It was definitely a major coup for Johnson C. Smith University, one of the nation’s HBCUs, to snag Oprah Winfrey as its commencement speaker. And she certainly delivered with down-to earth wisdom, her own inspirational stories and lessons from leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Maya Angelou.
On a sunny Sunday morning, Winfrey told the sea of more than 300 graduates—her words overheard by the several thousand family members and friends who came to support them—“Your future is so bright, JCSU, it burns my eyes!” The eyes that stared back at her, sometimes glistening with tears, reflected the global diversity of HBCUs, a quality that might surprise those who don’t know much about the schools’ historical mission. (Winfrey herself attended HBCU Tennessee State University.)
Winfrey was just one of a parade of high-profile speakers at HBCUs, up to and including the president and first lady, who, during the Barack Obama years, have highlighted the institutions that historically educated a majority of the doctors, lawyers and professionals of color—and, indeed, students of color in general—before most majority white institutions admitted them. And because admission to majority-white schools doesn’t guarantee a warm welcome (see current turmoil because of racially charged incidents on campuses from the University of Missouri to Yale), many students of color given every option continue to gravitate toward HBCUs for social and psychological reasons in addition to academic ones.
While the majority of HBCUs were established after the Civil War to educate African Americans, they have always welcomed all. International students from the African Diaspora who looked to HBCUs for education included Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana, who attended Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania.
While Winfrey was at Johnson C. Smith for all the students, she spoke especially to the two women she called her “daughter-girls.” Among the Class of 2016 were Noluthando “Thando” Dlomo and Nompumelelo “Mpumi” Nobiva, who are graduates of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, the school Winfrey founded in 2007 and has continued to support financially and spiritually. Another of the academy’s graduates is still studying at JCSU.
Winfrey saluted their hard work and special gifts and acknowledged the support of the school and the host families that provided the young women with a home away from home. It was a hat tip to nurturing that mirrored the support system that has always existed but is often not noted by a larger society more intent on labeling black community support as nonexistent or dysfunctional.
Dlomo, of Johannesburg, plans to take her communications major, theater minor, to an advertising job in Chicago. Nobiva, who majored in interdisciplinary studies, with a focus on global outreach, public rhetoric and strategic communications, was a fixture on the dean’s list from her arrival. Like her patron, she is an in-demand speaker and has received a presidential scholarship to High Point University to study for a master’s in strategic communications.
At the Johnson C. Smith commencement, the valedictorian’s address was delivered with a distinctive lilt and a humorous nod to missing jerk chicken by Oshauna Morgan from Jamaica. Morgan, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, is heading to Washington State University for training as a research assistant in a bioengineering lab. She lamented a “brain drain” from countries such as hers.
“Wealth and success are completely different,” she said, and vowed to eventually return “to make a positive difference in the lives of others.” She urged the graduates to plant a seed, an idea, in their hometowns—across the country or the globe.
Among JCSU’s inaugural graduates of the Master of Social Work program was Chenelle Forbes of Kingston, Jamaica, who founded Burgers With Love, a program that feeds the homeless in Uptown Charlotte, N.C., and is going on to work as an emergency-shelter social worker for the Salvation Army Center of Hope.
HBCUs have never had the luxury of existing in a bubble that keeps real life from touching their students, and that was reflected in the stories of other graduates of the JCSU Class of 2016.
Gracyn Doctor, a star volleyball player who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports management, lost her mother in the mass shooting last year at Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, often referred to as “Mother Emanuel.” Ramon Garibaldo is an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from Mexico with his mother in 2010; he is headed to Yale University’s six-year political science Ph.D. program.
Though the educational backgrounds of Winfrey and of Columbia- and Harvard-educated President Obama diverge, their messages to HBCU graduates—ones of excellence and service—reflect the important historic mission of such institutions.
With both supporting programs to nurture the next generation of global ambassadors, the spotlight is guaranteed to only grow brighter as the man Winfrey supported in his electoral quest for the presidency moves on to his own next chapter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.