Commentary

Happy 185th birthday to Cheyney University: America’s first HBCU | Michael Coard

The Philadelphia institution celebrates on Feb. 25. It’s not getting older – it’s getting better

Top left, Institute for Colored Youth bylaws (1865); top right, students gather outside Humphreys Hall (undated, circa 1906); bottom left, Institute for Colored Youth baseball team (undated, pre-1924); bottom right, letter by Octavius V. Catto dated 10/2/1870 (Photo collage via the Cheyney University archives/The Philadelphia Tribune).

By Michael Coard

PHILADELPHIA — First of all, please allow me to set the record straight. Cheyney is the oldest Black institution of higher learning in America and is therefore the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in America.

Michael Coard (Twitter)

However, there are actually four “first” HBCUs and they all are absolutely remarkable schools. Allow me to explain:

Cheyney University 1837 (Pennsylvania)- the first Black institution of higher learning in America (i.e., a Black institution whose founding trustees required rigorous academic courses followed by grueling oral and written exams in the fields of calculus, geometry, algebra, chemistry, science, mechanical engineering, agricultural engineering, Latin, English literature, etc. before awarding an official Pennsylvania certification that was required to become a licensed teacher).

The others are:

  • Lincoln University 1854 (Pennsylvania)- the first Black degree-granting institution in America.
  • Wilberforce University 1856 (Ohio)- the first completely Black-owned and operated degree-granting institution in America.
  • Shaw University 1865 (North Carolina)- the first Black degree-granting institution in America’s blatantly and brutally racist Deep South.

These four HBCUs, along with the other 103 HBCUs totaling 107 with more than 228,000 students in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are great schools for Black students as evidenced by the fact that- despite representing less than three percent of this country’s colleges and universities- they have produced the following:

  • 80% of Black judges
  • 70% of Black dentists
  • 70% of Black physicians
  • 60% of Black engineering degree holders
  • 50% of Black lawyers
  • 50% of Black teachers
  • 40% of Black engineers, health professionals, and STEM degree holders
  • 40% of Black members of Congress

As a proud Cheyney alumnus, I’m writing about my HBCU alma mater because Feb. 25, 2022 will mark the 185th anniversary of its 1837 founding.

Think about that for a minute. Cheyney was born during slavery. In fact, it was born 28 years before the 13th Amendment “abolished” slavery in 1865.

Cheyney’s history begins with Richard Humphreys, a Quaker, born in 1750 in the Caribbean where, as a white man, he witnessed and was outraged by the horrific enslavement and vicious exploitation of Blacks. At age 14, he traveled to Philadelphia as a goldsmith apprentice.

After learning the gold-smithing trade, he started establishing his own business at 54 High Street and eventually became quite wealthy. However, he was outraged when he would often see the increasingly violent mistreatment of Black men, women, and children at the hands of white immigrant laborers in Philadelphia.

And it was right here in this city in 1829 where he witnessed what newspapers called race riots but what he obviously knew to be savage racist attacks by bloodthirsty whites on defenseless Blacks.

He believed that the best way- the only way- for Blacks to avoid such sadistic victimization at the hands of thuggish whites who viewed Blacks as subhuman cheap labor competition for scarce blue-color jobs was for Blacks to pursue higher education. By doing so, Blacks could attain much better social status with much better employment and thereby avoid being widely exposed to murderous racist thuggery.

Cheyney University (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Michael D’Onofrio)

Accordingly, immediately after those monstrous 1829 lynch mob-type attacks, Humphreys changed his will to bequeath $10,000 (worth $292,862 in 2022) to 13 members of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends (called the Quakers).

As documented by the Richard Humphreys Foundation Records, this money was for the purpose of establishing a school for “instructing the descendants of the African Race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanical arts and trades and in Agriculture … in order to prepare … them to act as teachers in … those branches….”

