A Look into the Racist History of Higher Education

Recent initiatives to promote more inclusive and diverse campuses force a look into the racist history of higher education.


Photo by Sanjay Suchak



Today, the campuses of many institutions of higher education are populated by students from diverse backgrounds. In recent years, many colleges and universities have undergone changes in an effort to increase diversity and make their campuses more inclusive to people of all backgrounds. Some actions have included the creation of Offices of Diversity and Inclusion, holistic admissions, and mandatory educational programs surrounding diversity and inclusivity. Initiatives like these have largely taken place in recent years, highlighting the discriminatory past of higher and graduate education.


For much of America’s history, racial discrimination seemed like an everyday thing. Members of all races that weren't White were treated differently and at a lesser quality in everyday life. Such treatment was prevalent in the context of education. Many schools, particularly state schools in the South, refused to admit Black students up until the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, when Supreme Court decisions such as Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954), forced integration in said schools. While Black students have earned undergraduate degrees as early as 1823, when Alexander Twilight graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. Such a monumental feat wasn’t even publicized until Amherst College claimed to have graduated the first Black student in the country with the graduation of Edward Jones in 1826. The publicizing of Twilight’s graduation after Amherst’s announcement may hold some ulterior motives, though we may never know.


The issue of discrimination in universities has existed for as long as the United States has existed. Many institutions started by only admitting white males, with women, and people of other races lagging behind. While women, and even other minorities began seeing admission into undergraduate and graduate programs across the country, including Asian students at Emory University as early as 1890, the Black community continued to see their opportunities limited.


The push for equal opportunity in graduate education was kickstarted by Heman Sweatt, a graduate of Wiley College who sought admission to the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law in 1946. Though Sweatt was more than qualified for admission, the school’s president, Theophilus Painter, denied him admission solely because he was Black. Sweatt would later be admitted after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of him in Sweatt v. Painter (1950), though applications being denied due to race would continue for over a decade after.


In 1959, Marion Gerald Hood sent an application to the Emory University School of Medicine. Less than a week later, Hood received a letter from L. L. Clegg, the school’s director of admissions at the time. In the letter, Hood was informed that his application had been denied because the school was not allowed to “consider for admission a member of the Negro race”. In addition to the letter, Hood’s $5 application fee was returned to him. While Hood went on to earn his M.D. at Loyola University in Chicago, Emory didn’t desegregate until 1962, eight years after the monumental decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The school issued a formal apology to Hood in June 2021, when the university invited Hood to speak at a Juneteenth event.


Many schools in the United States were founded by slave owners, or supporters of slavery. Many prominent institutions, such as Harvard and Princeton, saw much of their early funding come from slave trade profits. It’s also important to note that Brown v. Board of Education (1954) didn’t force integration. Much of that was done in the years following the Supreme Court’s decision, either through more lawsuits or even a threat to withhold grant funding to the school.

"Diverse students may be on college campuses now, but that doesn’t mean racism is absent on said campuses. In fact, for Black students, Eric Anthony Grollman puts it as 'simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it.'"

While the desegregation of institutions is a monumental feat in the fight for equity in education, racial tensions remain on campus to this day. Diverse students may be on college campuses now, but that doesn’t mean racism is absent on said campuses. In fact, for Black students, Eric Anthony Grollman puts it as “simply a matter of how much racism you will experience, not whether you will experience it”. The racism students nowadays may experience can be as subtle as a professor giving preferential treatment to one student over another, to racist chants from fraternities. While the number of diverse students in graduate schools has increased in recent years, white students still comprise the majority of graduate students nationwide, making up 59.8% of enrolled U.S. citizens and permanent residents in Fall 2019.


Centuries of racism and discrimination can’t be erased in a few decades, although institutions of higher education are taking steps in the right direction to provide more inclusive and diverse environments for students, the racist history of education, and America as a whole, continues to leave a stain on the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States.



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Leadership Brainery is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt pipeline organization closing opportunity and wealth gaps by increasing the number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and first-generation college students being accepted and enrolled in postgraduate education programs and recruited into high-wage careers. We believe that with greater resources and access to inclusive networks and advanced education, underserved communities can leverage higher-wage careers to establish financial stability and reinvest in their communities to create generational prosperity, thus closing wealth and opportunity gaps. To learn more, visit www.LeadershipBrainery.org.




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