The Promise of the Historically Black College and University

The Promise of the Historically Black College and University: Educating Citizens, 1865 - 1920

Professor Cally WaiteTC’s storied History & Education Program has been led by luminaries such as Lawrence Cremin and Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, who argued that where learning occurs shapes the content of what is learned and how that content is received.

Cally Waite, the program’s guiding spirit for the past 20 years, has built on that legacy. Waite – who in 1996 became of one of two inaugural Fellows in TC’s Minority Postdoctoral program – is a leading authority on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), founded mostly after the Civil War to educate newly freed slaves in the South. She is currently on leave, putting the final touches on a broad interpretive history, The Promise of the Historically Black College and University: Educating Citizens, 1865 - 1920.

Though she never attended an HBCU herself, Waite became fascinated with these “distinctly American institutions” that arose in response to unique historical circumstances and somehow managed to evolve and survive as those circumstances changed. HCBUs are not merely a piece of history, she argues, but institutions that offer unique insights into the role of race in education and contemporary American society.

“The people who opened these schools, the philanthropists and missionaries, defined what American citizenship was going to look like for the free people, and what democracy would mean for them,” she says. “But it wasn’t necessarily the democracy that we learned about in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. So these schools have operated under a different set of rules from their inception. There have been these structural problems, because the system was designed to be that way.”  

Waite did not begin her career with HCBUs in mind. When she arrived at TC fresh from graduate school at Harvard, she was interested in the “moral transformation” of American higher education in 19th century America.  Her first book, Permission to Remain Among Us: Education for Blacks in Oberlin, Ohio, 1880-1914, tells the often overlooked story of how Oberlin College – the first college in antebellum America to accept students of color in 1834 – succumbed to overwhelming societal pressure after Reconstruction and re-segregated along racial lines.

But being at TC has a way of sparking new connections and interests. Waite, who was hired as a TC faculty member after completing her Minority Postdoctoral Fellowship, became Coordinator of the History & Education program in 1998.  In the early 2000s, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she and Margaret Smith Crocco (now Chair of Teacher Education at Michigan State University) conducted a groundbreaking study of segregation-era black educators from the South who pursued educational opportunities at northern colleges and universities. (Teachers College was a primary destination.) Many of those educators returned to the South and became key leaders at HBCUs – which got Waite thinking about the role of these institutions in American educational history and the unique window they offer on “the intersection between theoretical democracy and democratic citizenship.”

Waite believes an underlying structural inequality in American higher education is still very much in evidence.  She notes that historically under-represented groups make up less than 15 percent of the 1 percent of the overall U.S. population that earns doctorates. Subtract the field of education and the numbers for blacks and Hispanics drop even lower. 

In addition to her responsibilities at TC, Waite consults with the Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives Program located at the Social Science Research Council, whose goal is to “increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning.” More than 600 Mellon Mays fellows have completed their degrees, and more than 700 are currently enrolled in doctoral programs. Again, Waite believes that the context the program provides – the time and space to explore, think and connect as part of an academic community – is invaluable. 

“Being a professor is this wonderful experience, where you have the potential to change the way the world thinks in the grandest sense, but at the most basic levels,” she says. “It’s a powerful thing to think about – you have the power to change what people think is important and what is worth knowing.” 

— Ellen Livingston

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