13 HBCUs that Played Pivotal Roles in the Civil Rights Movement

By Melanie Wolff

Historically Black Colleges and Universities were an inevitable focal point in the Civil Rights Movement. These institutions were crucial in producing some of the movement’s most influential leaders – Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Diane Nash, and Stokely Carmichael, just to name a few. Not only did they provide education, but they also provided a space within which students could be activists. HBCUs were “institutions of solidarity” during this time period, withstanding pressures from their state and local governments in fighting for their equal rights. An article by Joy Ann Williamson tackles the subject of institutional autonomy enjoyed by private HBCUs in particular. To her, while this made their financial situation a balancing act at best, it allowed them to hold to their mission and commitment to freedom for the students they served.

Below is a list of 13 HBCUs who worked hard to focus their efforts on ensuring equal rights to their students.

1. The Founding of SNCC: Shaw University


Shaw University, a private HBCU in North Carolina, hosted a conference in 1960 to organize a sit-in movement. This was organized by Ella Baker, a female undergraduate at the time. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) grew out of that conference, enabling students at HBCUs across the South to create a coordinated protest against segregation.  SNCC went on to play enormous roles in sit-ins, freedom rides, the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and more.

Source: “‘This Has Been Quite a Year for Heads Falling'”: Institutional Autonomy in the Civil Rights Era” by Joy Ann Williamson, pg. 558.

2. Supporting the Freedom Riders: Xavier University of Louisiana


On May 15, 1961, Freedom Riders were travelling from Washington, D.C. to Anniston, Alabama. En route, their car was firebombed by white segregationists. They ended up taking a plane to New Orleans to plan their next move. Thanks to Xavier University of Louisiana’s Norman Francis, the school’s dean of male students at the time and president years later, the students were able to stay in Xavier’s dorms. They did this despite the very strong possibility of violence erupting and retaliation.

3. The Greensboro Four: North Carolina A&T


In February 1960, four students from North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College, a public HBCU, staged a sit-in at the local Woolworth store to protest segregation and discrimination in eating establishments. This led other HBCUs across the country to follow their example.

4. Reigniting direct action protests in Mississippi: Tougaloo University


In its early days, the state of Mississippi discontinued funding to Tougaloo because they opened a teacher training school for anyone regardless of race. In March of 1961, the “Tougaloo Nine” attempted to integrate the largest library in Jackson, Mississippi and were jailed for 36 hours. This protest can be seen as a spark that led many more young African Americans in Jackson to become involved in the movement, with more planned assaults on segregation continuing between 1961 and 1964. According to one source, Tougaloo served as a meeting ground to plan many of these direct-action attacks. The institution itself “welcomed Freedom Riders, hosted civil rights conferences and planning sessions, and sponsored a work-study program through which SNCC workers earned college credit.”

Source: “African American Women at Historically Black Colleges during the Civil Rights Movement” by Eddie Cole, pg. 26; “‘This Has Been Quite a Year for Heads Falling'”: Institutional Autonomy in the Civil Rights Era” by Joy Ann Williamson, pg. 560.

5. Florida A&M University


Two FAMU students, Patricia and Priscilla Stevens, attended a Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) workshop on sit-in tactics in 1959, which helped them plan and implement a bus boycott in Tallahassee. Within weeks, the city’s buses were integrated. The campus’s chapter of CORE was founded by these women, along with others, and helped run lunch counter sit-ins for three years to reach integration in Tallahassee.

6, 7, 8, & 9. Nashville Sit-in Movement: Tennessee State, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Baptist Seminary

60civilrights14...Negro students, Matthew Walker, left, Peggy Alexander, Diane Nash and Stanley Hemphill, eat lunch at the previously segregated counter of the Post House Restaurant in the Greyhound bus terminal. This marked the first time since the start of the sit-in that Negroes have been served at previously all-white counters in Nashville. Staff photo by Gerald Holly (The Tennessean) 5/16/1960

Tennessee State’s mission is “enter to learn; go forth to serve,” which was clearly instilled in its students during the Civil Rights Movement. Four days after the Greensboro four began their sit-ins, the Nashville sit-in movement began, thanks to the four HBCUs who coordinated the movement.

10, 11, 12, & 13. The fight for relevancy within the curriculum: Howard University, Cheyney State University, Bowie State University and Tuskegee University


Towards the late 1960s, many HBCU students began demanding changes in their curricula that would “ensure the presence of African initiatives and experiences.” In protest, 400 students took over the administration building at Cheyney State University in 1967. Other HBCU students followed suit, with Howard University and Bowie State University experiencing protests for campus reforms and a black-oriented curriculum in 1968. At Tuskegee University, students held 12 of the university trustees hostage for 12 hours, also demanding campus-wide reform. These protests fueled students across the country to demand more relevant curricula to help them better face an ever-changing world.

Source: Historically Black Colleges and Universities: an Encyclopedia, page 175

2 thoughts on “13 HBCUs that Played Pivotal Roles in the Civil Rights Movement

  1. What about the AUC , they played a huge role in the Civil rights movement, probably even a bigger role than some of the institutions you have listed.


    • Thanks for your comment, Donnie! Our Line Ups are not meant to be exhaustive, as there are often too many MSIs to list. We welcome readers who point to other MSIs in the comments, though, so thank you for acknowledging the AUC’s contributions as well!


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