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historically Black college or university: any institution of higher education that was established prior to 1964 and whose principal mission was and still is the education of Black Americans.
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Origin of HBCU

First recorded in 1980–85

Words nearby HBCU

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is HBCU?

HBCU stands for historically black colleges and universities, which were established before the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964 and with the ongoing mission of educating Black Americans.

How is term pronounced?

[ eych-bee-see-yoo ]

What are HBCU colleges?

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black Americans were largely prohibited from attending many colleges and universities or their attendance was limited due to quotas. As a result, colleges and universities were founded to provide access to higher education to black Americans.

Today, there are over 100 HBCUs in the United States, both public and private. The oldest, established in 1837, is Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, a private institution. One of the most recognized and influential institutions is Howard University in Washington, DC, whose graduates include the likes of Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Elijah Cummings, Kamala Harris, Chadwick Boseman, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among many others.

The expression historically black colleges didn’t come into widespread use until the 1970s, when scholars began to study the contributions of these schools in American life. Historically black colleges and universities wasn’t defined in law until the 1986 amendment to the 1965 Higher Education Act. During the hearings for the amendment, the abbreviation HBCU was frequently used.

Individually and collectively, HBCUs play an important role in black American life and culture. Beyoncé notably incorporated HBCU imagery, music, and traditions—including homecoming and marching bands—in her historic 2018 performance at the music festival Coachella. Nicknamed Beychella, the performance was the subject of a 2019 Netflix documentary, Homecoming.

Despite the name, HBCUs are open to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

How is HBCU used in real life?

The acronym HBCU can refer to a singular historically black college and university or the institutions collectively. Everyone from educators to students to journalists to cultural observers use the acronym.

Besides Howard, other widely familiar HBCUs include, with such notable graduates or attendees as: Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama (Ralph Ellison, Lionel Richie); Florida A&M (Common) in Tallahassee, Florida; and the all-male Morehouse College (Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee) and all-female Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia (Stacey Abrams, Alice Walker).

More examples of HBCU:

“HBCU enrollment is gonna increase exponentially in the next year #Beychella”
—@FoxHues, April, 2019

“I love HBCUs, and I care about what happens on these campuses … What good is a moment like this in my life, with this level of visibility and this level of access, if I can’t use that to the benefit of my community?”
—Tarana Burke, quoted by Brittany Cowan, Campus Echo, April, 2019


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.