WASHINGTON, DC — Saturday, May 7, 2016, is a day which will be forever be recalled in African American history.
On this date, the first African-American U.S. President delivered the commencement address at Howard University, largely considered the “Harvard” of America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
It was a long day for the approximately 20,000 attendees who filled the outdoor football stands at William H. Greene stadium, on the famed “yard” in the center of the hallowed Howard campus.
But when President Barack Hussein Obama finally strolled from the rear, accompanied by Secret Service guards to the background sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance,” – the audience reaction was similar to that of a lively rock concert.
For this reporter, the reaction conjured memories of the epic 1984 ‘Victory Tour’ when The Jacksons and Michael Jackson performed outdoors, at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.
In fact, moments after taking the podium, the President was showered with shouts of “I Love You,” for which he responded “I Love You Back,” very similar to Michael Jackson’s vocal antics during his heyday.
Interestingly, prior to the President’s arrival onstage, the audience chanted repeatedly in unison: “Four More Years – Four More Years.”
At the outset of his speech, President Obama demonstrated a relatable-connect with his young audience by twice shouting “H.U.” – with crowd responses of “You know.”
Immediately, you knew this was bound to be a special event – one for the ages. Equally fitting, President Obama referred to the recently-deceased superstar, Prince, during his speech.
He noted that during Prince’s explosion onto the international music scene, the musician was so unique to pop culture that, “he created his own style and standards of beauty. Think of the icon that we just lost,” he said. “He blew up categories. People didn’t know what Prince was doing. And folks loved him for it.”
Considering that Howard University is likewise famous for producing world leaders like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights activist Andrew Young and countless world renown scientists and physicians, the raucous reaction to the President was also fitting considering that Howard is also a breeding ground for legendary performing artists like Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Allen Rashad, Tarji P. Henson, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Jessye Norman, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Anthony Anderson, Lance Gross, Laz Alonso and several others, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim XX and CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield.
For new Howard graduate Sydney Denise Todd, earning her bachelor’s degree with the President as main speaker is a priceless event.
“It was very overwhelming. I was so excited and it made me realize just how important Howard is on the grand scheme,” said the Communications and Film major. At 21, Sydney Todd says she plans to embark on a career in music video development, with long-term goals to own studios similar to BET and MTV where she can develop music videos related to hip-hop, RnB and dance.
Sydney’s father, Michael Todd, holds a criminal law degree from Howard, while her mother, Gayle Todd, graduated from the University of Memphis (business administration).
The younger Todd graduated with honors from Dallas’ DeSoto High School in 2012.
Commencement attendees were also treated to the talents of the Howard University Orchestra and Choral, who did an outstanding job throughout the morning affair. Under the direction of Eric O. Poole, the combined musical collective especially shined during their rendition of the James Weldon Johnson-penned “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” With President Obama on hand, the tune naturally took on a significantly vital meaning, since it’s considered the “Black National Anthem.” The “Star Spangled Banner” was also well-performed by the student musical outfit, in addition to the school’s alma mater.
To prepare for the unusually large attendance, college staffers began seating audience members and guests as early as 7 a.m. Fortunately, the weather held-up for the President’s appearance, considering the nation’s capital was drenched in three consecutive days of rain, but symbolically by Saturday morning, precipitation ceased and the sun splashed on Howard’s commencement stage, with comfortable temps in the low 60s.
With a stadium full of folks who obviously waited patiently to see President Obama in living-color, the anticipation was especially obvious, when each time Howard’s President Wayne A.I. Frederick mentioned the President’s name, the crowd roared, very similar to a rock concert instead of a college commencement.
In addition to the President receiving an honorary degree, legendary actress Cicely Tyson also received an honorary degree.
The President was quick to provide solid guidance to the young graduates and their family members alike. He pulled no punches in referencing today’s political scene, and his past eight years as Commander In Chief.
“Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college (Columbia University, 1983). It also happens to be better off than when I took office,” he said to even greater applause.
“Since the year I graduated,” he continued, “the poverty rate is down. Americans with college degrees – that rate is up. Crime rates are down. America’s cities have undergone a renaissance. There are more women in the workforce. They’re earning more money. We’ve cut teen pregnancy in half. We’ve slashed the African-American dropout rate by almost 60 percent, and all of you have a computer in your pocket that gives you the world at the touch of a button.
“In 1983, I was part of fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Today, you’re part of the more than 20 percent who will. And more than half of blacks say we’re better off than our parents were at our age — and that our kids will be better off, too. So America is better. And the world is better, too,” he concluded.
“America is better. And race relations are better since I graduated (high school). And, that’s the truth,” he added.