In December 1866 a group of Congregationalists in Washington, D.C., proposed establishing the Howard Normal and Theological Institute for the Education of Teachers and Preachers to train ministers and educators for work among newly freed slaves. After receiving some support and funding, Howard University was chartered on March 2, 1867, and given the mission of establishing a university "for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences."
Howard received its name from Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, head of the Freedmen's Bureau. General Howard, along with several other Civil War generals and U.S. congressmen, was largely responsible for the organization of the university and its campaign to secure an annual appropriation for its maintenance from Congress. Despite substantial federal funding, Howard was governed by a privately selected board of trustees and has always maintained its independent status. In keeping with its religious mission, the board of the university decreed that anyone chosen for any position in the university "be a member of some Evangelical church."
In the first years of Howard University's operation, very few African Americans were involved in its administration or on the board of trustees. The first students enrolled at Howard, four or five young women, were also white; they graduated from the three-year Normal Department in 1870. George B. Vashon, the first black faculty member at Howard, taught in a short-lived evening school in 1867–1868. One of the first black female leaders at Howard was Martha B. Briggs (1873–1879, 1883–1889). At first an instructor in the Normal Department, Briggs would become principal of the department in 1883.
In 1868 the trustees created a Preparatory Department, which served as preparation for entrance into undergraduate course work by ensuring a minimum level of achievement in basic subjects like reading and writing. They also added a collegiate department, which included a four-year curriculum; it would eventually become the mainstay of the university. In its inaugural year, the collegiate department only had one student and two professors. The first three graduates of the department received their degrees in 1872. One of the two blacks in this class, James Monroe Gregory, became a tutor in Latin and math; in 1876 he became a professor of Latin.
Several other departments rounded out the university in its early years. A medical department was established in 1868. Its first graduating class of five, in 1871, included two blacks. The nearby Freedmen's Hospital was invaluable for medical students and doctors who were often unable to secure medical privileges at other institutions. Charles Burleigh Purvis, who worked virtually without compensation for many years as a professor in the medical department, was largely responsible for guiding both the medical school and its students during his long career.
Under the tutelage of Dean John Mercer Langston, a future congressman, the Law Department first enrolled students in the spring of 1869. It graduated its first class of ten in February 1871, including African-American John Cook, a future dean of the law school. An integral part of Howard from its founding, the theology department, opened officially in 1870, never used federal funds; instead, it relied upon contributions from the American Missionary Association, which was associated with the Congregational Church.
The university struggled financially for the first several years. Much of its original funding came from the Freedmen's Bureau, which provided capital for operation as well as money for the purchase of land and the construction of a campus. Before the bureau closed it channeled more than $500,000 to Howard, from 1867 until 1872. After the bureau's demise, the university received no additional federal funds until 1879, when Congress began granting Howard a small appropriation.
After several years Howard's operations increased in scope. From 1875 to 1889 more than five hundred students received professional degrees in medicine, law, and theology, and almost three hundred students received certificates from the normal, preparatory, and collegiate departments. The board of trustees also made efforts to expand and increase the African-American representation among its membership. In 1871 they appointed Frederick Douglass to become a trustee; he served until his death in 1895. Several other blacks were named trustees in this period. Booker T. Washington became a trustee in 1907.
By 1900 Howard University had more than seven hundred students. Along with Fisk and Atlanta universities, Howard was one of the most prominent black academic colleges in the country. Under the administration of President Wilbur P. Thirkield (1906–1912), the university began to stress more industrial courses of study and the sciences. Howard established one of the first engineering programs at a predominantly black college; Howard's other science programs were also generally superior. The eminent biologist Ernest E. Just (1907–1941), who taught at Howard for several decades, helped further develop Howard's reputation in the sciences.
Another leader at Howard—and one of the most important black educators in the early twentieth century—was Kelly Miller. Miller, who served Howard in various capacities from 1890 to 1934, was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1908 to 1919 and fought for the introduction of courses on African-American life as early as the turn of the century.
