How HBCUs Shaped Prominent Politicians, Including Kamala Harris

Many Black politicians and figures have gained prominence during this election cycle, and some of them hold degrees from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Vice President-elect and Howard University graduate Kamala Harris.

"Howard University is one of the most important aspects of my life," Harris said in January 2019 shortly after she announced her bid for the Democratic nomination for president. "It is where I ran for my first elected office. So this is where it all began."

Harris, alongside others like Spelman College grad Stacey Abarams and Morehouse College alumnus Raphael Warnock, have owed some of their success to HBCUs. Such representation in politics isn't new, but it's prompted celebration for HBCU students and alumni. After a contentious year and election cycle marked by racial disparities and injustice, the outcome is very welcome.

"People like Rev. Warnock is why I wanted to get involved in politics," Rick Hart told NBC News, a junior at Morehouse College. "It's super powerful to see people who look like me fighting for a seat at the table while showing me that I can, too." NBC News said Hart was a fellow on the Biden-Harris campaign. "Before that, he interned in the Baltimore mayor's office and on Abrams' campaign for governor," the website added.

Alabama State University student Mason Smith said the representation is validation. "To see these Black men and women succeed on one of the most difficult stages of the United States shows HBCUs can and will prepare you for any career," he said.

Warnock is in a Georgia runoff election for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Abrams, after narrowly losing her campaign for Georgia governor in 2018, became a force in voter rights. She attributed some of her prolific presence to her alma mater.

"I may not occupy the governor's office, but we have made our imprint," she said. "With our election – and I say it's our election because Spelman, you were with me every single day — with our election, we changed the narrative of what it means to be a leader in America. ... I didn't have to change my hair, my gender or my skin color" to run for political office.

Other notable figures include Cori Bush, Missouri's first Black congresswoman. She attended Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis. There's also Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Florida A&M University grad and "a mainstay on the campaign for Joe Biden."

"Our degrees are powerful," said Elandra Gilmore, a middle school social studies teacher and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff alumna. She also noted the "petty" arguments between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWIs), which usually end with HBCU degrees not holding "any weight." HBCUs have produced important figures in history, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Alice Walker and Rep. John Lewis.

Another important aspect about all these HBCU graduates are that they're not Ivy League alumni.

"One of the extraordinary facts about the incoming administration is that neither the President-elect or Vice President-elect attended an Ivy League institution […] in a nation that valorizes and rewards those graduates," Rooks said. "These realities should put to rest questions about how and if such schools are relevant to American politics in the 21st century."

Photo: Getty Images

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