Nestled in the campestral sprawl that is the rural outskirts of Philadelphia, no more than 35 minutes from each other, are Cheyney University and Lincoln University, the two historically black colleges or universities in Pennsylvania. Their campuses are living, moving, thriving tributes to their culture-rich communities and the giftedness of the Diaspora.
Each has educated and empowered students of African descent for more than a century and a half. Each has nurtured and fortified a talent pool of leaders and scholars, professionals and visionaries. And each vehemently claims the distinction of being the first HBCU.
Rivalries between schools—particularly black schools—heighten the student experience and fuel alumni pride. Collegiate competitions have percolated because of geographic boundaries (Clark vs. Morehouse), naming convention (Hampton vs. Howard) and football faceoffs (Grambling vs. Southern). Others date back so far, no one can rightly recall when they started or why they exist in the first place, though that doesn’t turn down the passion that feeds them. In the case of Cheyney vs. Lincoln, bragging rights to the title of “the first HBCU” are rooted in historical perspective.
“There are two different ways of looking at it,” explained Dr. George Cooper, executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs. “Are you looking at an institution because of its chronological age, regardless of degrees offered, or are you looking at baccalaureate degrees awarded?”
For students and graduates of each respective university, there’s no question: their school is the obvious title holder. Even reputable third-party resources aren’t in consistent agreement. Details around which school is the first are as inconclusive as public opinion:
According to the History Channel: Lincoln
On the PBS website: Cheyney
In a blog post on CNN written by Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund: Lincoln
In research published by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights: Cheyney
That same variance in opinion has sparked impassioned exchanges and heated debates at barber shops, bus stops, church halls, sporting events, day care centers, family get-togethers—anywhere a Lincolnian, a Cheyneyite or any member of their equally adamant inner circle may be around to defend the honor of the institution they believe to be the inaugural HBCU. The annual Cheyney vs. Lincoln games, both in basketball and football, are sporting battle royales and trash talk extravaganzas. Urban legend even whispers stories about the meltdown of meetings between suit-wearing, Ph.D.'d academicians because their participants got caught up in a verbal CU vs. LU showdown. Everybody’s got an opinion. But opinion doesn’t inform facts.
Founded in 1837 as the African Institute, the school now known as Cheyney University was formed as a result of a $10,000 endowment from Richard Humphreys, reportedly a onetime slave trader who not only revolutionized his own life by becoming a Quaker, but rectified personal and social wrongs by donating money to help young African Americans get training in skilled trades. Through the offering of basic subjects like reading, writing and math, in addition to mechanics and agriculture, Humphreys hoped the learned would in turn teach the unlearned, creating a domino effect of education among young, black folks.
The school moved from its original home in Philadelphia to a farm some 25 miles outside the city once it was owned by another Quaker named George Cheyney. Until that point, it had been a secondary school. In 1914, it was renamed the Cheyney Training School for Teachers. That same year, it became an institution of higher learning and awarded its first degree. In those 77 years between its inception and its formalization as a university, 97 other historically black colleges and universities had been founded.
Down the stretch of what is now Route 1 South, Ashmun Institute was chartered in 1854 by Presbyterian minister the Rev. John Miller Dickey and his wife, Sarah Emlen Cresson, who was a Quaker, to provide higher education in the arts and sciences for black men. The plan of action was to groom them as teachers and send them, at least in part, to colonize Liberia and evangelize as Christians. That intention was remixed after interest in the “back to Africa” movement floundered and students became increasingly successful in professional fields. By 1866, the year the school was renamed Lincoln University in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, there were 100 young men on campus. (Women were admitted many, many years later in 1952.)
“When people ask the question about the oldest HBCU,” said Cooper, “Lincoln University stands out because it was chartered in 1854 as a higher education institution. Cheyney can say that they existed for a longer period of time, but not as a university. They were created in 1837, but they didn’t award college degrees until 1914.”
Today marks Founder’s Day at Lincoln, a celebration of 160 years since the university was chartered and its campus etched into the lush middle-of-nowhereness that has physically enveloped generations of students and faculty. The debate between it and Cheyney will undoubtedly continue as part of a long-standing tradition and healthy competition.
“Both of them are certainly distinguished institutions in their own right and have done great work over the years,” added Anthony Ray, founder and chairman of HBCU Nation and host of HBCU Nation radio. “I’ve got to go with Lincoln for my answer, but when we put things in historical perspective, both have made tremendous contributions to the nation and the world at large by carrying out their missions.”
Writer and editor Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook. She's a graduate of Lincoln.