This story has been updated with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University.
From Thurgood Marshall to Oprah Winfrey, the nation’s historically black colleges and universities have educated generations of African American pioneers and professionals — doctors, lawyers, scientists, ministers, writers and thinkers. The most famous graduate of a historically black college, slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., has a monument on the Mall and a federal holiday to celebrate his birthday.
So last week, there was consternation among black lawmakers and educators when the White House released a statement raising questions about the constitutionality of federal funding measures that help historically black colleges and universities obtain low-cost construction loans for repairs, renovations and new buildings.
Trying to quiet the furor, President Trump said that the earlier statement, tucked away in the last paragraph of an appropriations signing statement, “does not affect my unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions.”
But on Wednesday, students at historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Florida booed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as spoke at the historically black school’s commencement. About half the graduates turned their backs on her as she delivered the keynote address.
Two historically black colleges — Cheyney and Lincoln universities in Pennsylvania — were founded before the Civil War. Dozens more followed after emancipation as African Americans were barred from many white colleges and universities well into the 1960s.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are now 100 HBCUs in 19 states, plus the District and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and the number students enrolling at them has risen by 32 percent since 1976.
HBCUs continue to play an outsized role in placing African American students in graduate and professional schools. And their most accomplished alumni continue to dazzle and inspire. Here are just a few of the most impressive graduates of historically black colleges and universities.
Katherine Johnson, whose life story as a “colored computer” was featured in the Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures,” graduated from West Virginia State University in 1937, with a degree in mathematics and French. West Virginia State University was founded in 1891 as a historically black college.
Johnson, who will turn 99 in August, started high school at the age of 10 and graduated from West Virginia State at 18, according to a profile in The Washington Post earlier this year.
In 1953, she began working as a NASA mathematician at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. She was so good at her job that John Glenn insisted on her calculations for Friendship 7, the first mission to orbit Earth. By the time she retired in 1986, Johnson had worked on the moon landings and the 1970 rescue of Apollo 13. She also helped write one of the first textbooks on space.
Thurgood Marshall, who made history as the country’s first black Supreme Court justice, graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1930. Three years later, Marshall earned his law degree from another historically black powerhouse: Howard University. Marshall had applied to the University of Maryland’s Law School, but he was rejected because he was black.
Marshall led the NAACP legal team that won the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, in which the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling on May 17, 1954: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
Marshall and the other lawyers were jubilant, his wife, Cissy, remembered last year. But the party afterward was brief, Cissy Marshall said, because he knew the fight to desegregate schools was just beginnings. “ ‘I don’t know about you fools,’ ” she says he told his co-workers, “ ‘but I’m going back to work. Because our work has just begun.’ ”
Martin Luther King Jr., who led the civil rights movement before he was slain in 1968, graduated from historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1948. His father, Martin Luther King Sr., and maternal grandfather, A.D. Williams, had also attended Morehouse, which was founded in 1867.
King was admitted to Morehouse after his junior year in high school, according the King Institute. During King’s tenure at Morehouse, the college president was Benjamin E. Mays, who instilled in the students his philosophy that “Morehouse men were distinctive in their talent” and must maintain a commitment “to racial uplift.”
King became president of the sociology club and a member of the debate team. King joined the college’s chapter of the NAACP. The Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection has more than 10,000 King artifacts, including hundreds of King’s handwritten notes, manuscripts and sermons.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, whom Martin Luther King Jr. once called “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South,” graduated from historically black Selma University in 1951 and from Alabama State Teachers College in 1952.
Shuttlesworth, who founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, led a challenge to segregated buses in Birmingham, Ala. A bomb exploded at his house on Dec. 25, 1956. A year later, he was beaten with chains and whips while leading a protest to integrate an all-white public school.
Shuttlesworth, who began preaching at the First Baptist Church in Selma in 1952, was a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he was secretary from 1958 to 1970.
Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery in Virginia, walked 500 miles in 1872 to attend Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Virginia. He graduated three years later in 1875. In 1881, after Alabama voted to allocate $2,000 for “a colored school,” Washington was recommended over white men to run Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama in 1881. The institute is now known as Tuskegee University.
Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet and author who became the voice of his generation, graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years before his first book of poetry, “The Weary Blues,” was published in 1926.
At Lincoln, the Langston Hughes Memorial Library holds the contents of Hughes’s personal library, which was bequeathed to the university after Hughes died in 1967.
Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize, graduated from Howard University in 1953. Morrison, who in 1993 became the first black woman awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, has written 10 novels, including “The Bluest Eye”; “Sula”; “Song of Solomon”; “Beloved” and “Jazz.” Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Oprah Winfrey, media mogul and one of the richest women in the world, attended Tennessee State University, where she was set to graduate with the Class of 1975. During a 2008 commencement speech at Stanford, Winfrey told graduates she left Tennessee State one credit short of graduation.
Although she rapidly became successful as a talk-show host, Winfrey’s father kept reminding her that she would never be successful until she finished her degree.
“I thought, I’m going to let this college thing go and I only had one credit short. But, my father, from that time on and for years after, was always on my case, because I did not graduate,” Winfrey told graduates. “He’d say, ‘Oprah Gail,’ that’s my middle name, ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna do without that degree.” And I’d say, ‘But, Dad, I have my own television show.’
And he’d say, ‘Well, I still don’t know what you’re going to do without that degree.’
“And I’d say, ‘But, Dad, now I’m a talk-show host.’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to get another job without that degree.’ ”
Tennessee State invited Winfrey back to be the 1987 commencement speaker.
“By then, I had my own show, it was nationally syndicated. I’d made a movie, had been nominated for an Oscar and founded my company, Harpo,” she said. “But I told them, I cannot come and give a speech unless I can earn one more credit, because my dad’s still saying I’m not going to get anywhere without that degree.
So, I finished my coursework, I turned in my final paper and I got the degree.” In 1986, Winfrey received her degree from Tennessee State.
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