In 1989, Winfrey gave the commencement address at Morehouse College — where she proclaimed that she wanted to do more to educate black men — and since has donated $12 million to the school, making her the institution’s top donor. Through the Oprah Winfrey Scholarship, more than 400 Morehouse students have benefited from Winfrey’s philanthropy, with 300 of them participating in a moving ceremony during the penultimate The Oprah Winfrey Show episode that aired last year.
Winfrey’s AUC relationship continues as three students from the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa will attend Spelman in the fall as part of the Class of 2016.
“My cousin actually worked with them so she knows them and she’s actually very excited for them. I know that they’re going to have a wonderful time,” Spelman graduate Janelle Duckett, who received a psychology degree Sunday and will now head to Brooklyn, N.Y., to teach first-grade math and reading at an all-girls charter school, told The Root. “I feel that a lot of the values that they learned at Oprah’s school are going to transition into Spelman. I’m happy that Oprah is here to see it happen.” Duckett’s cousin, fellow Spelman graduate Zuri Ray-Alladice, recently completed a drama internship teaching acting techniques to students at Winfrey’s school in South Africa.
Spelman also bestowed honorary degrees during Sunday’s ceremony to public health advocate Dazon Dixon Diallo and actress, playwright and educator Anna Deavere Smith. Actress LaTonya Richardson Jackson, wife of Samuel L. Jackson and Spelman alumna, received an honorary degree earlier in the year and attended the graduation.
“It’s very moving to me because to be honored at Spelman means that it’s welcoming me into the sisterhood which means very much to me,” Smith told The Root. “And also, it’s welcoming me into that circle of people who commit themselves to both excellence and service.”
Actress Vanessa Bell Calloway and her friend, Star Jones, were spotted at the commencement ceremony for her daughter, Ashley Calloway, who received a degree in economics. Filmmaker Robert Townsend also attended the graduation to see his daughter, Sierra T. Townsend, receive a degree in psychology.
Diallo, founder and president of SisterLove Inc., received an honorary degree for her HIV/AIDS activism. A Spelman class of 1986 graduate, Diallo created the first women’s HIV/AIDS nonprofit organization in the Southeast. She also teaches women’s health at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Masters of Public Health Program in Atlanta.
“It’s sort of a full circle of coming home,” Diallo said of her honor. “The activism in my life started at Spelman — and it wasn’t always easy — and now I’m actually being recognized for that. And so, it’s tremendous.”
Aisha I. Jefferson is a contributor to The Root.