DeVos is an ardent supporter of diverting federal funds to school choice, or alternatives to public schools. In her statement, she said a key priority for the administration is to develop opportunities for underserved communities through funding and structural reforms, just as HBCUs have done "since their founding."
She praised the schools for identifying a system that wasn't working -- "an absence of opportunity" -- and taking it upon themselves "to provide the solution."
"They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education," she said of the schools.
"HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality."
However well-intentioned, her statement triggered backlash among HBCU supporters who said she failed to acknowledge the real reason for their creation.
HBCUs arose in response to racist Jim Crow laws in the American South that enforced segregation, shutting out black students from traditionally white schools with a few exceptions.
"Excuse me, [Betsy DeVos], the system you're describing isn't 'choice.' It's Jim Crow and segregation," U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said on Twitter.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, called the statement "tone-deaf" and "uninformed," noting that for many years, HBCUs weren't additional options but the "only option."
"Providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school is the legacy of #HBCUs," DeVos said on Twitter. "But your history was born not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War."