There was a long time in the United States when many young people had no choice but to attend a college founded specifically to teach Black students, with the doors of other schools explicitly closed to them. The earliest of those universities were invaluable for educating Black communities.

Today, the overt racism and legal barriers may be gone, but historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) still play a vital and irreplaceable role in U.S. education. They value and honor African American heritage, provide a supportive environment -- especially for students who have coped with racism and minority status in their schools -- and make sure that disadvantaged and underserved communities have top-notch educational opportunities.

Their graduates include the earliest unsung teachers and nurses whose educations would make an historic difference to today's shining stars, such as the nation's first Black, and female, vice president, Kamala Harris. Others include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., poets Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes, writers Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker, artists Spike Lee and Lionel Richie, and author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois.

LOOK: Here are the biggest HBCUs in America

More than 100 historically Black colleges and universities are designated by the U.S. Department of Education, meeting the definition of a school "established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans."

StudySoup compiled the 20 largest historically Black colleges and universities in the nation, based on 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Each HBCU on this list is a four-year institution, and the schools are ranked by the total student enrollment.

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