‘Stepping’ Art Form Grew out of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

February 8, 2024
Bedford High School’s step team – the G Squad – will perform at Thursday’s Black History Month celebration in the BHS gym. Courtesy photo

On Thursday, Feb. 8, as part of the Black History Month Community celebration, Bedford will have a chance to see a Bedford High school step team in action, along with a contingent from a chapter of Phi Beta Sigma, an HBCU fraternity.

Where did the tradition of step dancing originate? It came from America’s HCBUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). As African American began to attend colleges in greater numbers in the 1900s, they created their own Greek-letter organizations. Stepping became a way for these student groups to express love and pride in their organizations.

What is Stepping?

As described by the professional organization StepAfrika, “Stepping is a percussive, highly-energetic art form first developed through the song and dance rituals performed by African-American fraternities and sororities. In stepping, the body becomes an instrument, using footsteps, claps, and spoken word to produce complex poly-rhythms. Stepping has been described as “one of the most exciting dance forms created in the 21st century.”

More About HCBUs

How many HCBUs can you name? Howard University in Washington, DC may be the first name that comes to mind because the current Vice President of the U.S., Kamala Harris, is an alumna. But all told, there are 180 HCBUs in the country. Morehouse College in Atlanta was the undergraduate college of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (his graduate degrees were from Boston University). The HBCUs arose in the early 19th century because Blacks were not allowed to attend white colleges. Cheyney University in Cheyney, PA was the first – established in 1824 by a $10,000 grant from a Quaker philanthropist and it is still very much in operation today. A noted alumnus was the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. The first degree-granting institution was Lincoln University, also in PA, founded in 1854. 

The U.S. Department of Education reported that from the late 1800s to the late 1900s, HBCUs thrived and provided refuge from laws and public policy that prohibited Black Americans from attending most colleges and universities. They provided undergraduate training for 75 percent of all Black Americans holding a doctorate degree, 75 percent of all Black officers in the armed forces, and 80 percent of all Black federal judges. 

Morehouse College in Atlanta was the undergraduate college of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Morehouse College photo

HBCUs Hit Hard by Pandemic

In September 2020, Congress approved an emergency half billion-dollar bailout to revive the HCBUs from near financial collapse during the pandemic, which disproportionately hit poor and minority communities. In December 2020, The Washington Post reported that philanthropist MacKenzie Scott (former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) planned to distribute $5 billion to 22 HCBUs, among other colleges. Howard University received $40 million – no strings attached. 

An excellent source of information on HCBUs comes from HBCU First, “a student-led community advancing the economic participation and well-being of America’s Black youth.” At their website, you will find a wealth of material including a two-minute video produced by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates documenting the founding and rise of HBCUs.

According to the Gates video, “Today, all 100+ HBCUs across the United States continue to play a vital role in America’s prosperity – academically, socially, and economically. They also are becoming a magnet for international students, largely due to their strong academic programs, affordability, and diverse and inclusive environments. Although HBCUs were originally founded to educate Black Americans, today one in four students (24 percent) enrolled at HBCUs is non-Black.”

Learn more at https://hbcufirst.com/resources/hbcu-history-timeline.

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