The 1920s was a decade of great growth and change. The high school that prepared students for entrance into Howard closed in 1920. Under the administration of President J. Stanley Durkee, the university budget grew from $121,937 in 1920 to $365,000 only five years later. Lucy Slowe Diggs (1922–1937) was the first dean of women at Howard; she helped to transform the role of female university officials to that of active administrators participating in shaping university policy. In 1925 students took part in a weeklong strike for greater student participation in university policy-making and an end to mandatory chapel services. Another focus of student and intellectual agitation was the growing demand for the appointment of a black president to lead Howard. Mordecai W. Johnson, a Baptist minister, became Howard's first African-American president on September 1, 1926; he served until 1960.
In the 1920s and 1930s Howard became a center of African-American intellectual life and attracted a brilliant faculty committed to finding new directions for black America. Many black scholars trained at Ivy League schools and other predominantly white institutions were unable to find employment other than in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Howard attracted the cream of the crop.
One of the leading figures at Howard in the 1920s was philosopher Alain Locke (1912–1925, 1927–1954), popularizer of the New Negro movement. Several administration officials and faculty members urged the implementation of a curriculum that explicitly acknowledged the cultural accomplishments of African Americans. Kelly Miller had been doing so for years; William Leo Hansberry (1922–1959) became the first African-American scholar to offer comprehensive courses in the civilization and history of Africa in the 1920s.
The 1930s were a period of intellectual accomplishment at Howard, with a faculty that included the leading black scholars in the country. Led by political scientist Ralph J. Bunche (1928–1933), English professors Sterling Brown (1929–1969) and Alphaeus Hunton (1926–1943), sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (1934–1959), and economist Abram Harris, Jr. (1927–1945), the Howard faculty looked for ways to transcend the division between accommodationism and black nationalism. While proud exponents of the distinctiveness of black culture, they often espoused industrial unionism and multiracial working-class harmony, and were sensitive to the internal divisions and class differences within the black community. Historian Rayford Logan (1938–1982), largely responsible for strengthening the history department, wrote the most comprehensive history of Howard from its founding until its centennial. Logan also served the larger cause of African-American studies by producing the ground-breaking Dictionary of American Negro Biography (1982). The distinguished African-American pianist Hazel Harrison (1936–1955) was one of the leading women faculty members of the period.
Charles H. Houston (1929–1935), who helped to strengthen the curriculum at the law school and became one of the most important civil rights lawyers of the 1930s and 1940s, added to Howard's position as the best black law school in the country at the time. Under Houston's capable guidance, the law school strengthened its curriculum and received accreditation from the American Association of American Law Schools in late 1931. Graduates included Thurgood Marshall (1933), future justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 1930s were also marked by administrative controversy. President Johnson came under harsh criticism from many who felt that his managerial style was heavy-handed and autocratic. Johnson had removed several administration officials and had fired several university employees. The alumni association criticized Johnson and the board of trustees as well, arguing that the alumni should have more of a voice in choosing trustees and constructing university policy.
Given their reliance on federal funds for operation, Howard officials were often held accountable by members of Congress for perceived ideological aberrations like socialism or communism. In the early 1940s, investigations into the activities of some faculty members, among them Alphaeus Hunton, by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) brought unwanted attention to Howard. When another HUAC inquiry occurred in the early 1950s, President Mordecai Johnson did not attempt to derail the various investigations but declared his confidence that the faculty members being investigated would be vindicated; all were. The administration at Howard often urged moderation and discouraged university employees from making overtly political statements.
Several prominent black scholars taught at Howard during the 1940s and 1950s. Margaret Just Butcher, daughter of biologist Ernest Just, taught English at Howard
from 1945 until 1955; she collaborated with Alaine Locke on The Negro in American Culture (1956). Prominent civil rights leader Anna Arnold Hedgeman was dean of women from 1946 until 1948; she would later be instrumental in helping to plan the 1963 March on Washington. Mercer Cook (1927–1936, 1944–1960, 1966–1970), an influential translator of the Négritude poets, and the Afro-centrist Cheikh A. Diop, taught in the Department of Romance Languages for several generations.
