More than a dozen Black luminaries joined in a virtual celebration Saturday afternoon to honor the 2020 graduates from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) whose commencement ceremonies were affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Hosted by comedian Kevin Hart, the National HBCU Commencement Celebration, presented by Chase, was livestreamed around the world and featured speeches and performances from celebrities such as Anthony Hamilton, Doug E. Fresh, Steve Harvey, Chris Paul and former President Barack Obama.
Serving as the “commencement” speaker, Obama commended the class for their resiliency.
“So many of you overcame a lot to get here. You navigated challenging classes and challenges outside of the classroom,” he said. “Many of you had to stretch to afford tuition and some of you are the first in your family to reach this milestone. So even if half of this semester was spent on Zoom University, you’ve earned this moment.”
Obama acknowledged the abnormality of rivals like Grambling and Southern University, Jackson State and Tennessee State sharing a graduation ceremony, but these aren’t normal times.
“You’re being asked to find your way in a world in the middle of a devastating pandemic and a terrible recession. The timing is not ideal,” he said. “And let’s be honest, a disease like this just spotlights the underlying inequalities and extra burdens that Black communities have historically had to deal with in this country.
“We see it in the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on our communities,” Obama said. “Just as we see it when a Black man goes for a jog and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn’t submit to their questioning.”
Obama told the graduates that, as young African Americans, they’ve been exposed earlier than some to the world as it is, but their HBCU education puts them in a unique position.
“You chose to follow in the footsteps of people who shook the system to its core — civil rights icons like Thurgood Marshall and Dr. [Martin Luther] King, storytellers like Toni Morrison and Spike Lee,” he said. “Whether you realize it or not you’ve got more road maps, more role models, and more resources than the civil rights generation did. No generation has been better positioned to be warriors for justice and remake the world.
Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, spearheaded the idea for a virtual commencement for HBCUs. He said the Black college community had to do something to honor its graduates.
“I am so grateful that this coalition of partners stepped up to answer the call of the HBCU community and stand in the gap for our students and their families,” Sorrell said. “We want students to know that we saw them, that we heard them, that we love them and that we could not give them the moment that we had planned for but we still found a way to give them a special moment.”