IF YOU GO: Attend Cheyney’s Virtual Founder’s Day event at 1 p.m. on Feb. 25 by requesting an invitation at [email protected]

Following this great ancestor’s (and I do mean “ancestor’s”) death in 1832, his estate in Philadelphia on the historic date of Feb. 25, 1837 finalized the “African Institute’s text, preamble, and constitution” pursuant to his will for the “education and improvement of the Children and youth, of the African race, by instructing them in literature, Science, Agriculture, and the Mechanical Arts.”

The African Institute, which two months later was renamed the Institute for Colored Youth, opened with five students and was situated just outside Philadelphia at a 136 acre farm on Old York Road, seven miles north of the city, from 1839-1846. A few years later, from 1849-1852, it relocated to a single classroom in a building on Barclay Street and from 1852-1857 was headquartered at Seventh and Lombard Streets before moving to Ninth and Bainbridge (then known as Shippen) Streets from 1866-1903.

After Quaker George Cheyney’s farm, located 25 miles west of Philadelphia, was purchased by the institute’s trustees in 1902, the school began setting up there. It officially opened on those lushly beautiful grounds on May 9, 1905 with none other than Booker T. Washington as the school’s keynote speaker.

The Institute for Colored Youth was retitled Cheyney Training School for Teachers in 1914 and Cheyney State Normal School in 1920.

On January 1, 1922, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased the school for $75,000 (which is $1,255,125 in 2022 dollars).

In 1951, it became Cheyney State Teachers College and was renamed Cheyney State College in 1959.

By the way, I can’t forget to mention that, in 1978, the Cheyney State College Wolves, with Hall of Famer John Chaney as coach, won the NCAA Division II Basketball Championship. Wow! A national championship!

Minority-owned company brings testing facility to Cheyney University

I also can’t forget that, in 1982, the Cheyney State College “Lady Wolves,” with Hall of Famer C. Vivian Stringer as coach, won the Pennsylvania Conference Basketball Championship and competed in the historic March 28 NCAA Basketball Division I (One) national championship game- the first NCAA Basketball Division I women’s championship game ever. Wow! A historic championship game!

This epoch-making institution in 1983 emerged as Cheyney University. And since then, we’ve gotten better despite some external “racistly” motivated obstacles.

For instance, check out a few examples of how we got better:

For the Fall 2021 semester, Cheyney University experienced the highest year-over-year enrollment growth among all the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and was one of only two universities with an increase in enrollment.

Cheyney University’s administration has successfully balanced the budget for the last three consecutive fiscal years. Prior to this, the university’s most recent balanced budget was ten years ago.

Cheyney University was able to utilize funds received from the federal stimulus package to forgive approximately $400,000 in outstanding student balances, minimizing the financial hardships students and their families have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This bold action recently attracted national media coverage on “CBS Mornings” with Gayle King and Nate Burleson.

Cheyney University has hosted the “Breaking Barriers” series that evolved into an innovative program placing the university at the forefront of addressing two major current issues, namely COVID-19 and also civil unrest stemming from systemic racism.

Cheyney University’s turnaround is a blueprint to saving Pa.’s state-owned universities | Mark O’Keefe

Cheyney University, with its prestigious Keystone Honors Undergraduate Scholarship Program and Bond Hill Graduate School Scholarship Program, is attracting more academically talented students with higher GPAs and SAT scores.

Also, spread the word before and after February 25 about Cheyney’s historic and current greatness to your sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, nieces, nephews, and others who have recently graduated from high school or who soon will graduate from high school.

Tell them to apply for admission to America’s first HBCU and to follow in the momentous footsteps of Octavius V. Catto, Martha Fairbeau, Dr. Rebecca Cole, Julian Abele, Bayard Rustin, Marcus Foster, Ed Bradley, and many others.

Happy 185th Birthday, Cheyney! You’re not getting older. You’re getting better.

Opinion contributor Michael Coard is an attorney and radio host. He wrote this column for the Philadelphia Tribune, where it first appeared

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