The Howard University Graduate shares in the legacy of influential Black College Alumni
As Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes on her new position in the White House, she becomes the first in many areas, including the first graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) to serve as Vice President of the United States. Before Harris, 48 White served as Vice President. But, unlike her predecessors, Harris is not only Black, and a woman, she received her undergraduate degree from Howard University, a Black college in Washington, D.C., where she pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc., a Black sorority founded in 1908, and included in the historic Divine 9, a consortium of Black fraternities and sororities.
As the 49th Vice President of the U.S., Howard University and HBCUs can boast of what hundreds of elite predominately White colleges and universities cannot. Historically, Black colleges have had a stigma of not being on par with predominately White schools. But what many students of color discover on Black college campuses is not only a challenging education, but an experience (some for the first time, ever) of cultural solidarity and Black empowerment.
While some political icons such as Barack Obama chose Ivy League schools, Columbia and Havard universities, influencing the world is nothing new for Black college alumni. The following are just a few HBCU graduates who have made a major impact on society:
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, at the age of 15. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement, using a non-violent approach that helped lead millions of African Americans into a promised land of equality through the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that erased racist segregation policies in America. His “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington is considered one of the most powerful speeches in American history. King was assassinated in 1968. He was eventually given a national holiday in his name.
Andrew Young graduated from Howard in 1951 with a degree in biology. He eventually graduated from seminary school and became a pastor, civil rights leader, U.N. ambassador, a member of the U.S. House, and a two-term mayor in Atlanta, Georgia.
Jesse Jackson, Sr. is a graduate of North Carolina A&T University, and was a civil rights activist, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He founded the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and committed his life to improving civil rights through improving economic and educational opportunities for minorities. He is the first African-American to legitimately campaign for the presidency.
John Lewis was a graduate of Fisk University. He became an Atlanta congressman, beginning his civil rights activism in Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation across the South. He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington and four million people register to vote as the director of the Voter Education Project. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986 and was one of the most influential progressive voices in Congress.
Minister Louis Farrakhan, Sr. is a graduate of Winston-Salem State University. He is known as one of the most influential speakers for the empowerment of Black people, as the leader of the Nation of Islam. In 1996, he spearheaded the Million Man March, which united masses of African American men marching to Washington, D.C.
Thurgood Marshall graduated from Howard University and was the first African American Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He is known for creating the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He served in the Supreme court from 1967 to 1991. Before becoming a judge, Marshall won a major decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, a ruling the helped eradicate segregation in public schools.
David Dinkins was a graduate of Howard University and served as the first and only Mayor of New York City, for one term, 1990 to 1993.
Stacey Abrams is a Spelman College graduate. She was the first Black woman to become the gubernatorial nominee for a major party in the United States, and the first Black woman and first Georgian to deliver a Response to the State of the Union. Through her non-profit, Fair Fight, a national voting rights organization, she helped turned Georgia from a Republican state to a Democratic majority and helped influence the victories of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Harris drew massive support from Black college students and alumni voters, as well as members of AKA and other members of the Divine 9. According to radio.com, Dr. Glenda Glover, International president of AKA Inc., says it took far more than 300,000 votes from Kamala Harris’ sorority sisters to get her elected.
“It was the entire Divine 9,” says Glover, referring to the Black Greek letter organizations Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alpha Phi Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Iota Phi Theta, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Phi Beta Sigma, Sigma Gamma Rho, and Zeta Phi Beta. Harris became a member of AKA in 1986 while a student at Howard University in Washington D.C.
Black colleges were created in the U.S. in the 1800s to provide an alternative to a segregated education system that did not include African Americans. And while segregation is no longer a factor in Black students choosing schools, each year, thousands are still choosing the academic and social education of the HBCU.
According to U.S. Department of Education, HBCUs have played a historical role in enhancing equal educational opportunities for all students:
There are 107 HBCUs with more than 228,000 students enrolled. Fifty-six institutions are under private control, and 51 are public colleges and universities. Today, HBCUs enroll 20 percent of Black undergraduates. However, HBCUs award 40 percent of baccalaureate degrees earned by Black college students. Black colleges typically have a lower instructor-to-student ratio, and Fifty percent of Black faculty in traditionally White research universities received their bachelor’s degrees at an HBCU.
Howard University alumna, Leslie D W Jones, who received her undergraduate and Masters degrees from the university, and was also an Alpha Chapter initiate of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., predicts Harris’ presence in the White House will bring exposure to Black colleges. “I definitely think the nomination and election of Kamala Harris will be beneficial for HBCUs. We have already seen the increased media coverage of HBCUs, not only since her nomination but during her candidacy for president. Her connection to HBCUs led other Democratic candidates to include HBCUs in their platforms. I have an organization that promotes HBCUs (The Hundred-Seven) and am a member of several groups for college planning, and there has been an increase in discussions surrounding our colleges. The notion that one has to attend an HWC, or even an ‘elite’ college in order to be successful in a predominantly ‘White’ country was shattered by her nomination and election. I expect her to be an unwavering advocate for our colleges, as she has been in the Senate,” said Jones.
Before leaving a 2020 Presidential race that Harris would eventually exit, her powerful and viral statement, “That little girl is me,” connected the Vice President-elect with millions of young people of color, who through her and other trailblazers, have clear examples of the power and influence of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
This story has been altered to remove Mayor London Breed’s name from the list of HBCU graduates and to update information about HBCUs in general.