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Wilberforce University educated Black people during slavery

Aerial of Wilberforce University
Courtesy of Wilberforce University
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An aerial view of Wilberforce University, the oldest private HBCU founded by people of African descent.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years later on June 19th, 1865 Union General Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to announce General Order No. 3 and that day would go on to be known as Juneteenth. Yet in Ohio, Wilberforce University had already been actively educating African Americans during slavery. WYSO’s Kathryn Mobley spoke with its current president about the vital role this school plays in the national history of Black Americans.

Elfred Anthony Pinkard: I am Elfred Anthony Pinkard. I am the 22nd President of Wilberforce University. In 1856, when people of African descent were enslaved in the American South, people had a bold and visionary mission to create a university that would be a great university, and that was Wilberforce University. And for 466 years, this institution has existed as a beacon of possibility for people of African descent. When you talk about Juneteenth, people of African descent were informed of their freedom two years after it actually occurred. At that time, there existed an institution of higher learning where Black people were in fact gathering and learning. Wilberforce was the model. It was a prototype for what could be done for people of African descent. And so for Wilberforce to exist and to thrive in that context really was a symbol of hope and possibility for other institutions as well.

Kathryn Mobley: What is the status of that symbol of hope and possibility? Is it still strong? Is it still thriving in terms of Black universities?

Anthony Pinkard: With the onset of civil rights and the onset of the '60s and when higher education opened up, many Black students went elsewhere. And that caused a kind of intellectual brain drain, if you will. But it also shift shifted resources from from HBCUs as well. And so many of us are, in fact, fragile today.

Mobley: What can just ordinary people do? What should families think?

Anthony Pinkard: Contribute to the institution and send your sons and daughters to these institutions. Enrollment, students and finances. Those are the lifeblood of any institution.