(The Root) — So when we said in “19 Things Every HBCU Grad Knows” that historically black colleges get the best graduation speakers, we didn’t lie.
Some evidence: First lady Michelle Obama spoke at Bowie State University on Friday, and President Obama is set to address Morehouse College graduates on Sunday. That’s in addition to the remarks that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered at Tuskeegee on May 11. Plus, Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett is signed on for a May 20 speech at Clark Atlanta University, an administration official told The Root.
In his 2010 executive order on HBCUs, the president said that HBCUs were “established by visionary leaders” and “have produced many of the Nation’s leaders in business, government, academia, and the military and have provided generations of American men and women with hope and educational opportunity.” He praised them as “important engines of economic growth and community service.”
Here’s some of what the first lady had to say at Bowie State, in remarks that linked the school’s history to what she said was the responsibility of the graduates to society.
But most of all, to the Bowie State University class of 2013, congratulations. Oh, congratulations. You don’t know how proud we all are of you. Just look at you. We’re so proud of how hard you worked, all those long hours in the classroom, in the library. Oh, yeah. Amen. All those jobs you worked to help pay your tuition. Many of you are the first in your families to get a college degree. Some of you are balancing school with raising families of your own. So I know this journey hasn’t been easy. I know you’ve had plenty of moments of doubt and frustration and just plain exhaustion.
But listen, you dug deep and you kept pushing forward to make it to this magnificent day. And in doing so, you didn’t just complete an important chapter in your own story; you also became part of the story of this great university — a story that began nearly 150 years ago, not far from where we all sit today. As you all know, this school first opened its doors in January of 1865, in an African Baptist church in Baltimore. And by 1866, just a year later, it began offering education courses to train a new generation of African American teachers.
Now, just think about this for a moment: For generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education. Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten to within an inch of their lives. Anyone — black or white — who dared to teach them could be fined or thrown into jail. And yet, just two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, this school was founded not just to educate African Americans, but to teach them how to educate others. It was in many ways an act of defiance, an eloquent rebuttal to the idea that black people couldn’t or shouldn’t be educated. And since then, generations of students from all backgrounds have come to this school to be challenged, inspired and empowered. And they have gone on to become leaders here in Maryland and across this country, running businesses, educating young people, leading the high-tech industries that will power our economy for decades to come.
That is the story of Bowie State University, the commitment to educating our next generation and building ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work for it. All of you are now part of that story. And with that tremendous privilege comes an important set of responsibilities — responsibilities that you inherit the moment you leave this stadium with that diploma in your hand.