10 Celebrities You Didn't Realize Went To An HBCU

Written by Tien Rooney
Published on December 25, 2022 · Updated on May 7, 2023

10 Celebrities You Didn't Realize Went To An HBCU

Written by Tien Rooney
Published on December 25, 2022 · Updated on May 7, 2023

What is an HBCU?

Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, offer students today top-notch educations with often affordable tuition rates. Moreover, HBCUs are known for their robust supportive resources for low-income and first-generation students. Degree programs at these institutions are great for learners looking for a diverse student body.

According to the Department of Education, officially recognized HBCUs were founded before 1964 with the mission of supporting the education of Black Americans, especially in the decades following emancipation in 1863. These institutions are open to all learners, regardless of their racial identity. As of 2019, there were 100 HBCUs located in 19 states, with about 25% of the total student population identifying as non-Black learners.

10 Celebrities Who Attended HBCU’s

Many present-day celebrities and notable figures from yesteryear are HBCU alumni. Depending on their careers and life events, these public figures attended HBCUs before and after they achieved their notoriety. Some celebrities even finished their degrees while in the spotlight of their careers on stage and screen. 

Here's a look at 10 HBCU alumni who have achieved stardom in their respective careers, from musicians and actors to writers and scientists. Some of the names might come as a bit of a surprise!

1. Chadwick Boseman

What's the highest-grossing film ever by a Black director? Black Panther, starring Howard University alumnus Chadwick Boseman. 

Boseman was a famous actor with many standout credits to his name for both acting and writing. One of his most notable roles was playing superhero Black Panther in the Marvel Comics Universe from 2016-2019. Boseman passed away in 2020 from cancer. As an homage to the alumnus, Howard University named its 2021-built College of Fine Arts after Boseman. Netflix also created a $5.4 million scholarship in his name for Howard Fine Arts majors. 

2. Wanda Sykes

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Chris Rock Show, right? One of the reasons we all know it is because of great comedy writers like Wanda Sykes. Sykes is a stand-up comedian, actress, and writer. She was named one of the 25 funniest people in America by Entertainment Weekly in 2004 and received a Primetime Emmy Award for her writing on the Chris Rock Show. She graduated from the HBCU Hampton University in 1986, where she was a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and a marketing major.

3. Oprah Winfrey

You know someone's a big deal when everyone knows them by their first name. That goes for Oprah, who is a proud alumni of HBCU Tennessee State University. Located in Nashville, TN, TSU is the only state-funded HBCU in the state. The famous talk show host began her career at 19 as a news co-anchor on Nashville's WLAC-TN. She eventually got her own talk show in September 1986. 

After more than ten years away from TSU, she went back in 1987 to finish her degree before continuing with her career. Her show was consistently successful through its last airing in May 2011. Winfrey has made multiple charitable donations to TSU's student body, including $2 million in 2020 to assist students during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.

4. Spike Lee

Here's a name you don't forget: Spike Lee. An academy award-winning director, known for films such as BlacKkKlansman, Crooklyn, Inside Man, and 25th hour, Lee is a Morehouse College graduate. He and sports columnist, Ralph Wiley, helped start the Journalism and Sports Program. The men raised more than $600,000 to start the academic program, with Lee contributing an additional $400,000 of his own money.

5. Toni Morrison 

Some of the most influential people of our time are writers, and Toni Morrison is no exception. Morrison is a Pulitzer prize-winning author with an English degree from Howard University. Finishing her bachelor's in 1953 and master's in 1955, she went on to produce dozens of notable works, including novels, children's books, poetry, plays, and non-fiction. From 1989-2006, Morrison taught at Princeton University, the Ivy League institution in New Jersey.

6. Samuel L. Jackson

Jackson, a famous actor known for dozens of roles in hits like Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park, Snakes on a Plane, and Django Unchained, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. The HBCU briefly expelled Jackson in 1969 for holding some administrators against their will in order to protest the lack of Black members on the school board of trustees. He returned in 1972 to finish his bachelor's degree. It's no wonder he's so good at playing intimidating characters. It sounds like he might be pretty tough in real life!

7. Terrence Jenkins ("Terrence J")

Terrence J is an actor and entertainment reporter, known for his work on BET and E! News. He also appeared in movies like The Perfect Match, Think Like a Man, and Baggage Claim. He attended North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU in Greensboro. He donated $100,000 to the school to support its Journalism and Mass Communication department.

8. Erykah Badu

Ever hear of the "Queen of Neo-Soul"? You've probably heard her music even if you didn't know it at the time. Erykah Badu is a singer, songwriter, actor, and record producer. She attended Grambling State University in Louisiana but left to pursue her career before completing enough credits to graduate. She moved on to a wildly successful career in entertainment, acquiring multiple Grammys and other awards from institutions like BET, MTV, Soul Train Music, and the NAACP.

9. Mary Jackson

You might recognize this name from the critically acclaimed movie Hidden Figures from 2016. While many of her significant accomplishments took place in the 1960s, Mary Jackson wasn't well known until recent years. Jackson attended Hampton University as a math and physical science major. After graduation, she moved on to become one of the only Black female aeronautical engineers and secured a position with NASA. Jackson's story is reported in the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. In 2020, NASA named its headquarters after the outstanding Hampton alumna. 

10. Gladys Knight

  • School Attended: Shaw University
  • Major/degree earned: Unknown
  • Years Attended: Graduated 1966

Shaw University is a private Baptist school in Raleigh, North Carolina. Gladys Knight, "The Empress of Soul," graduated from Shaw in 1966 with honors. The successful singer has won seven Grammys (SEVEN!) and recorded two Billboard number one hits. In addition to a major solo career, she also had early success with the vocal group, The Pips. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

If you're looking for other HBCU's, check out the Find Your Perfect "U" tool. You can search over 6,000 colleges and universities with 11 different filters to find the perfect school for you!