On the Sesquicentennial of Howard University

The history of Howard University is one of the most remarkable and consequential in American higher education. Founded after the Civil War, during the political struggle that produced the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Howard University intended to provide former slaves with the type of education that would enable them to flourish in an environment hostile to them as free people. That purpose required a university rather than a college. Howard’s first schools (then called departments) were a preparatory school, a liberal arts college, a teachers college, a theological school, a law school and a medical school. The first instruction in education and medicine was held in a building (at what is now Seventh Street and Florida Avenue) rented with money from the “Bounty Fund,” owed to the missing heirs of deceased Black Union Army soldiers.

Conceived as a democratic institution that should be open to all, it was an interracial enterprise, including trustees, officers, faculty, staff and students. At a time when women were excluded from most liberal arts colleges and professional schools, Howard University was coeducational, its law school and medical school producing their first female graduates in 1872. Howard’s student body also was distinctive in that era for including Native-American, Chinese, African and Caribbean students.

Founded as a private institution by New England Congregationalists, many of whom were former abolitionists, Howard had no church affiliation. The University’s principal financial support in its first years was from the Bureau of Refu- gees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, in the U.S. War Department. The Bureau, headed by Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard from its inception in 1865 to its closure in 1872, established in the former slave states the most comprehensive social welfare and educational enterprise of the U.S. government. The Bureau supported a system of schools, hospitals and colleges (many of them private missionary institutions) with Howard designed as the apex, to produce leaders and personnel for these other institutions. For this reason, Howard received the largest higher education disbursements.

The closure of the Bureau, followed a year later by the financial panic of 1873, placed the future of Howard University in doubt. Could the institution survive? Crucial to a positive answer was the demonstration that Howard had already become an important national institution, producing teachers, lawyers, physicians, clergy and community leaders. Recognition of that fact came in 1879 when the U.S. Congress, for the first time, made a direct appropriation to support Howard University, enabling it to survive in a new, post-Reconstruction political and economic order permeated by the steady institutionalization of white supremacy.

The majority of the Black population lived in the South, where the denial of educational and economic opportunity had become systemic through the imposition of statutory segregation. In these circumstances, Howard University’s resources were focused on providing the higher education not adequately available to Blacks in the South. The University added a College of Dentistry in 1881 and a School of Engineering and Architecture in 1910. In the same period, it added a full spectrum of natural science fields, the only Black institution able to do so. The relocation to the campus in 1909 of a federal facility, Freedmen’s Hospital (founded in 1862), was a major asset for medical education at Howard. Additionally, it provided nationally scarce internship opportunities for Black graduates of northern and western medical schools who were denied for racial reasons.

The national importance of Howard in the decades after World War I was anchored in unassailable facts. In 1926, when Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson was appointed the University’s first Black president (1926-1960), a fourth of all Black students receiving a liberal arts education nationally were at Howard University. Despite its limited funding and physical facilities, the institution produced 48 percent of the Black physicians in the United States, as well as 49 percent of the Black dentists and 96 percent of the Black lawyers. Howard’s unique relationship to the federal government was modified in 1928 when Congress amended the University’s Charter to authorize annual federal appropriations. Two years later, a master plan was approved that resulted in the rebuilding of the campus, while additional government and foundation funds made it possible to attract to the University’s schools and colleges outstanding faculty, the source of its academic reputation and the high quality of its graduates. By 1955, Chemistry became the first department authorized to establish a Ph.D. program, while Howard’s professional schools won national recognition.

A generation later, the racial crisis in American cities and a new Black consciousness demanded an expanded conception of Howard University’s mission, institutional identity and social role. As articulated by President James E. Cheek (1969-1989), Howard had to become a top-tier, comprehensive research University with academic assets and programs focused on addressing contemporary national and international problems. The U.S. Congress responded positively, making it possible to build the new Howard University Hospital, fund seven additional schools and colleges, acquire three campuses, develop 10 nationally recognized research institutes and centers, a University press, a radio station and a television station.

The Howard University we see in 2017 is a result of the labor of the institution’s leadership since 1926, presidents, trustees, deans, faculty and staff—buttressed by the support of the federal government, alumni and the broader public. It is more than a formidable collection of facilities and resources. It is, above all, a collective development derived from the need to build an environment of excellence and high expectations, in a society structured by racial policies resting on racist superstitions.

The achievements of alumni, many of whom discovered their capabilities and focused their ambitions at Howard, have demonstrated the extraordinary value of the distinctive environment in a well-resourced, cosmopolitan Black institution. The most important part of that environment is not visible to the eye but is vivid and life-changing when experienced by students and faculty members. It is at the core of Howard’s motto, “Truth and Service.” As I wrote in 1976 (in the book “Education for Freedom”), “... a university is by the nature of its being defined by mind and spirit. Its most fundamental activities cannot be measured physically. The excitement of discovery in research, of the shaping of young minds in teaching, of preparing professionals for competent service to the community—all of these are activated by values, beliefs and conceptions of the purposes of human life. The true, although invisible center of a great university may be found in morality and ethics, in the synthesis of objective fact and spiritual meaning.”

One hundred fifty years of institutional development is justification not only for pride. It is, more importantly, a warrant for positive response to the challenging vision of our 17th President, Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, who has led the University since October 2013. His stellar record as a cancer surgeon, teacher, researcher and administrator has given Howard’s supporters confidence in the University’s future. Many of us who are privileged to be alumni hope such confidence will produce a transformative capital campaign, enabling Howard University to generate new institutional capacities and centers of innovation. The time is now for Howard to claim its place in the front rank of American higher education. We must succeed

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