Honorary Degrees Awarded to Blacks in 2012 From the Nation’s Highest-Ranked Universities

This spring the nation’s 30 highest-ranked national universities awarded 22 honorary degrees to African Americans and other Black scholars. A year ago, this same group of universities awarded 21 honorary degrees to Blacks. (Several of the nation’s highest-ranking universities, including Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Cornell, and the University of Virginia, do not award honorary degrees on a regular basis, if at all.)

Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania each awarded honorary degrees to three Black scholars this spring. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia received honorary degrees from three high-ranking universities this year.

With the addition of 16 honorary degrees awarded to Blacks from the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges (See JBHE post here.), all told the nation’s highest-ranked colleges and universities awarded 38 honorary degrees to Blacks this spring. This compares to 34 honorary degrees awarded to Blacks in 2011.

Since JBHE began tracking honorary degree awards to Black by the nation’s leading educational institutions 18 years ago, the most ever awarded was in 2007 when Blacks received 42 honorary degrees. The lowest number of honorary degrees awarded to blacks by our top colleges and universities in the 18 years JBHE has tracked these awards was 24 in 2006.

(L to R) Top row: Viola Davis, Ruth Simmons, John Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Darryl Hunt, Camille Billops, and Benjamin Carson. Second row: Kayla Henderson, John A. Payton, K. Anthony Appiah, Aretha Franklin, Cecillia Ibeabuchi, Branford Marsalis, and Jude Banatte. Bottom row: Wilton Gregory, Anna Deavere Smith, Geoffrey Canada, Willie E. May, Donald Suggs, and William Julius Wilson.

Here are this year’s honorands from the nation’s highest-ranked universities.

Brown University

Viola Davis is an actress of the stage, television, and film. She received an academy award nomination for her role in The Help and has won two Tony Awards. A native of South Carolina, she grew up in Rhode Island and is a graduate of Rhode Island College.

Ruth Simmons recently stepped down as president of Brown University. She has served in that post since 2001. Previously, she was president of Smith College. Dr. Simmons will remain on the Brown University faculty.

John Lewis is a U.S. Congressman from Georgia. Democratic leader in the House Nancy Pelosi has called him “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.”

Columbia University

Muhal Richard Abrams is a jazz musician and composer. A native of Chicago, he taught himself how to play the piano.

Duke University

Darryl Hunt is the founder of Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, which provides assistance to individuals who have been wrongfully incarcerated. Hunt was convicted of rape and murder in 1984 and spent 19 years in prison. New DNA evidence exonerated him in 2004.

Emory University

Camille Billops is a celebrated sculptor and printmaker. Together with her husband, she assembled a vast an archive of African American cultural materials that they have donated to the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University.

Benjamin Carson is professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 1987 he was the first surgeon to perform a successful separation of craniopagus twins joined at the back of the head.

Georgetown University

Kayla Henderson is the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgetown University.

John A. Payton, who died earlier this year, was awarded a posthumous honorary degree. He was a prominent civil rights attorney who was director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Harvard University

K. Anthony Appiah is the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor Of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He joined the Princeton faculty in 2002 after previously teaching at Harvard. He holds bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees from Cambridge University.

John Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, is a veteran of the civil rights movement having participated in the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, and the Bloody Sunday voting rights march in Selma, Alabama.

Princeton University

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, recorded her first album at age 18 and has recorded 223 albums in a career spanning more than 50 years.

Tufts University

Cecillia Ibeabuchi, a native of Nigeria, is clinic manager of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s busy downtown medical clinic.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Branford Marsalis, a jazz musician, composer, and bandleader, has taught at Michigan State University, San Francisco State University, and North Carolina Central University.

University of Notre Dame

Jude Banatte is the director of programming for Catholic Relief Services in Haiti. He played an instrumental role in recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti.

Wilton Gregory is archbishop and head of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He was educated at Loyola University and St. Mary of the Lake Seminary.

University of Pennsylvania

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, author, and playwright who brings together art and social commentary to create a unique form of “documentary theater”.

Geoffrey Canada is president and CEO of the Harlem’s Children’s Zone, which serves more than 11,000 children in Central Harlem, providing a comprehensive range of educational, social, and medical services.

John Lewis organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville as a student at American Baptist College. In 1963 he was named chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1981 he was elected to the city council in Atlanta and has served in the U.S. Congress since 1987.

Wake Forest University

Willie E. May is the associate director for laboratory programs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Washington University

Donald Suggs is an oral surgeon and publisher of the St. Louis American, one of the largest African Americans newspapers in the nation. Born in East Chicago, Indiana, Dr. Suggs earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate of dental surgery from Indiana University.

Yale University

William Julius Wilson, one of the nation’s leading urban sociologists, is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. Before coming to Harvard in 1996 he taught at the University of Chicago for nearly a quarter century.

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