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 this year. 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.