At the opening of the 40th meeting of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, participants got a history lesson of sorts.

Ernest McNealey, president of Stillman College — a historically black, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related university here — presented a speech called “Making Bricks without Straw.”

A reference to Exodus 5, where the Israelites are charged to make more bricks with less straw, the speech provided a look at historically black colleges and the church.

“We’re criticized ... for not making as many bricks without straw,” McNealey said of historically black universities and colleges.

Higher education has long been an important part of American — and Presbyterian — tradition, McNealey said. Just 16 years after arriving in the new land, the Pilgrims founded a university, Harvard, in 1636. The first Presbyterian-related university, Princeton, was founded in 1746. The first black college, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was founded in 1837, and the first black Presbyterian university, the former Ashmun Institute (now Lincoln University), was founded in 1854.

What took the Puritans 16 years to organize took blacks more than 200, McNealey said, adding that black schools were not able to rely on benefactors like John Harvard, who gived a library to Harvard University.

“Because of slavery, because of Jim Crow, because of codified segregation that ended less than a generation ago, there are no African American captains of industry in Alabama that could support Stillman,” he said.

But even with too little resources, black colleges had a “transformative effect on newly freed slaves and their progeny,” McNealey said.

Some people say that historically black colleges and universities have too few resources because they can’t manage their money, McNealey said. But when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lays off employees and modifies its mission, is it because it cannot manage its resources?

“Or is it because there is an inadequate amount of money to manage?” McNealey said.

Presbyterian historically black colleges and universities are a modern-day example of the story of Exodus 5, McNealey said, adding that there are now only two “reasonably viable institutions” left — Stillman and Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

“The church, through default, now only provides alms for hospice for the institutions that are terminally ill,” he said.

Historically black universities and colleges are authentic keepers of African American culture, McNealey said. Key qualities that are abundant and maintained at these schools are the noble struggle, triumph over adversity, untethered talent, inventiveness, creativity and a propelling spirituality, he said.

These aspects of culture must be preserved, McNealey said, urging the audience to “give a way out of no way.”

“If people are really to have a life of the mind and a life of the spirit, you must become the John Harvards of Stillman College and Johnson C. Smith University,” he said.