The ribs were sweet, the wine was dry and the conversation spirited. A small group of alumni of historically black Lincoln University--a judge and his researcher wife from Washington, a former Washington University professor, a Detroit teacher and artist--sat in a hotel room within the shadow of the famous St. Louis arch, wrestling with the certainty that if current sub-par funding and underenrollment continues, as many as one-third of the 102 historically black colleges may not exist in 1990.

We had come to the alumni convention of the small university that had helped educate us years before in Jefferson City, Mo., and our focus was the black graduate's responsibility to help ensure that such schools survive. The Lincoln we once knew had changed--it is now nearly 70 percent white. Would it eventually become a community college, continue as a separate institution, become an extension of the University of Missouri? Would white alumni revere as we did the small band of black infantrymen who started the college in 1866?

Florence Bowers, a researcher at George Washington University Hospital, spoke up: "Lincoln ought to survive because it has always had something to offer . . . it is our responsibility to see that these colleges survive." Added Frank Smith: "If at least some of them don't survive as first-rate institutions, the black community won't survive."

As they spoke, the treasury of Lincoln's national alumni organization contained just $5,000.

While most informed observers say federal support is the most important element in the continued survival of the historically black colleges, they agree that stronger support from blacks themselves is urgent too.

"We need to let America know we are concerned about our schools and are doing all we can to keep them alive and well," said Mary Carter-Williams, senior research fellow at Howard's educational policy institute. "I think black alumni should become politically astute," added Dr. Willie Kimmons, a Lincoln graduate and new dean of the school of education and human ecology at the University of the District of Columbia.

"They need to educate themselves and become much more aware of what is happening to our institutions," he added. "A number of our alumni are really thinking in terms of how things used to be. But it's a new day in higher education."

There are an estimated one million black alumni of historically black colleges, and past graduates include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin E. Mays, Jesse Jackson, and W.E.B. DuBois. But many blacks today are ambivalent about these schools. A 1980 Black Enterprise survey noted that while 80 percent of respondents felt these institutions serve a purpose no other institution could, 54.9 percent wouldn't send their children to one.

But even if the children prefer Tufts to Tuskegee, why can't the alumni give substantially to their alma maters? Fisk University President Walter J. Leonard said there are Fisk graduates in the ritziest of D.C. neighborhoods who do very little. "Fisk graduates are the epitome of the black middle class," he said. Last year $225,000 of the $2 million in gifts came from graduates.

The sophisticated United Negro College Fund has been by far the most successful at tapping alumni support for its 42 private member schools. Such support quadrupled between 1969 and 1975, and slackened only slightly from 1976 to 1980. Black alumni consistently give their colleges less than white alumni, however, says the UNCF.

Although the 60 public black colleges lack such a dynamic lobbying group, alumni studies conclude that their numbers, if organized, constitute a tremendous strength for change. "Alumni should take up the slack," says Kimmons. "We have a yeoman job and not much time."

Can blacks afford to come to the aid of their colleges? Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th Century, blacks contributed at least $24 million of the $81 million provided for educating blacks.

Money is less of an issue than the poor image of black schools and the lack of organized alumni effort. Some may even feel it is a losing battle. But it need not be if alumni and administrators get together and face reality: some schools must be closed and others consolidated to maximize the strength of those remaining. "If alumni don't step in," says Kimmons, "the future is bleak."