It wasn’t long after Gabrielle Johnson completed her undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina Aiken that she yearned for a different experience in graduate school. She wrapped up at the predominantly white institution (PWI) last year and enrolled in film school at Howard University, a place she feels will help fill that void.

“I missed out on the black experience, the homecomings, teachings and history that we went through,” Johnson says. “I really wanted to experience the culture, see it, and just be immersed into it.”

“Being in a black film school, to me, means being taught by people who look like me, who have been in the industry, and who want to help the next generation succeed,” says Gabrielle Johnson, a first year film grad student at Howard University.Sasha-Ann Simons / WAMU

The 24-year-old African American woman wants to follow in the likes of her favorite famed filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Johnson wants a piece of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) legacy that shaped the lives of so many before her.

Over the years, some HBCUs have struggled to stay afloat. Still, the institutions have managed to remain relevant. Black colleges connect generations, cultivate talented professionals and house some of the most impressive collections of African American art in the country.

“I wanted to be a part of a school that really builds you up, with your people,” says Johnson.

She enrolled in the Masters of Fine Arts in Film program at Howard, despite ongoing scrutiny of the university, a huge financial aid scandal and a recent nine-day student protest.

Johnson’s not alone. Black colleges are seeing jumps in applications and enrollment. Howard University had a 25 percent increase in student applications in 2017, to almost 21,000 applicants. Known as the mecca of African American learning, Howard still draws students from all over the country.

HBCU: Where It All Began

In the early 1800s, before the Civil War, higher education opportunities for black people were virtually non-existent. Newly-freed slaves were denied admission to universities that educated whites. The people who managed to get some education, such as African American scholar Frederick Douglass, studied in less-desirable and sometimes dangerous environments. Others had to resort to teaching themselves what they could.

So, leaders in the black community created HBCUs. Black colleges educated future doctors and lawyers, lifted many African Americans out of poverty, and created the black middle class as we know it.

But financial troubles, denied accreditation and other issues have plagued HBCUs, forcing several to shut down and send their students elsewhere. There are now 101 historically black colleges and universities across a nation, which once had 126. Many of the institutions have had to cut staff, programs and raise tuition and fees that students often can’t afford.

“That need is still the same,” says William Latham, chief student development and success officer at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). “Our students come in with certain challenges that certain institutions would not recognize or be equipped to address.”

It’s Latham’s job to increase retention and graduation rates at UDC, a historically black college with a roughly 75 percent African American student body. Enrollment at UDC has declined slightly over the last few semesters, but Latham says officials are working hard to reinvigorate existing programs and add new ones, such as the recent launch of a doctoral program in engineering, and an urban leadership and entrepreneurship Ph.D. program in fall 2019.

Latham also says HBCUs are constantly asked to prove why they deserve to get funding from local governments and institutions.

“We have to make that case almost every day, and it has to be done effortlessly, in terms of how we talk about what we do, how we do it here, and how we perform,” says Latham.

Uplifting Historically Black Colleges

Down the street from the Howard campus, the HBCU Museum is a first-of-its-kind space dedicated to highlighting historically black colleges across the country. The museum opened in February 2018, a nod to Black History Month.

The 684-square-foot, two-level, storefront and outdoor space is cramped. But inside is covered wall-to-wall with historic photos and artifacts that retell the HBCU story. There’s African-inspired apparel for sale near the front window. Admission for a guided tour is $10.

The walls at the HBCU Museum in D.C. are adorned with various college memorabilia and photos of HBCU clubs and organizations. The “welcome center” also includes copies of the first copy of Ebony magazine and an original copy of Jet magazine published following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Sasha-Ann Simons / WAMU

“A lot of people that are coming to the museum are African American. A small percentage are from other cultures,” says Terrence Forte, the museum’s executive director.

But Forte says that’s expected, and he hopes to appeal to a diverse assortment of visitors who will get inspired by the museum and enroll their kids — or even themselves — in an HBCU.

The idea for the museum began as Forte brainstormed with his parents, who attended Howard in the late 1960s. Forte’s brother is the museum’s chief executive officer. Although he wouldn’t say how much the family-owned venture is costing them, Forte says community partnerships have helped make the dream possible.

“We’re not looking to become wealthy behind this process,” says Forte. “The process is wealthy in mind, wealthy in culture, wealthy in our community.”

The family is already planning for a second phase of the HBCU Museum. Construction is underway on a part museum-part resort hotel being built on a five-acre lot at an undisclosed location in Atlanta.

In phase three of the museum project, the tiny storefront which sits on Georgia Ave. Northwest and is deemed the “Welcome Center,” will be expanded to a roughly 5,000-square-foot space.