Historically Black Colleges and Universities have played an intrinsic role in building our country. Since the 19th Century, HBCUs have produced some of our most talented and well-known artists, scientists, and academics while equipping tens of thousands of students with the tools they need to make their dreams come true.
We explore the histories, campuses, and current programs of 6 HBCUs, helping you obtain a feeling of what they’re like. Whether you’re a student shopping for colleges, a parent planning their little one’s future many years in advance, or simply someone interested in the history of education, read on. There’s a lot to learn!
Virginia State University
The history of this HBCU goes back to 1882 when the legislature passed a bill to charter the school, known as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. It was the United States’ first completely state-supported four-year college for African Americans at its founding.
VSU was founded as a land grant university. These universities have an exciting history that goes back to the years of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. The Morrill Act of 1862 allowed states to receive gifts of land from the federal government. The states would sell parcels of the land to raise the money to build colleges.
This happened when the United States was going through rapid changes. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and people needed to adopt new skills to survive in the evolving economy. The intended focus of most land grant colleges was to teach people these newly valuable skills. Specifically, the goal was to educate students in modern agriculture methods, engineering, and other sciences determined to be of practical use in contemporary society.
These land grants coincided with emancipation and the Reconstruction-era efforts to help Black people recover from the horrors of slavery and establish themselves in society. Eventually, African-American legislators began lobbying for land grants that would enable the founding of colleges that welcomed black students.
Virginia State University was one of the institutions that arose from this. The college would go through many changes of name and various instances of restructuring, but it has remained one of the top Black colleges in the nation.
Virginia State University offers over 50 different degree programs from their six separate colleges specializing in other areas of study, including education, agriculture, engineering and technology, humanities, and health sciences. For extracurriculars, VSU offers a wide range of activities for diverse interests.
Their Trojans team banner covers seven sports teams for men and seven for women. In addition, the school boasts a wide array of student clubs and organizations, including a fashion club, international diplomacy club, mass communications club, and many more.
Hampton University is a private research university with a deep and fascinating backstory. There are so many notable events and people involved with the University’s beginnings that an entire museum to its history sits right on campus, bringing its roots to life.
Set right along the Virginia coastline, much of the campus offers picturesque views of the water, and many refer to the school as ‘Our Home by the Sea.’
The seeds for Hampton University were sown during the Civil War. At the time, the area where the University now stands was near Fortress Monroe, an encampment inhabited by Union forces in the South. Many people who had escaped slavery found their way to their camp to seek safety.
It was one of the few refuges in the area where Black men and women could go to protect themselves from the hostile environment of the Civil War south.
An organization called the American Missionary Association reached out to the newly freed people, helping them to learn to read and write. One particular teacher gave outdoor lessons under an oak tree that would be the tree beside which Abraham Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation just a few years later.
Eventually, the classes grew and turned into a school that taught agriculture and other basic skills. This school evolved to become a teachers’ college and, ultimately, a full-fledged university.
Today, the school has an endowment of more than a quarter-billion dollars and offers its students 90 programs, including nine doctoral programs and an array of online coursework. The campus is also home to the Hampton University Proton Therapy Center, a facility that uses proton beams to treat tumors. They also maintain a satellite campus in Virginia Beach.
On the green hills of a former golf course, you’ll find the 134-acre campus of Norfolk University. This school offers 52 degrees, including one for optical engineering. Optical engineering is a science that focuses on the utilization of light. Norfolk is the only college in Virginia that offers a degree in this particular science.
Norfolk isn’t as old as some of the other universities on this list; it was founded long after the industrial revolution was well underway. Initially, at its founding in 1935, it was the Norfolk branch of Virginia Union University – and later of Virginia State University – but it became an independent institution in 1969. Still, the school has maintained a presence and is a respected HBCU in the area.
The campus is urban but features plenty of greenery spread around its 134-acre space. The University’s 31 buildings are home to academic departments, theaters, and more. The New Student Center, completed in 2009, features a gym, game room, lounges, and other student-centric spaces. The campus has seen a variety of renovations in recent years, focusing on improved academic spaces and better housing for the school’s approximately 5,000 undergraduate students.
The school’s marching band is called the Spartan Legion Band. In addition to performing at the school’s Division I college athletic events, the band is well-known and has featured in music videos and events like political rallies and the Honda Battle of the Bands.
The school’s faculty enjoys a reputation for excellence, marked by the accomplishments of professors and students from various departments. Recently receiving headlines are the school’s achievements in biology, mathematics, computer science, and engineering.
