Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been around for over 180 years— the nation's first HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was founded in 1837. HBCUs gave Black students—who were largely barred due to racial discrimination—an opportunity to attend established colleges and universities.
Since their founding, HBCUs have become leading prestigious institutions, known for having some of the brightest and most influential alumni. And while it's important to give flowers to the celebrity HBCU graduates, civil rights leaders, politicians, scholars, and trailblazers alike have all walked the halls of an HBCU and received a diploma. Some notable leaders who attended an HBCU include, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College), the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University, Howard University), and Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University).
In addition to historical leaders, some of your favorite film and TV personalities also attended and graduated from an HBCU. Check out our list of 5 celebrity HBCU graduates.
Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State University
Oprah Winfrey attended the HBCU Tennessee State University on a full scholarship. She majored in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. Oprah was a credit short of graduating in 1975 when she left to take her first job co-anchoring a TV show in Baltimore. But she later completed the course and received her degree from Tennessee State University in 1987.
Oprah has a long history of supporting HBCUs through her philanthropy work. In May 2020, The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation donated $2 million to Tennessee State and its surrounding communities as part of her $12 million COVID-19 Relief Fund.
“I see this as an offering. I see this as a part of my tithe, my personal spiritual tithing from the inside out. And serving where I come from. That’s the first thing you do. You take care of home first, take care of your own personal communities,” said Winfrey.
Spike Lee, Morehouse College
Spike Lee majored in communications at the HBCU Morehouse College, where both his father and grandfather also attended. Lee graduated from Morehouse in 1979 and quickly went on to pursue his passion for filmmaking. His second feature-length film, School Daze (1988), was based on Lee’s experiences at Morehouse.
In a 2018 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Lee expressed how influential School Daze was on viewers, and how the film helped promote HBCUs.“Today, 30 years later, people still come up to me and say, ‘Spike, you are the reason I went to a black school. I didn’t even know there were black schools. You are the reason I went to college. You are the reason I am in this job,” Lee said. “That film really changed people’s lives.”
Samuel L. Jackson, Morehouse College
Samuel L. Jackson graduated from Morehouse College in 1972. Jackson initially pursued a degree in marine biology but later switched his major to acting. While at Morehouse Jackson met his now-wife LaTanya Richardson, who he married in 1980.
In 1969, Jackson was expelled from Morehouse College after he and several other students held members of the Morehouse College board of trustees (including Martin Luther King Sr.) hostage on the campus. Jackson and his fellow classmates were protesting the school’s curriculum and governance.
“I didn’t want to be just another Negro in the, you know, advancement of America card. We had no connection to the people that we lived around. I was skeptical of that. We didn’t even have a black studies class. There was no student involvement on the board. Those were the things we had to change,” Lee told The Hollywood Reporter.
Jackson was suspended for two years but later returned to the school to earn a degree in drama in 1972.
Chadwick Boseman, Howard University
Chadwick Boseman graduated from the HBCU Howard University in 2000 with a bachelor of arts degree in directing. Boseman was originally recruited to play basketball at Howard but he chose to pursue a bachelor of arts degree instead.
In 2018, Boseman was the commencement speaker at Howard, where he delivered a powerful message on purpose to the graduating class. “This day, when you have reached the hilltop and you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or career,” he told the class of 2018. “Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history.”
After Boseman’s tragic passing in August 2020, his alma mater commemorated the actor by renaming its college of fine arts after Boseman. And Howard University, in conjunction with Netflix and Boseman’s widow Simone Ledward-Boseman, created The Chadwick A Boseman Memorial Scholarship honoring the late actor.
Taraji P. Henson, Howard University
Taraji P. Henson earned a theater arts degree from Howard University in 1995. Henson originally intended to study electrical engineering at North Carolina A&T State University but later transferred to Howard to study theater and drama. In 2018, Henson launched the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation. The foundation awards scholarships to African-American students majoring in mental health and brings awareness to mental health issues plaguing the Black community.
In April 2022, the actress was appointed to President Joe Biden’s HBCU board of advisors—an effort to alleviate educational disparities for Black students. Henson announced the appointment on Instagram.
“I am excited to announce that President Biden has appointed me to serve on his HBCU Board of Advisors,” wrote Henson. “Since taking office, the President and Vice President Harris have invested $5.8 Billion in HBCUs and I look forward to working with them to continue efforts to support these important institutions.”