Cheyney University: A Tribute to the United States’ Oldest HBCU

by Heather Walker, Program Coordinator, DigiTex

In February of 1837, during a time when slavery was widespread and freedoms scarce for people of African American descent, our nation’s first historically black college emerged to stand counter to the times. Founded by Richard Humphreys, a Quaker philanthropist, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania still stands today as our nation’s first HBCU.

Richard Humphreys first determined to invest in Cheyney after witnessing the struggles of many African Americans to find jobs at a time when immigration was high and job competition fierce. A member of the Quaker faith, Humphreys was against slavery and believed in the value of educating African Americans for success. In service to this cause he invested a tenth of his estate, a sum of $10,000, to found Cheyney (Conyers, n.d. -a).

Photo of Cheyney Training School for Teachers
Cheyney Training School for Teachers (circa 1910s)

At its inception in 1837, Cheyney was initially named the African Institute. Its primary mission, as described by Humphreys, was to educate African Americans to become teachers. However, shortly after its inception, the school found itself training its students in the trades and agriculture, skills which were very much in demand at the time. Not long after its founding, the school underwent its first name change, becoming the Institute for Colored Youth, a name which it retained for over fifty years (Cheyney University, 2022b). In 1855 the Institute celebrated its first annual commencement, and in 1859 Martha Fairbeau became the school’s first female graduate (Conyers, n.d. -b).

Booker T. Washington sitting and holding books
Booker T. Washington sitting and holding books

Information for the years between 1860 and 1900 is rather scarce. However, in 1902 the Institute embarked on a new period in its development when it moved to George Cheyney’s 275-acre farm, which had been purchased for $11,000. Following its move, the Institute reopened in 1903 with a total of 14 students, and in May 1905 a formal reopening was held, with Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute serving as the keynote speaker. The years 1906 – 1913 saw rapid growth and development at the school. In 1906 a new industrial building and girls’ dormitory were added to the campus. In 1908 a county road was constructed to run past the campus, and in 1909 the Quadrangle was leveled and construction began on a new library (Conyers, n.d. -c). 

By 1913 the school had become associated with the Cheyney name and went through a series of name changes in the following years:

  • Cheyney Training School for Teachers (July 1914)
  • Cheyney State Teacher’s College (1951)
  • Cheyney State College (1959)
  • Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (1983) (Cheyney University, 2022a).

Today Cheyney University stands as the oldest institution out of fourteen members in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the only HBCU in the group (Cheyney University, 2022b).

Photo of Bayard Rustin, civil rights activist
Bayard Rustin, civil rights activist*

To say that Cheyney has left quite a footprint in American history would be an understatement. Today the university boasts over 30,000 graduates, among them such famous names as Ed Bradley, a well-known correspondent on 60 Minutes; Bayard Rustin,* a civil rights activist; and Robert W. Bogle, publisher and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune. Although Cheyney continues its tradition of service to African Americans, today’s students come from a variety of races and ethnicities and pursue many different fields including teaching, journalism, medicine, law, and business, among others (Cheyney University, 2022b).

Though recent years have seen Cheyney struggle under the weight of financial problems and declining enrollment, it continues to persevere as an institution dedicated to the success of African Americans and people of all races and ethnicities (Snyder, 2019). As an organization with a mission of “ensuring equity through collaboration” using today’s technology, DigiTex certainly understands the importance of fostering the success of all. While DigiTex has only existed for 24 years, Cheyney University can boast a full 185 years in which they have helped African American students on the road to success. Our hats are off! 

*bayard_rustin by thekirbster is licensed under CC BY 2.0.



Cheyney University. (2022a). Cheyney At A Glance. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from 

Cheyney University. (2022b). The First of Its Kind. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from

Conyers, Charlene. (n.d. -a). Cheyney University of Pennsylvania: Exploring a National Treasure, Part 1. Quaker Philanthropist: Richard Humphreys [PowerPoint slides]. Cheyney University. 

Conyers, Charlene. (n.d. -b). Cheyney University of Pennsylvania: Exploring a National Treasure, Part 2. The Institute for Colored Youth: Brief Chronology [PowerPoint slides]. Cheyney University.  

Conyers, Charlene. (n.d. -c). Cheyney University of Pennsylvania: Exploring a National Treasure, Part 3. Moving to Cheyney Station: Evolution and Growth [PowerPoint slides]. Cheyney University. 

Snyder, S. (2019, August 16). Cheyney balances budget and raises $4.4 million, both key to keeping it afloat. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from