:

“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

Here is where this statement misses the mark. It gives the implication that HBCU’s were born of “choice”, when the reality is that they were born of racism.  

This is equivalent to saying the businesses in the Jim Crow south were pioneers of "bathroom choice" because they had separate restroom facilities for blacks and whites.

Segregation is NOT choice. 

There are a few important things to know about Historically Black Colleges and Universities in order to really explain why this comparison is wrong.

1. They pre-date school integration.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities are old. Very old. In-fact most HBCUs still in operation today were founded in the 1800s and virtually all of them were founded before the 1970s.

This means they predated pretty much all of the landmark school integration legislation. By in large HBCUs rose in popularity because of the lack of opportunity at traditional state schools.

2. In many cases they served as a compromise in order to avoid integrating white schools.

Some places were quicker to teach black people than others. In order to change that, the government put stipulations in grants to encourage states to do right by black students. As American Radio Works explains, this directly led to more states opening HBCUs to avoid having to allow blacks in their white schools:

“In the 1890s the second Morrill Land-Grant Act specified that states using federal higher education funds must provide an education to black students, either by opening the doors of their public universities to African Americans, or by establishing schools specifically to serve them.
Rather than integrate their public institutions, many Southern states created a completely separate set of institutions serving African Americans. Thus were born many of the South’s public black colleges.”

3. HBCUs were not exclusive to one race and only exist because the traditional universities were.

As stated above blacks were not allowed in the traditional state schools. This doesn’t mean that whites didn’t attend their schools. We have accounts of white students at Howard University as early as 1867. Not only have there been white HBCU students, but there have been white HBCU valedictorians. There have been white HBCU homecoming queens. There is even one HBCU, where the student body is 90% white.

This isn’t to say that the diversity of HBCUs is a bad thing. Far from it. It’s simply to point out that while DeVos is referencing Historically Black Institutions as a shining example of school choice… the reality is that the only HBCU students with a real educational choice were white.

In conclusion

Betsy DeVos’s remark is not the most egregious error in the history of mankind. At the rate we are going it likely won’t be the worst thing said by a government official this week. But it was objectively non-factual, and self-serving.

It’s great to have a pro school choice platform… but conflating adaptations to racism, to a utopian educational system that provides families with multiple educational options is intellectually dishonest.

We in the black community are quite proud of our HBCUs… but we haven’t forgotten what their original purpose was and neither should the Secretary of Education.

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.