Originally, Fort Hare was indeed an English fort in the wars between British and the amaXhosa of the 19th century. Some of the ruins of the fort are still visible today. Missionary activity (James Stewart) led to the creation of a school for missionaries from which at the beginning of the 20th century the University resulted. It was the second university of South Africa (after Cape Town) and the first tertiary educational facility open to Africans in the whole of the continent. The University can count a number of famous people, even presidents (Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe) amongst its alumni.
In the struggle years there was much anti-apartheid activity, including the black consciousness movement of Steve Biko.
Unfortunately, the end of apartheid has not been kind to the University, as is indeed the case for other historically disadvantaged institutions in South Africa.
The student numbers dropped greatly, because black students could now go to other (historically white) institutions. In addition, the first black Vice Chancellor (Sibusisu Bhengu) proclaimed that 'the halls of learning would now be opened to all'. The result was that the students stopped paying their tuition. Once Bhengu was promoted to minister of education, however, he insisted that the university was responsible for the resulting budget deficit. His successor, Mbulelo Mzamane was locally known as the Visiting Chancellor, because he was not present very often. Once impending bankruptcy resulted in the refusal of the banks to honor UFH paychecks, staff and students joined forces and expelled managers by force. The new management under Derrick Swartz imposed a restructuring program that has given the university a future rather than just a glorious past. Currently, however, South Africa's government is still considering merging the institution with other institutions in the Eastern Cape.
See also: List of universities in South Africa