A hundred years before educators were concerned about minority retention rates and campus diversity, the primary issue of debate was what black students should be taught. The struggle for equality through education was separated by two vastly different philosophies: Booker T. Washington’s idea of material gain through vocational education and W.E.B. DuBois’ demand for scholarship and college education for the black community’s “talented tenth.”
This conflict came to a head in mid-Missouri when, in 1923, Nathan B. Young became president of Lincoln University and shifted the institution’s curriculum away from vocational learning and toward higher education. A former slave, Young had worked at Washington’s Tuskegee Institute but left because he thought black education should extend beyond trades and agriculture.
Today, at noon in 323 Gentry Hall, Antonio Holland, Lincoln’s director of social and behavioral sciences, will talk about the struggles and legacy of Young’s career in a speech titled “The Struggle for Black Higher Education in the Early 20th Century.”
Holland said that historians often focus on the “generals” of history like Washington and DuBois while leaving out the “captains” like Young. His book, “Nathan B. Young and the Struggle over Black Higher Education,” highlights Young’s story as well as the importance of black educational institutions.
“It helps fill out the picture,” Holland said. “The contributions of African-Americans have been historically excluded.”
Lincoln University was founded at the end of the Civil War as the Lincoln Institute, a place where freed blacks could seek higher education. One of more than a hundred historically black colleges in America, Lincoln was integrated in 1954, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Last fall, approximately 35 percent of Lincoln’s students were black.
Young was Lincoln’s president, off and on, between 1923 and 1931; state lawmakers twice had him removed from the position. Nonetheless, Young succeeded in making Lincoln a first-class university by emphasizing the importance of scholarship for black students and gaining accreditation for the university’s programs.
“These educational developments were a pre-cursor to the civil rights movement,” Holland said.
When Young was Lincoln’s president, historically black colleges were the only educational options for a majority of black students. Even today, said Julius Thompson, the director of black studies at MU, as many universities are trying to become more diverse, historically black institutions still appeal to many students and educators.
Moreover, Thompson said, higher education is as much a civil rights issue as it was during Young’s lifetime. “One-third of the black population still lives in poverty,” he said. “If you’re very poor, it’s hard to go to college.”
Holland said black history month is an opportunity to take note of the historical contributions that have benefited minority groups and majority groups alike.
“My goal is that we will eventually have such an incorporation in all these stories that we wouldn’t need a special emphasis,” Holland said. “But right now, it’s needed.”