When there is cause to celebrate, historically black colleges know how it’s done. Commencement is no exception; black students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, have made it to the end of their rigorous education and are moving on to become the next wave of black doctors, lawyers, business people, craftsmen, engineers—you name it.
To kick off these ceremonies, speakers address the graduates with inspiring words and affirmations. Over the years, there have been some truly impressive speakers at these schools, but let’s take a look at some of our favorite HBCU commencement speakers:
#1: Michelle Obama
It’s no secret that Michelle Obama stole the hearts of the black community during her time as America’s first black First Lady. Her poise, intelligence, and wholesome demeanor made her a role model to many. Michelle gave the 2015 commencement speech at Tuskegee University, an HBCU, in a powerful, 25-minute soliloquy that rivaled some of her husband’s speeches. She acknowledges the trials and tribulations that most TU students have had to face as a result of centuries of oppression, but sings praises for the community for our strength and resilience.
“…our history provides us with a better story, a better blueprint for how we can win. It teaches us that when we pull ourselves out of those lowest emotional depths, and […] together—together—we can overcome anything that stands in our way.”
#2: Barack Obama
Perhaps the most notable figure in black history in the last several years, former President Barack Obama has given quite a few commencement speeches. As an inspiration to the entire black community, he has spoken at the HBCUs of Hampton University, Morehouse College, and Howard University. And, while each of those speeches were moving in their own right, our favorite of Obama’s HBCU commencement speeches is the least traditional one.
In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when graduation ceremonies were canceled, Barack participated in “Show Me Your Walk: HBCU Edition,” a 2-hour virtual event celebrating the 27,000 graduates of all the nation’s HBCUs. In his speech, Obama acknowledges the impact that the pandemic has had on the already-burdened black community, but encourages graduates to use their education to change the status quo.
“That’s the power you hold. The power to shine brightly for justice, and for equality, and for joy,” says Obama. “You’ve earned your degree. And it’s up to you to use it. So many of us believe in you. I’m so proud of you. And as you set out to change the world, we’ll be the wind at your back.”
#3: Oprah Winfrey
Both in and out of the black community, Oprah is legendary. She is the ultimate example of someone who has pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and she built an empire in the faces of the naysayers who told her that there was just no room for a black woman in mainstream entertainment.
As such a notable figure, Oprah delivered a powerful speech in 2016 to Johnson C. Smith University, a private HBCU in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the graduating class were two students of the inaugural year of Oprah’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, who refer to Oprah as “Mama Oprah.” As Oprah addressed the crowd, she addressed not only her pride for her “daughters,” but for all of the graduates, many of whom had faced incredible adversity to get to the ceremony. She had inspiring words for any black student who had ever felt knocked down; anyone who had ever slipped up and felt like a failure. Her words brought cheers, tears, and uproarious applause: “Every stumble is not a fall, and every fall does not mean failure. Being human means you will make mistakes. And you will make mistakes because failure is God’s way of moving you in another direction.”
#4: Chadwick Boseman
Actor Chadwick Boseman, star of the box office smash “Black Panther,” returned to his alma mater Howard University back in 2018 to urge the graduates to find purpose in their lives and persevere, even amid adversity. “I don’t know what your future is,” said Boseman, who delivered the main address at the university’s 150th commencement. “But if you’re willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes . . . then you will not regret it.”
Boseman, who graduated from Howard in 2000, spoke to newly minted graduates and their loved ones, who had gathered on its iconic Yard to celebrate and consider their future. Howard officials said thousands were on hand for the day.
Check out his full speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIHZypMyQ2s
#5: Chance The Rapper
Another legendary commencement speaker who spoke at Dillard University in New Orleans was Chance The Rapper. Chancelor Bennett, aka Chance The Rapper, encouraged the graduates at Dillard University to “be greater than the people who came before us.”
He told an anecdote about getting a solo to show off his Michael Jackson dance moves in a preschool ceremony. That segued to a story about how Jackson, who Chance considered the greatest performer of all time, inspired someone to outdo him: Beyoncé. In Chance’s opinion, she eclipsed Jackson with her Coachella performance, “a production as grandiose as the Olympics and as intimate as a phone call,” as he described it. “We have to erase the stigma” that comes with surpassing our heroes, he said. “Never set any limitation on your own greatness.”
Check out Chance The Rapper’s speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15mbeCAF5to
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