During the 1830s, the Lovedale Missionary Institute was built near Fort Hare. James Stewart, one of its missionary principals, suggested in 1878 that an institution for higher education of black students needed to be created. However, he did not live to see his idea created into reality when, in 1916, Fort Hare was established with Alexander Kerr as its first principal. D.D.T Jabavu was its first black staff member who lectured in Latin and black languages. In accord with its Christian principles, fees were low and heavily subsidised. Several scholarships were also available for indigent students.
Fort Hare had many associations over the years before it became a university in its own right. It was initially the South African Native College attached to the University of South Africa. Then as the University College of Fort Hare associated with Rhodes University. In 1959, with the passing of the Promotion of Bantu Self Government Act, higher educational institutions would be strictly segregated along racial lines and saw Fort Hare becoming a black university in its own right in 1970, strictly controlled by the state government.
It was a key institution in higher education for black Africans from 1916 to 1959. It offered a Western-style academic education to students from across sub-Saharan Africa, creating a black African elite. Fort Hare alumni were part of many subsequent independence movements and governments of newly independent African countries.
Several leading opponents of the apartheid regime attended Fort Hare, among them Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress, Desmond Tutu, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Mandela who studied Latin and physics there for almost two years in the 1940s, left the institution as a result of a conflict with a college leader. He later wrote in his autobiography that “For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.”
During the apartheid years, the school was nationalized and segregated along racial and tribal lines; blacks had previously gone to classes with Indians, coloureds and a few white students. It became part of the Bantu education system and teaching in African languages rather than English was encouraged