Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Black First-Generation College Grads Who Made a Difference (a Partial List)

August 4th, 2009 by Ajuan Mance


Michelle LaVaughn Robinson in 1985. Princeton was just the first milestone on her journey, from a 1-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago to the White House.


During the last two weeks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has become one of the nation’s most talked-about first-generation college grads. Here are 10 more Black first-generation college graduates whose successes are both an inspiration and a confirmation that you don’t have to be born into privilege to have a powerful impact on the community, the nation, and the world:

  1. Gloria Watkins — Better known by her pen name, bell hooks, she is one of the most prominent feminist scholars of the last 30 years. Raised by her mother (who worked as a maid) and her father (who worked as a janitor) to value hard work and education, hooks holds a B.A. from Stanford University (1973), an M.A. form the University of Wisconsin, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
  2. Oprah Winfrey — This talk show host, philanthropist, media mogul, and the world’s first Black woman billionaire is a graduate of Tennessee State University (1976), where she majored in Speech and Drama. Raised by her grandmother, a farmer in rural Mississippi, and her father, a Nashville-based barber, Winfrey skipped two grades in grammar school and went on to earn a full scholarship to Tennessee State.
  3. Joycelyn Elders — The first African American appointed as the U.S. Surgeon General, this daughter of sharecroppers earned a B.S. in biology from Philander Smith College (1952) and an M.D. from the University of Arkansas Medical School. The oldest of eight children born to Curtis and Haller Elders, who were cotton farmers in southwestern Arkansas, Elders was the sole Black stduent in her class at the University of Arkansas Medical School and was required to eat in a separate dining hall from the white students in her cohort.
  4. Ruth J. Simmons — The first African American to be president of an Ivy League institution (Brown University) and a 2002 Newsweek Woman of the Year, Simmons graduated from Dillard University (1967). The daughter of a farmer and factory worker father and a stay-at-home mom, she holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University (Romance Languages and Literatures).
  5. Edward P. Jones — Winner of the The PEN/Hemingway Award for Lost in The City and the Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award and Lannan Literary Award for The Known World, and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius”grant, Jones holds a bachelor’s degree from the College of the Holy Cross and an M.F.A. from the University of Virginia. Although she could not read herself, his mother strongly encouraged her son’s love of books, believing deeply in the importance of education.
  6. Andre Leon Talley — The American editor-at-large for Vogue magazine, Talley is one of the most influential figures in the fashion industry. Raised by his grandmother, a North Carolina domestic servant, he earned his bachelor’s degree at North Carolina Central University and an M.A. in French Studies from Brown University.
  7. Toni Morrison — Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison holds a B.A. from Howard University (1953, English) and an M.A. from Cornell University (1955, English). For an earlier blogpost on Morrison, follow this link.
  8. Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) — The first leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Ture earned his Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Howard University (1964). The Trinidadian-born child of a cab driver and a housekeeper, Carmichael was the co-author (with George Hamilton) of the landmark nationalist manifesto, Black Power.
  9. Denzel Washington — One of two African American men to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, Washington holds a B.A. in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University (1977). The child of a beauty parlor owner and a minister,  he has won 2 Oscars, two Golden Globe Awards, and 12 NAACP Image Awards.
  10. Michelle Obama — Former Vice President of Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center and the current First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama holds an undergraduate degree from Princeton University (1985) and a law degree from Harvard. The daughter of a city pump operator and Democratic precinct captain father and a stay-at-home mom, First Lady Obama was raised in a 1-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago.

Posted by Ajuan Mance


Posted in Academia, African American Students, African Americans, Black Colleges, Black History, Black Students, Current Events, Higher Education, race

2 Responses

  1. william

    Interesting article. Thanks for posting.

  2. Kat

    Soooo Michele Obama made a difference by marrying the right person.

    Very lame accomplishment and I don’t really see how she ‘made a difference’.

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.