Happy 150th Birthday, Howard University!: 8 Notable H-U Alum

By Tania Irwin

Don’t we all love birthdays? This past week, one MSI had a special birthday: Howard University. Celebrating its sesquicentennial (150th) birthday, Howard University was founded March 2, 1867. Although it was not the first, Howard is known as the Grand Central for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and a strong advocate of African American Education.

Howard is a private research university with 13 colleges and schools. Students can take classes in more than 120 areas and pursue undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees. Since its beginnings, Howard has awarded more than 120,000 degrees and is still known as the top producer of African American undergraduate degree holders who go on to earn doctoral degrees in science and engineering. In honor of Howard’s 150th birthday, today’s Monday Morning MSI Line Up features some of the HBCU’s most prominent alums:

1) Thurgood Marshall – Civil Rights Activist, Supreme Court Justice, Judge, Lawyer


Thurgood Marshall studied law at Howard University. In 1954, Marshall was a front-runner in the termination of legal racial segregation in public schools, which was a direct result of his Brown v. Board of Education case win. In 1967, Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court, where he served for 24 years. Thurgood Marshall stands alongside men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. To date, he is still considered one of the greatest figures of the American Civil Rights Movement.

2) Zora Neale Hurston – Author, Civil Rights Activist


Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the foremost writers of African American literature. Hurston was prominent during the Harlem Renaissance and has greatly influenced other famous black writers. While studying at Howard, she co-founded the university’s student newspaper. She is most known for her 1937 fictional masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 2005, this book was made into a movie starring Halle Berry and Michael Eley. Alice Walker, another famous black writer, wrote about Hurston in a 1975 essay titled In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. This essay is said to have re-introduced Hurston to a new generation of readers and encouraged the re-printing of Hurston’s work.

3) Debbie Allen – Theater Actress, Film Actress, Choreographer, Television Actress


Debbie Allen graduated from Howard University after studying Greek literature, theater, and speech. She first hit it big in 1980, after she starred in a Broadway revival of West Side Story. Her performance as Anita landed her a role as a dance instructor in the movie Fame. Allen graciously stepped behind the camera in 1988 to direct and produce a The Cosby Show spinoff and thanks to Allen, A Different World maintained high ratings until its finale in 1993. In 2001, Allen opened the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles. Since then, she has occasionally popped out from behind the cameras with cameos in various  TV shows, like the sitcom In the House and ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy.

4) Roberta Flack – Singer & Song Writer


Classically trained on the piano, Flack was known for her musical gift at a young age.At the mere age of 15, Roberta Flack received a music scholarship to attend Howard University. She was later discovered while singing at a DC nightclub and immediately signed to Atlantic Records. Flack was the first and is still the only solo artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year consecutively. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face won in 1973 followed by Killing Me Softly with His Song in 1974. She is still known internationally as one of the greatest songstresses of all time.

5) Ossie Davis – Civil Rights Activist, Actor, Director, Playwright


Ossie Davis is known all throughout Hollywood for his unique acting ability. The highlights of his career include roles in Spike Lee’s popular films: Do The Right Thing and Jungle Fever. Davis was one of a handful of African American actors able to find commercial success while avoiding stereotypical roles prior to 1970. In 1948, Davis married actress Ruby Dee. Davis and Dee are both known for being instrumental in the organization of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Fun Fact: Ossie Davis delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X.

6) Toni Morrison –Editor, Writer, Playwright, Literary Critic


Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison had a passion for literature at a young age. She read a lot as a child and found joy in her father’s stories featuring African-American traditions and culture. This storytelling tradition became a key element in her own writing. At Howard University, Morrison continued to pursue her interest in literature. She majored in English with a minor in classics. After graduating from Howard in 1953, Morrison continued her education at Cornell University. She returned to Howard University to teach English in 1957. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye, SulaSong of SolomonBeloved, JazzLove, and A Mercy. Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, becoming the first African-American woman to be selected for the award.

7) Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs – Music Mogul


Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs is known throughout the world as a rapper, singer, songwriter, actor, record producer, and entrepreneur. After two years as a business major at Howard University in 1990, he dropped out and became an intern at New York’s Uptown Records. Since then he has created his own record label, Bad Boy Records, and is responsible for the successful careers of many hip hop and r&b artists. Combs is also known for fashion with clothing lines like Sean John and Rocawear. Constantly dabbling in different ventures, Combs may even become the first Hip Hop Billionaire. Recently, Combs agreed to help develop the Cîroc vodka brand and now has a major equity stake in Revolt TV.

8) Taraji P. Henson – Actress


Henson spent her first year in college at another MSI, North Carolina A&T State University, where she studied Electrical Engineering. After failing a pre-calculus course, she transferred to Howard University, where she majored in Theater.When Henson was in her junior year of college, she found out she was pregnant. She asked her professors to treat her like every other student and she graduated in 1995 with a son, Marcell. She began her Hollywood career in guest-roles on several television shows before making her breakthrough in 2001 with the movie Baby Boy. Since then, she has dominated the movie scene, was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and has released a New York Times bestseller, Around the Way Girl.

Know more famous Howard University alumni? Share in the comments below!

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