There are currently 107 HBCUs and the oldest, Pennsylvania’s Cheyney University, was founded back in 1837. These illustrious institutions were built on the backs of our ancestors, many of whom worked tirelessly to create and maintain those campuses. Most of these schools have survived the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and more. That’s right, HBCUs are much more than a lit homecoming weekend (we see you A&T also known as the #GHOE) or a mention in your favorite rapper’s quotable lyrics (from Biggie to Drake to J. Cole). They are an important part of American history and should be celebrated as such.
Enter ESSENCE’s very own CEO Caroline Wanga, who graduated from Texas College, an HBCU founded in Tyler, Texas in 1894. (Also the proud 2005 alum served as TC’s homecoming queen.). On May 15, she returns as their commencement speaker and will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
As if further proof was needed to put respect on the name of all HBCUs, their grads have been killing it in every industry you can imagine since the 1800s! From politics, to entertainment to STEM careers, there is an example of the #BlackExcellence nurtured at these distinct institutions of higher learning in a vast number of fields. While there are thousands to explore, here’s a look at 15 notable HBCU graduates.
KATHERINE JOHNSON – West Virginia State University
Johnson was a NASA mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics were critical in sending the first astronaut to the moon. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Her brilliance was recognized in the 2016 hit movie, Hidden Figures.
Photo Credit: NASA
Ruth E. Carter – Hampton University
A highly sought-after costume designer for film and television, Carter has created countless iconic looks for cult classics on the silver screen including School Daze, Love & Basketball and most recently Coming 2 America. In 2019, Carter became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Netflix
Caroline Wanga – Texas College
Prior to her role as the Chief Executive Officer of Essence Communications, Inc., our very own Wanga rose through the corporate ranks to help transform the organizational culture at Target where she served as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Vice President of Human Resources. Wanga also serves on the Board of Trustees of Talladega College—another HBCU—and the American Airlines Community Council. In May 2021, she’ll receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters from her alma mater.
Photo credit: Kwaku Alston
Taraji P. Henson – Howard University
Since her breakthrough role in 2001’s Baby Boy, Henson has delivered unforgettable performances on both the small and big screen from Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Cookie in Empire proving her diversity as an actress. In 2018, the multi-hyphenate founded a nonprofit organization, the Boris L. Henson Foundation, to help eradicate the stigma around mental health in underserved communities and in 2020 Henson launched TPH Hair, a product line for all hair textures.
Stacey Abrams – Spelman College
This author, lawyer and politician is most notably credited for turning the red state of Georgia blue through her laser focused and strategic initiatives ahead on the historic 2020 Presidential Election. As the former Georgia House Democratic Leader, Abrams passed legislation to improve the welfare of grandparents and other kin raising children and secured increased funding to support these families.
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Terrance J – North Carolina A&T University
An accomplished television host, actor and author, Terrence J recently was recognized for his work behind the camera. This month he won an Academy Award for the short film Two Distant Strangers as an executive producer of the film. The film examines the deaths of Black Americans during encounters with police through a character caught in a time loop.
Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for ESSENCE
Nikki Giovanni – Fisk University
One of America’s most revered poets and lecturers, Giovanni has a career that spans five decades. She’s published numerous collections of poetry—from her first self-published volume Black Feeling Black Talk (1968) to New York Times best-seller Bicycles: Love Poems (2009)—several works of nonfiction and children’s literature. Her most recent publications include Make Me Rain: Poems and Prose (2020).
Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images
Michael Strahan – Texas Southern University
Strahan is a former NFL defensive lineman turned talk show host who is currently a daily staple in many of in our homes via Good Morning America. Over the course of his long football career, Strahan became one of the league’s all-time QB sack leaders and in 2014 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Althea Gibson – Florida A&M University
A true trailblazer, Gibson was the first Black tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950, and the first Black player to compete at Wimbledon in 1951. In 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and during her career even broke racial barriers in professional golf.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
David Banner – Southern University
Perhaps most known as a hip-hop artist who transitioned into acting, Banner is also an accomplished producer having worked with the likes of T.I. and Lil Wayne. Fun Fact: Upon graduating from Southern, Banner pursued a masters of education at another HBCU, the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore but left to pursue his music career.
Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage
Dr. Joy Harden Bradford – Xavier University of Louisiana
Already defeating the odds as a clinical psychologist (only 4% of psychologists in the U.S. are Black), Bradford is best known as founder of the mental health platform, Therapy for Black Girls, which includes a popular podcast of the same name. Therapy for Black Girls specializes in mental health issues relevant to Black women and as of 2019, the podcast’s episodes had been downloaded more than two million times.
Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for iHeartMedia
Spike Lee – Morehouse College
Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films since 1983. An award-winning film director, producer, screenwriter and actor, Lee is renowned for a body of work that explores the African American experience, challenges racial stereotypes, and addresses controversial subjects with humor and humility.
Photo by JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP via Getty Images)
Rosalind Brewer – Spelman College
In March of 2021, Brewer was named the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance. With this monumental appointment, she is the only African American CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Brewer is also the first woman and first African American to serve as COO of Starbucks.
JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images
Keisha Lance Bottoms – Florida A&M University
An attorney and politician, Bottoms is the 60th mayor of the city of Atlanta. Among Mayor Bottoms’ notable accomplishments to date are the appointment of a LGBTQ Affairs Coordinator and the citywide elimination of cash bail bonds. Bottoms is also known for her adoption and foster care advocacy.
Photo by DNCC via Getty Images
Janice Bryant Howroyd – North Carolina A&T University
Howroyd is the founder and CEO of Act 1 Group, an employment agency that also provides consulting and business services, including background checks. She’s the first African American woman to operate a company that generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Women In Film