The first HBCUs were established in the North and were products of independent religious institutions or philanthropic Christian missionaries. The first two were Cheyney University (Pennsylvania), founded in 1837, and Wilberforce University (Ohio), founded in 1856. However, historically black colleges and universities cannot be examined without revisiting major legislations and court decisions that led to the birth of many and the death of a few. The First Morrill Act (also known as the National Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862) made postsecondary education accessible to a broader population of American citizens. Ten years after this act was legislated, the Freedman's Bureau was established to provide support to a small number of HBCUs. The Second Morrill Act of 1890 led to the establishment of nineteen HBCUs. Although these three legislative acts provided an atmosphere for change, it was the segregation movement in the South that provided the impetus for black higher education, particularly with the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ultimately established by law the right to set up separate but equal schools for blacks. This decision led to the expansion and growth of historically black colleges and universities.
Historically black colleges and universities increased from one in 1837 to more than 100 in 1973. Most of these colleges were founded after the Plessyv. Ferguson decision. According to Jacqueline Fleming, "the majority of black public colleges, then, evolved out of state desires to avoid admitting blacks to existing white institutions" . On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that separate education for blacks in public schools was unconstitutional because separate facilities are inherently unequal. This decision, which ended de jure racial segregation in public schools, also impacted higher education, as states were required to dismantle dual systems of higher education. This required predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to open their doors to black students, who prior to this time could not attend these institutions.