Virginia University of Lynchburg
Just because a college isn’t big doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shout-out on a list of top HBCUs. The Virginia University of Lynchburg sits on a 6.82-acre campus comprising three buildings and is home to only 50 students. It was founded in 1888 by the Virginia Baptist State Convention and has served the educational needs of Black Christian students ever since.
The school offers a number of degrees, mainly those related to spiritual leadership and pastoral work. Liberty University, a nearby, more prominent Christian college, is somewhat of a sister school to VUL. Liberty offers courses to VUL students in areas of study not offered at their primary University.
Christian faith has long played a significant role in Black culture. Many African American families identify as Christian and want their children to attend universities that reflect their worldview. The Virginia University of Lynchburg is a perfect choice for those who wish to attend a school that is part of their faith tradition and offers options for degrees in both religious and secular fields.
Athletes at the Virginia University of Lynchburg are known as the Dragons. The school’s student-athletes compete in basketball, football, as well as both indoor and outdoor track and field. Due to its relatively small size, the school is not affiliated with the NCAA. However, their programs offer robust competition among schools of a similar size.
The campus itself has deep ties to the community and has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. The sense of history is palpable across the campus.
Virginia Union University
Another historically Black college with religious roots, Virginia Union University, was founded by the American Baptist Home Mission Society in 1865. The Civil War was just ending, and Union troops had taken over Richmond, Virginia. The missionary organization took this opportunity to set up a school where recently freed people could study to become gospel ministers.
This vision continues to the present day at the University’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology. However, the academic programs available at VUU don’t end with faith-based pursuits. It’s also home to the Sydney Lewis School of Business, the Evelyn Reid Syphax School of Education and Interdisciplinary Studies, and a School of Arts and Sciences.
The theology program counts multiple famous preachers as alumni, and the school’s motto of ‘The Lord Will Provide’ is a clear nod to the University’s religious leaning.
The school boasts a healthy Greek life with nine members of the Pan-Hellenic Council represented on the 84-acre urban campus. One of the main buildings, dating to 1899, is on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. The campus is home to about 1,800 students.
Virginia Union also offers a robust athletic program, with students competing in the NCAA’s Division II.
There are more than a dozen sports, and the school has an excellent reputation in basketball, having won titles in both men’s and women’s tournaments. The football program has also seen success, having produced multiple NFL players. The school has also nurtured NBA-level basketball talents, including Ben Wallace and Charles Oakley.
In addition to its reputation for high-quality athletics programs, Virginia Union is even more noteworthy for the accomplishments of graduates like Lawrence Douglas Wilder (the first African American governor of Virginia) and Roslyn M. Brock (a former chairman of the NAACP).
Howard University is one of the top universities in the nation and is largely considered the leading HBCU. Its star-studded alumni include US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, author Toni Morrison, actress Taraji P. Henson, and Vice President Kamala Harris, plus many others. While Howard University is in Washington DC, so not technically in Virginia, no list of HBCUs in the region would be complete without it.
Howard University was named after its founder, Oliver Otis Howard, a Civil War veteran who later served as president of the University. The school was founded in 1867, soon after the Civil War, as a theological seminary.
Still, within only a few weeks, it had blossomed into a college with a more comprehensive academic curriculum through the years. Howard has influenced many groundbreaking social and artistic movements, including the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement.
Today, Howard University’s endowment approaches $1 billion. It has almost 8,000 undergraduate students and more than 3,000 postgraduates studying an array of post-baccalaureate subjects.
Howard is a research university that offers a wide variety of degree programs across various disciplines. The 300-plus acre campus is home to 13 schools and colleges, a radio station, a hospital, and extensive student housing facilities. In addition to an abundance of Greek-letter organizations, Howard also offers over 200 student interest organizations and clubs.
Is It Worth Choosing an HBCU in Virginia?
Why do students choose to attend an HBCU? For the same reasons that students choose any school:
- The school has the academic programs they need to pursue career and personal goals.
- The tuition is what they and their families can afford.
- It is in a location that is convenient and appealing for them.
However, HBCUs offer a few additional selling points. Some Black students feel that attending an HBCU will give them a sense of belonging they might not experience at another kind of college. They are inspired by seeing themselves represented in both the staff and alumni, and they enjoy the feeling of history, cultural context, and camaraderie that’s part of the fabric of these schools.
Best HBCUs in Virginia, Final Thoughts
In this article, we’ve looked at some historically Black colleges and universities located in Virginia. As you can see, there are schools of all sizes that specialize in various degrees, programs, and interests.
If you’re interested in any of these schools, it might be good to pay a visit. Get a feel for campus life, take a tour, and examine the academic merits of each one. You will learn much more about your options, and you’re likely to enjoy the historical sites. Best of luck!