6 Famous Americans Who Graduated From Historically Black Colleges

Oprah Winfrey celebrates receiving an honorary degree from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia during the school’s 2017 graduation ceremony. (© Marcus Ingram/WireImage/Getty Images)

A robust education punctuated by a valuable diploma: this is the promise of American universities. And the colleges and historically black universities are among the best institutions to consider for students considering pursuing an education in the United States.

The United States Department of Education recognizes 101 ” colleges and Historically Black Universities,” commonly referred to by the acronym HBCU. These are establishments founded before 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted which made discrimination illegal. One of the main objectives of this law was precisely to facilitate the education of African-American students who were often not welcome in white universities.

HBCUs, which are open to all students without discrimination, make up only 3% of higher education institutions in the United States, yet they enroll 10% of all black students. For many young people who graduate there, they represent a stepping stone to the middle class, according to a 2021 report from the United Negro College Fund* (PDF, 1.8 MB).

Over the past few decades, HBCU graduates have made a lasting impact on all aspects of society. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020), the genius mathematician employed by NASA and whose story was immortalized in the famous film Hidden Figures, was educated at West Virginia State University. United States Vice President Kamala Harris is a graduate of Howard University. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson studied at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (“North Carolina A&T”).

In the show business, Lionel Richie, the famous R&B composer and judge on the show american idol, graduated from Tuskegee University. Spike Lee, a prolific Oscar-nominated director whose films mostly focus on black life in the United States, was educated at Morehouse College. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker attended Spelman College.

Here are other American personalities who studied in middle School and historically black universities.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Black and white photo of Martin Luther King waving to a crowd, with the Washington Monument in the background (© AFP/Getty Images)
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King waves to the crowd during the 1963 March on Washington. (© AFP/Getty Images)

Martin Luther King, the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader, was educated at Morehouse College. It was during this period that he understood that religion could be a powerful catalyst for social change. He will devote his life to the nonviolent struggle for racial equality in the United States. His leadership was a driving force in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Common, smiling, standing between two young women about to give a high five (© Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images)
Rapper and activist Common (center), at a 2020 protest for racial justice (© Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images)

Common is the stage name of Lonnie Rashid Lynn, the first rapper to win a Grammy, Oscar and Emmy. The socially-minded rapper attended Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (“Florida A&M” or “FAMU”) before establishing the Common Ground Foundation to support education and youth leadership. He recently launched Imagine Justice, a non-profit organization whose goal is to end the criminalization of poverty.

Evelynn Hammonds

Evelynn Hammonds smiling, standing in front of a building (© Kris Snibbe/Harvard University)
Evelynn Hammonds on the Harvard University campus (© Kris Snibbe/Harvard University)

Evelynn Hammonds, a graduate of Spelman College, is a distinguished professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University. Prior to Harvard, she taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and founded the Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology and Medicine. In 2014, President Barack Obama asked her to serve on his Advisory Commission for Excellence in the Education of African Americans.

jerry rice

Jerry Rice, smiling, in a business suit, hands an American football to a fan in a stadium (© Josie Lepe/AP Images)
Former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice signs autographs before a game in 2018. (© Josie Lepe/AP Images)

NFL Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Rice started out playing American football on the Mississippi Valley State University team. Graduated in 1984, he played for 20 years in the NFL. When he retired and left the San Francisco 49ers team, he had no less than 38 records as a professional. The retired wide receiver still holds several college records, including most points scored in a career (310) and most touchdowns in a single game (five).

David Satcher

David Satcher, in profile (© David Goldman/AP Images)
Dr. David Satcher, a former US surgeon general, is the founding director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine. (© David Goldman/AP Images)

David Satcher, a medical school teacher and administrator, made his mark in the 1990s as the first director of the United States Public Health Service (” general surgeon ) under the administration of President Bill Clinton, a first at the time for a black man. He published reports on tobacco use and worked to eliminate racial disparities in health. Previously, this alumnus of Morehouse College, headed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Oprah Winfrey

Barack Obama hanging a medal around his neck with Oprah Winfrey standing in front of him with her back to him (© Evan Vucci/AP Images)
President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey in 2013. (© Evan Vucci/AP Images)

Before launching her famous TV show, Oprah Winfrey studied at Tennessee State University. Over her 25-year career, the presenter has earned a solid reputation as a trendsetter, literary critic and astute interviewer. In 1986, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the film The color purple. And in 2014, the feature film Selma, which she co-produced, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Additionally, she was the first black woman to make the magazine’s 2003 list of billionaires. Forbes.

HBCUs are made up of universities offering four-year courses and community colleges offering two-year courses. They include everything from law school to medical school to colleges that teach liberal arts or theology. In May, President Biden announced the granting of $2.7 billion* at HBCUs. This record federal funding demonstrates the government’s commitment to the missions of these institutions to promote academic excellence and provide opportunities for Black students.

Foreign students who wish to study in the United States can receive information through the network of counseling centers EducationUSA* United States Department of State installed in over 175 countries and territories.

*in English

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6 Famous Americans Who Graduated From Historically Black Colleges