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Articles / Black History Month: Influential Leaders and Where They Went to College

Black History Month: Influential Leaders and Where They Went to College

Written by Sam Jaquez | Feb. 1, 2023
Photo by olia danilevich

Black History Month is celebrated every February in the United States but is also observed in other countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. The month is a dedicated time to celebrate Black and African American history, achievement, and legacy.

In honor of Black History Month, let’s take a look at some influential Black leaders of the past and present, how they have left and are leaving their mark on history, and where they went to college.

Martin Luther King Jr. – Morehouse College, Boston University

MLK Speech

Martin Luther King Jr. is known for being an instrumental civil rights activist during the mid-20th century. His nonviolent campaigns for equality - such as marches, strikes, and speeches - proved instrumental in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1955. Dr. King was awarded several awards including the Nobel Peace Prize for Civil Rights and Social Justice.

Martin Luther King Jr. started college at Morehouse College at the age of 15 and graduated at the age of 19 with a BA in sociology. Dr. King then studied theology at Boston University and earned his PhD in 1955.

Gerald Williams – Chicago State University, Howard University


Gerald Williams is an award-winning artist whose work highlights topics of culture and identity through use of color and abstraction. Williams is also known for being the founding member of the AfriCOBRA collective, which was integral aspect of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Gerald Williams earned a BA from what is now Chicago State University and an MFA in painting from Howard University.

Toni Morrison – Howard University, Cornell University


Toni Morrison was an award-winning writer of essays, novels, and children’s books. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, Beloved, which explored themes of identity, humanity, and slavery. Morrison became the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Toni Morrison graduated from Howard University with a BA in English and from Cornell University with a MA in American Literature.

Mae Jemison – Stanford University, Cornell University

In 1992 as a member of the STS-47 mission, Mae Jemison became the first Black woman in space. Jemison also served as a doctor in the Peace Corps while volunteering in Liberia and Sierra Leone, is an author, a professor, and scientific researcher.

Mae Jemison earned a BS in chemical engineering and a BA in African & African American studies from Stanford University. She earned her Doctorate in Medicine from Cornell University.

Barack Obama – Occidental College, Columbia College, Harvard University

president barack obama via unsplash

Barack Obama is a politician, lawyer, and author. He served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017. Obama was the first African American president of the United States. In 2009, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

President Obama began his college career at Occidental College before transferring to Columbia University as a junior. He graduated with a BA in political science and English literature from Columbia. He earned his Doctor of Law degree from Harvard University Law School where he graduated magna cum laude.

Kamala Harris – Howard University, University of California


Kamala Harris is the first Black, first South Asian American, and first woman vice-president of the United States. Before serving a vice-president Harris served as a US senator, California Attorney General, and as District Attorney of San Francisco.

She graduated from Howard University with degrees in political science and economics in 1986. She studied law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law where she earned her Doctor of Law degree in 1989.

Lizzo – University of Houston

lizzo via library of congress

Lizzo is an award-winning artist known for her chart-topping songs. In addition to releasing some of today’s most well-known hits, she has lent her voice to several films and tv shows. Among her many awards Lizzo has won three Grammys and was Time’s 2019 Entertainer of the Year.

Lizzo classically trained as a flutist as a child and continued her classical music studies at the University of Houston before joining the music industry as a singer.

Leslie Odom Jr. – Carnegie Mellon University

Leslie Odom Jr. is an award-winning actor and singer best known for his role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton. He has acted in several tv show and movies including Glass Onion (2022). Odom’s awards include a Tony Award, a Grammy Award, and more.

Leslie Odom Jr. graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in musical theater.

Kizzmekia Corbett – University of Maryland, Baltimore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett is a viral immunologist known for her work on coronavirus vaccines, which she began studying in 2014. Her extensive work on mRNA-1273 was used by her team to design and rapidly deploy the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Corbett is currently an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University. For her work on the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, Dr. Corbett has received several honors including an NAACP Key of Life Award, USA Today’s 2022 Woman of the Year, and more.

Dr. Corbett received her BS in biological sciences and sociology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and her PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Amanda Gorman – Harvard University

Amanda Gorman is a poet, writer, and activist known for delivering messages of change, hope, and perseverance. Gorman was the Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2015 and was the National Youth Poet Laureate from April 2017 to April 2018. She is most known for delivering the inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb at the inauguration of President Biden, at which time she earned her place as the youngest inaugural poet in US History.

Amanda Gorman studied sociology at Harvard University and graduated with honors in 2020.


Written by


Sam Jaquez

Sam is a freelance writer. She studied at the University of Massachusetts Boston where she earned a degree in English.

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