As W.E.B. Du Bois once said, “There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise. The human soul cannot be permanently chained.” Du Bois set himself apart from his peers with such self-determination, eventually becoming a class valedictorian and leader in his youth. Throughout history, African Americans have overcome obstacles to lead their academic classes and have gone on to achieve great things. As part of a series on academic scholarship, The Root takes a look at current celebrities and historical figures who were valedictorians or salutatorians, coming in either first or second in their class.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the scholar, historian, writer, editor, educator and civil rights activist, seemed destined for greatness from the start. A founding member of the NAACP, he was born and raised in Great Barrington, Mass. His mother was a domestic worker and his father was a barber. Du Bois received encouragement from teachers at his high school after his father left home when Du Bois was fairly young. His mother died in 1884 when he was 16 years old, leaving him penniless. To make ends meet, he took a job as a timekeeper in a local mill. But that did not stop him. The same year that he lost his mother, he was named valedictorian and became the first African American to graduate from his high school. He went on to attend Fisk University for three years and then went on to earn his B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Long before we knew her as the piano-playing songstress with the silky-smooth voice, Alicia Keys, 34, was already making tracks. By the age of 5 she had proved herself to be a musical prodigy. She credits her mother with much of her success and says that she would not allow Keys to give up on piano, which would become one of her true passions. Later, Keys enrolled in the Professional Performing Arts School in New York City for high school, where she flourished as a singer and excelled in academics. She graduated as valedictorian from that school and attended Columbia University briefly on a scholarship before starting a full-time music career.
Coretta Scott, one of the most influential female leaders in history, was a star in her own right before she married Martin Luther King Jr. She was born and raised in Marion, Ala., where she was the valedictorian of Lincoln High School. She went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in music and education from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and then went on to study concert singing at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where she earned a degree in voice and violin.
Loretta Lynch, 55, President Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. attorney general to replace Eric Holder, grew up in the segregated South in Durham, N.C. She has always worked hard, her father, Lorenzo, recently told the New York Times. In high school she was a straight-A student, but before her graduation in 1977, a few of the school’s African-American teachers told her father “that seven years after court-ordered desegregation in Durham, the prospect of a black valedictorian remained controversial. Unless Mr. Lynch objected, they said, Lynch would be forced to share the title with others, including a white student,” the Times writes. She didn’t fight it. She went on to receive her A.B. cum laude from Harvard College in 1981. Lynch received her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1984, where she was an adviser to the first-year moot court competition and a member of the Legal Aid Bureau and the Harvard Black Law Students Association.
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson was born in Princeton, N.J., on April 9, 1898, the son of a father born into slavery and a mother raised as an outspoken abolitionist. His outstanding academic and athletic achievements helped him win a scholarship to Rutgers University in 1915, “where he became not only a four-sport letterman and two-time All American football star, but a member of Phi Beta Kappa and class valedictorian—all of this while being only the third African-American student in school history,” according to a profile at History.com. He moved to Harlem and worked his way through Columbia University Law School as an actor and professional football player.
Susan Rice has been a valued member of the Obama administration for several years, first as United Nations ambassador and then as national security adviser, a position to which she was appointed in 2013. Born Nov. 17, 1964, in Washington, D.C., to Lois Dickson Fitt, an education-policy researcher and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and Emmett J. Rice, a Cornell University economics professor and former governor of the Federal Reserve System, she attended National Cathedral School, a prep academy, where she excelled in academics and was her class valedictorian. She went on to graduate from Stanford University and attended the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom as a Rhodes scholar, with a focus on international affairs.
Ronald McNair, a physicist and NASA astronaut, was born Oct. 21, 1950, in the small community of Lake City, S.C. He began school at the age of 4 and at the age of 9 successfully challenged the “whites only” borrowing privileges at the local library. His mother, a teacher, and his father encouraged him and his brother, Carl, to set high academic standards. McNair attended Carver High School, where he excelled in sports, including football, basketball, track and baseball. He also loved music and played both clarinet and saxophone. He was named valedictorian of his senior class and went on to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. McNair died on Jan. 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after being launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse College in Atlanta—the alma mater of his father and grandfather—in September 1944 at the age of 15. From there, history began to unfold. At age 18 he was ordained a minister. The next year, in 1948, he graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in sociology. He received high marks and became class valedictorian when he graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa.
Hailed as the “godmother of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” Ella Baker helped activists through the group’s early development. Notably, she influenced heroes and heroines like Diane Nash, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael and Bernice Johnson Reagon. The valedictorian of her 1927 Shaw University graduating class, Baker had already earned a name for herself as a writer, teacher and activist before SNCC’s founding meeting.
Robin Roberts, 54, anchor of ABC’s Good Morning America, traveled the world during her childhood because of her father’s military career. When he retired, the family decided to move to the picturesque Gulf Coast town of Pass Christian, Miss., about 15 miles west of Biloxi. “I thrived in this small town—honors, sports—[was] even voted most likely to succeed,” said Roberts, who graduated as the Pass Christian High School salutatorian in 1979.
Long before he became a national celebrity, Seattle Seahawks star quarterback Richard Sherman, 26, was attracting considerable notice at Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif. After being named salutatorian of his high school class, he went on to Stanford University, where he played football and received a degree in communications.
The Grammy Award-winning singer, born John Roger Stephens on Dec. 28 1978, was on his way to fame and fortune while in high school in Springfield, Ohio. John Legend’s grandmother taught him how to play the piano, and he grew up singing in the church choir. The early exposure taught him to love the arts. He performed in talent shows and school musicals and had two R&B groups. Legend was a high school salutatorian who graduated at 16 and went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania.
Michelle Obama’s historic path to the White House went through Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. It was there that Obama, 51, then known as Michelle Robinson, evolved into a leader of her class as the school’s salutatorian more than three decades ago. The first lady would go on to Princeton University and then Harvard Law School.