African Americans have resorted to creative ways to pay for their college and university educations historically despite having to deal with Antebellum laws prohibiting the education of slaves and Jim Crow-era practices and legal measures making it difficult to finance a higher education.

Before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, other than a few exceptions, African Americans obtaining an education from a higher education institution didn’t take place. Southern states prohibited slaves from learning how to read. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the first Black college founded in the U.S. in 1837 and Wilberforce University, a Black institution set up in 1856, operated during an era when it was widely believed that Blacks lacked the intellectual capacity to study at a post-secondary level.

After the end of the Civil War, the federal government and some Reconstruction-era state governments set up schools that eventually became institutions of higher learning for Black people. African Americans attended these institutions to learn and many devised ways to pay for their education. 

Booker T. Washington, who would later become the principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and a civil rights leader, wrote in his best-selling book “Up from Slavery” on how he financed his education at Hampton Institute. He wrote of arriving at Hampton unkempt due to the strenuous travel to get there in 1872. The head teacher instructed Washington to clean up one of the classrooms, a task he performed well enough that he was appointed the school’s janitor. Washington said working as the janitor helped him pay his school bills.

To finance his education at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr., worked on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut along with some of his schoolmates in 1944, according to an article written by Corey Kilgannon in the Nov. 12, 2021, edition of the New York Times.

“In the 1940s, Morehouse College students came from Atlanta to work on tobacco farms in Connecticut’s Farmington Valley as a part of the tuition assistance program,” said Kilgannon.

Kilgannon said King and his schoolmates worked long days cutting and hanging tobacco. He said King worked his first and last summers as a Morehouse student at Connecticut tobacco farms.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a District civil rights attorney famous for integrating the nation’s interstate bus service talked about the difficulty she had paying for her classes at Spelman College in the late 1930s, in her book, “Justice Older Than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree.” Roundtree said she and her mother saved money for two years to pay the $75 yearly tuition for her freshman year at Spelman. The future litigator said she managed to pay her way through school haphazardly while progressing academically at Spelman at times working three jobs and accepting assistance from a friendly white teacher to complete her senior year.

Former New York Rep. Charles Rangel, in his book “And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress,” said he received GI Bill educational benefits due to his service in the U.S. Army during the war in Korea. While Rangel could get his GI Bill educational benefits, many Black veterans in the South faced racist opposition when trying to access theirs because the program was administered on the state level, according to an article, “Finding Human Rights in Higher Education: A History of Federal Financial Aid and Discrimination in the United States,” by Andrew J. Toritto.

In 1944, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) was co-founded by William Trent, an activist for Black education, Tuskegee Institute President Frederick Patterson and renowned educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. The UNCF’s charge was to raise money for Black colleges and universities and provide student scholarships. The organization continues that mission presently.

The federal government started its formal funding of higher education institutions and students through the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. These programs largely aided students regardless of race and whatever state one attended college in. Also, the Higher Education Act created the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant for students who are exceptionally needy. The grant program was renamed the Pell Grant in 1980 after U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island). The Pell Grant serves as the basis for a student’s financial aid package that could also include scholarships and work/study programs.

Today, as the annual average for college is more than $35,000, students work to access federal funding through such applications as the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and apply for private scholarships often offered through societies, businesses and organizations, including historic African American Greek-letter sororities and fraternities.

James Wright Jr.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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