NASHVILLE — Martin Luther King Jr. Civil rights activist and longtime congressman John Lewis. Writer Langston Hughes. Oprah Winfrey.

Just a few names firom the long and prestigious list of leaders and innovators educated at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

“HBCUs built the black middle class,” says Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. “Without them, blacks could not be where they are today.”

That legacy continues at about 100 institutions nationwide that were started to serve black communities before desegregation. Today, about two-thirds of all U.S. black engineers, physicians and scientists are graduates of HBCUs.

“HBCUs were, and are, centers of black empowerment,” Gasman says.

The schools have weathered competition from larger universities, and some have bounced back after enrollment declines and financial hardships. Struggles persist, however. Enrollment hovers at about 300,000 students nationwide, but interest has spiked recently at some of the nation’s HBCUs.

Fisk University in Nashville, which counts W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells among its alumni, has endured, thanks to its legacy of high expectations, says Reavis Mitchell, a Fisk history professor.

During segregation, Mitchell says, HBCUs attracted the best black students in the country. Many of those students went on to become physicists, mathematicians and scholars.

Some of the 105 Fisk University students march toward their degrees May 12, 1986 during their 112th commencement program on campus.
Billy Easley / The Tennessean

“For years, (HBCUs) had the pick of the very best and brightest,” he says. “At the end of segregation, they had rich histories, and there was a tradition of students coming to prepare for future success.”

For instance, Mitchell says, Fisk alumnus St. Elmo Brady went on to become the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. Brady received his doctorate from the University of Illinois in 1916.

November 9, 2017 - Matthew Hopson, 21, a junior at LeMoyne-Owen College, assembles the Eiffel Tower for an upcoming fashion show called "Black Paris" in the student center. Enrollment at historically black colleges and universities is up nationally and in Tennessee.
Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal

That history is front and center, Mitchell says.

“Students that attend and come to HBCUs see an opening to the American dream,” Mitchell says. “I’m not saying that’s not the case in other places, but that is the mind-set in a black college campus. That is encouraged by professors.”

World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, center, walks with officials as several Fisk University students watch and attempts to greet him in front of Jubilee Hall on campus after a press conference April 23, 1975.
Frank Empson / The Tennessean

After the civil rights movement, which began in the halls of HBCUs, many institutions began making it their mission to serve first-generation and low-income students — like many of the former slaves and children of slaves that the schools originally educated, Mitchell says.

More recently, many schools have also focused enrollment efforts on diversity and new American students. That focus hasn’t diminished the overall mission of the schools, Gasman said.

The Jubilee Singers is one of the musical groups of Fisk University performing during taping of a special production on stage of the Grand Ole Opry House April 23, 1975. The taping will be edited into a half-hour nationwide television special sponsored by the Carnation Milk Co. and set for airing in the summer.
Frank Empson / The Tennessean

“HBCUs are beginning to reach out to non-blacks, including whites but, more importantly, Latinos and Asians, to increase enrollment,” Gasman says. “These students are mostly low-income and thus, I think, reaching out to other groups fulfills the original mission, but expands it as well.”

Graduate Student Jasmin Tindal works on a project in the Fisk chemistry lab. Fisk University's enrollment numbers have bounced back after lows. This falls in line with strong interest in HBCUs and increased enrollment in freshman classes among HBCUs. Wednesday Nov. 15, 2017, in Nashville, TN
Larry McCormack / The Tennessean

Indeed, the mission of working with underserved students, no matter their ethnicity, brings with it its own joys, says Phyllis Freeman, a Fisk associate professor of biology. “Each life I impact, each life I touch, they go back into their communities and its vastness,” she says.

She says she could teach and do the same type of research at another institution. But seeing the success of Fisk students who often are the first in their family to attend college can’t be understated, she says.

“As far as being a change agent, I think I will work here until I take my last breath,” Freeman says.