While the 1950s was a time of relative quiet at Howard, the university experienced intellectual and political turmoil during the 1960s. In 1962 Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke at the commencement; returning to Howard three years later, this time as president, Johnson renewed his pledge to struggle for equal rights for all and outlined the tenets of what would become his plans for the Great Society. Students vocally disrupted a 1967 speech by Gen. Lewis Hershey, director of the Selective Service System. They further disrupted campus operations in 1968 when students all over the country took part in demanding an end to the war in Vietnam. Howard students were also urging the implementation of a more radical curriculum. In 1969 Howard inaugurated its African-American Studies program.
President James M. Nabrit, Jr., one of the attorneys who crafted one of the briefs used to justify the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to end segregation in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, led Howard from 1960 until 1969, some of its most turbulent years. Notable faculty members included Patricia Roberts Harris (1961–1963, 1967–1969), who was an attorney, the first African-American woman to become an ambassador, and a professor in the Howard Law School for several years. Her tenure as the first black female dean of the law school, however, lasted only thirty days; outcry over student protests and conflicts with other university administrators compelled her to resign (1969).
In the mid-1980s Howard was one of the first universities in the United States to initiate divestment from South Africa. Republican Party chairman Lee Atwater resigned from the board of trustees in 1989 after protests by hundreds of students. Howard received more unfavorable publicity in early 1994 after the appearance on campus by former Nation of Islam official Khalid Muhammad.
Howard has many notable facilities. The Moorland-Spingarn Center, one of the premier archival resources for studying African-American history and culture, had accumulated over 150,000 books and more than four hundred manuscript collections. The center was a result of the donation of collections from trustee Jesse Moorland in 1914 and NAACP official Arthur Spingarn in 1946; they included "books, pictures, and statuary on the Negro and on slavery." An art gallery includes an extensive African-American collection of painting, sculpture, and art. A university radio and television station sought to bring in revenue and offer a valuable educational service to the larger community of the District of Columbia. The Howard University Press has published more than a hundred works since its inception in 1972. Howard University Hospital, a five-hundred-bed teaching hospital, is responsible for, among other things, pioneering research by the Howard University Cancer Center and the Center for Sickle Cell Disease.
For fiscal year 2001 the operation budget of Howard University was $419 million, and the university employed more than 6,000 people. (In 1975 the budget was about $100 million.) Howard still receives more than 50 percent of its budget from the federal government—about $232 million for 2001. Its enrollment in 1993 stood at almost 12,000 students distributed among various colleges, programs, and institutes. A decade later enrollment stood at about 11,000 students, including 7,000 undergraduates.
The future, however, holds uncertainty for Howard and other HBCUs. Howard has consistently dedicated itself to providing an intellectual haven for African Americans denied opportunities elsewhere. In 1963, the board of trustees promised that
As a matter of history and tradition, Howard University accepts a special responsibility for the education of capable Negro students disadvantaged by the system of racial segregation and discrimination, and it will continue to do so as long as Negroes suffer these disabilities.
As bars against entry of blacks into primarily white universities have disappeared, a crisis has arisen for those schools which historically relied upon having the brightest African-American students and faculty. Partly to address this problem, Howard launched its Howard 2000 reorganization program in the early 1990s. Its goal was to help Howard remain fiscally and academically competitive into the next century.
See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Bunche, Ralph; Douglass, Frederick; Education in the United States; Fisk University; Freedmen's Hospital; Johnson, Mordecai Wyatt; Just, Ernest; Langston, John Mercer; Locke, Alain Leroy; Logan, Rayford W.; Marshall, Thurgood
Ashley, Dwayne, and Juan Williams. I'll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Martinsburg, W.V.: Amistad Press, 2004.
Dyson, Walter. Howard University, the Capstone of Negro Education: A History, 1867–1940. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Graduate School, 1941.
Janken, Kenneth Robert. Rayford W. Logan and the Dilemma of the African-American Intellectual. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
Leavy, Walter. "Howard University: A Unique Center of Excellence." Ebony 40 (September 1985): 140–142.
Wolters, Raymond. The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions in the 1920s. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.
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Updated by publisher 2005
"Howard University." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/howard-university
"Howard University." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved December 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/howard-university
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