The single act of adding U.S. Senator Kamala Harris to the Democratic ticket in 2020 was a watershed moment for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Harris graduated from HBCU Howard University in 1986, and went on to earn her law degree at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, graduating in 1989.
In deciding to attend an HBCU, Harris was already making a choice to follow in the footsteps of African American heroes that she admired. Famous HBCU grads abound, but in short include Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey and Georgia politician Stacey Abrams. Harris notes in her memoir, The Truths We Hold, that her desire to attend Howard was in part to prepare for her future law career in the same place that shaped Supreme Court Justice Thurdgood Marshall, a previous Howard graduate.
Harris made her alma mater a major part of her own Presidential run, using Howard as the location where she announced her campaign for the top position on the Democratic ticket (a campaign she later ended in December 2019). When she rhetorically asked the question, Why pick Howard as the site of her announcement, she remarked on the school’s importance, even more than 30 years after she graduated.
“It is because Howard University is one of the most important aspects of my life,” Harris said. “It is where I ran for my first elected office, which was freshman class representative of the liberal arts student council at Howard University. So, this is where it all began.”
The Importance of HBCUs as “Family” After Graduation
Harris was an active student at Howard, participating in her elected position, but also socializing in Howard’s famous green space known as “the Yard.” She was also a member of the historically Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha — a sisterhood she referred to even in her nomination acceptance.
“Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our Divine Nine, and my HBCU brothers and sisters,” Harris said in her Democratic National Convention speech.
“She was referring to the nickname for America’s nine historically Black fraternities and sororities, and nodding to the fact that she’s the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to be selected as a major party candidate’s running mate,” noted Brandon Tensley on CNN.
Clearly, Harris’ membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha has left a lasting impression on her, not just in the “sisterhood” of the organization, which forges lifelong friendships, but as an inspiration for other female African American HBCU students and graduates.
“I am incredibly proud of my line sister, friend, dedicated public servant and skilled politician, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris,” fellow Howard graduate and sorority sister Inez Brown told The 19th. “Her win is symbolic of hope for America, and serves to inspire every girl, teenager, young woman and grown woman to greatness.”
Another Howard graduate noted that her win was a win for all HBCU alumni.
“I think seeing Kamala Harris go to this level is something that we always knew was possible for Howard people and for HBCU students,” said Champagne-Norwood, who graduated Howard in 2008. “But, it feels like a big release finally happened and she’s breaking open the door for so many more of us.”
HBCU Graduates Are Role Models Who Dream Big
Harris noted in her memoir that as a graduate of Howard, she joined an elite circle of Black role models. Her graduation from an HBCU put her in a permanent spotlight as she continued her rise as an attorney and later as U.S. Senator from California.
In 2017, Harris gave the commencement address to the graduating class at Howard, and told the students on the verge of completing their degree that they “are now official members of what I call the role model club.”
Eyes are definitely on graduates of HBCUs, especially as they rise through extraordinary careers made possible by the one-of-a-kind opportunities and “fill-in-the-blank” career dreaming afforded at a school built around their perspectives. The “revelation” that Harris has noted feeling upon arriving to a safe space filled with faces that looked like her own is something that many HBCU students and graduates have also remarked upon.
HBCU Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Elwood Robinson, told CNN that “one the most important issues for any college student is feeling like they belong on campus,” and that’s something that HBCUs can offer all of its students.
“At HBCUs we think we got that down pat,” Robinson said. “When a student comes to Winston-Salem, we have this tag that, ‘You can be the next____’ and you fill in the blanks. I want them thinking they can be anybody they choose to.”
Harris wrote in her memoir about that same feeling of the freedom to dream big while at her HBCU.
“That was the beauty of Howard. Every signal told students that we could be anything — that we were young, gifted, and black, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of our success,” she wrote. “The campus was a place where you didn’t have to be confined to the box of another person’s choosing. At Howard, you could come as you were and leave as the person you aspired to be.”
The Lasting Value of an HBCU Education
Robert F. Smith has long championed HBCUs, donating $34 million to cover the student loan debt of the entire Morehouse College graduating class in 2019. After the donation, Smith created the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI), matching a previous $50 million grant from the Fund II Foundation to help eliminate the loan debt of STEM-majoring students at an initial group of 11 HBCUs.
Smith noted in June that the creation of the SFI was done in an effort to continue his work to inspire the human spirit and enable HBCU graduates to get to the work of doing great things, not spending years under crippling loans.
“I think it’s important that we do these things at scale and en masse because that’s how you lift up entire communities,” Smith told TIME magazine. “Of course, we all like the great one story, but I want thousands of these stories. And I want thousands of Robert Smiths out there who are actually looking to do some things in fields that are exciting to them and are giving back.”
Perhaps the work of Smith and Harris will inspire an entire generation of future graduates inspired to do great things.
The nomination of Harris to the national Democratic ticket was certainly a milestone for HBCUs, and after a long election process, her status as the presumptive Vice President-Elect for the United States will break even more new ground She will be the first woman to serve as Vice President, by title the highest position of any woman in U.S. history. She will also be serving her country as the first Indian American in such a position, the first African American, and the first HBCU graduate doing so as well. A modern role model for upcoming generations of HBCU graduates, one can only wonder how she will inspire students, and what they will dream to do in the years to come.
Learn more about HBCU students and graduates and Robert F. Smith’s philanthropic efforts to help them do great things, including his work to relieve student loan debt to STEM-majoring students, and his gift to eliminate the loan debt of the Morehouse College graduating class in 2019.