An “Island Within”: Black Students and Black Higher Education Prior to 1965

  • Ibram X. Kendi
Part of the Contemporary Black History book series (CBH)


People of African descent had educated themselves for thousands of years in scholastic centers across Africa. They learned and analyzed the social, physical, and spiritual world during antiquity in renowned universities in Egypt that taught legendary Greek philosophers, and later in the bustling West African cities of Timbuktu and Jenne. When hundreds of thousands of Africans were snatched from their communities and enslaved in the United States, they were shut out of colleges and universities for two centuries, as were most Americans. Outside of the formal academy, African people maintained their storied tradition of higher learning in informal manners and in clandestine schools. Eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley and the multi-talented Benjamin Banneker both received a home-schooled higher education. Princeton president John Witherspoon secretly tutored John Chavis, who went on to study at Washington and Lee in the late 1790s. (His great-great-grandson Ben Chavis later managed the BCM at UNC Charlotte). Bound out to a religious family as a teenager, Maria Stewart peered through the family library and took advantage of religious teaching to become an intrepid nineteenth-century public speaker for women’s rights and abolition. Jemmy, Gabriel Prosser, and Nat Turner are a few of the innumerable enslaved and free Africans who employed their higher learning in the planning and execution of slave revolts, which invariably led to slaveholder revolts against black learning.1


Black Student White Student Black College White Supremacy Free Black 
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© Ibram H. Rogers 2012

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  • Ibram X. Kendi

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