Colleges with the Most Influential Black Graduates

Colleges with the Most Influential Black Graduates

In honor of black history month, we set out to answer the question, “where did America’s most influential black graduates go to college?”

As you might expect, there were many IV League universities on the list. But we were surprised by more than a few of the colleges with most influential black graduates.

And this made us wonder if these colleges might deserve a little more recognition than they are typically afforded.

The schools in this ranking have produced some of the most famous and beloved figures of today’s world, and their impact on black culture and society at large cannot be understated.

Key Takeaways

  • Colleges and universities have cultivated some of the most influential figures in history.

  • We aim to recognize the colleges with the most influential black graduates.

  • Among these graduates are the most respected and influential people of the last 100 years.
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Historically Black Colleges and Universities

While not all of the colleges that produce influential back graduates are historically black colleges and universities, their importance shouldn’t be overshadowed.

Historically black colleges and universities aim to engage black students and preserve the unique identities of black culture. As a result, they produce thriving communities of successful black alumni.

While we might not have covered all of these schools below, they deserve mentions nevertheless.

Jump directly to our rankings of the best historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)–a list which includes noteworthy institutions like Lincoln university, Tuskegee University Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and more.

You can also explore the best HBCUs by program type or degree level:

Best HBCUs with Masters Programs

Best HBCUs with Doctorate Programs

Best HBCUs with MBAs

Most Influential HBCUs of the Last 20 Years

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Colleges With the Most Influential Black Graduates

The list of schools included here is a mix of some of the most prestigious research universities in the nation and many of the top historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Columbia University

New York , NY
Other Rankings

Columbia University is a highly prestigious institution both generally and within the scope of Black History. Prominent students include Class of 1923 Columbia Law graduate and world-renowned singer Paul Robeson, 44th President of the United States Barrack Obama (Class of ’83), and Shirley Chisholm (Class of 1951), the first African American woman elected to Congress. In addition to the accomplishments of its illustrious graduates, Columbia University is recognized as the birthplace for the school of thought known as Black Theology.

Barack Obama

1961 - Present (62 years)
Barack Hussein Obama II is an American politician who served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017. A member of the Democratic Party, Obama was the first African-American president of the United States. He previously served as a U.S. senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008 and as an Illinois state senator from 1997 to 2004, and previously worked as a civil rights lawyer before entering politics.
Other Rankings

College of the Holy Cross is a small Jesuit liberal arts college located in Worcester, Massachusetts. It’s unlikely inclusion here is because of its unique role in launching the careers of numerous notable Black figures during the height of the Civil Rights era. Holy Cross had always been desegregated, but Black students were not well represented. In 1968, spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Holy Cross accelerated its efforts to recruit Black students. The result was a close-knit community of ambitious students, active engagement in the push for Civil Rights, and a surge of prominent graduates such as Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones, former deputy mayor of New York Stanley E. Grayson, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Clarence Thomas

1948 - Present (75 years)
Clarence Thomas is an American jurist who serves as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to succeed Thurgood Marshall and has served since 1991. After Marshall, Thomas is the second African American to serve on the Court and its longest-serving member since Anthony Kennedy’s retirement in 2018.

Harvard University

Cambridge , MA
Other Rankings

Harvard University boasts a list of alumni with few equals in their prestige. This is certainly the case with Black history. Indeed, among its most prominent scholars was an author and historian named Carter G. Woodson. Woodson is often credited as the “father of black history,” a title cemented by his hand in launching “Negro History Week” in 1926. This celebration would ultimately evolve into Black History Month. Woodson earned his PhD in history at Harvard, becoming only the second Black man to do so. The first was W. E. B. Du Bois, a deeply influential scholar, activist, and co-founder, 1909, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Thomas Sowell

1930 - Present (93 years)
Thomas Sowell is an American author, economist, political commentator and academic who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. With widely published commentary and books—and as a guest on TV and radio—he became a well-known voice in the American conservative movement and is considered one of the most influential black conservatives. He was a recipient of the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2002.

Cornel West

1953 - Present (70 years)

Cornel West currently holds the title of Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School. Prior to this, he has held positions at Princeton University (where he maintains the title of Professor Emeritus), Union Theological Seminary, Yale University, and the University of Paris. West earned his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University in 1973, and completed his PhD at Princeton University in 1980, making him the first African-American to earn a PhD in philosophy from Princeton.

West is well recognized as a social critic on racial and political issues, as well as a public intellectual. Indeed, his influence can be traced as much (or more) to his public activism and visibility as it can his academic work. West is often cited in mainstream media, and frequently makes public, television, radio, and print appearances. West is known as a strong voice of left-wing politics and social justice in America, though he has also frequently been critical of prominent left-wing politicians, including Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Also notable is the fact that West has established a public presence removed from politics and philosophy entirely, including cameos in films from The Matrix franchise, as well as a spoken word and hip hop albums.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

1958 - Present (65 years)

Neil deGrasse Tyson was born in New York City in 1958. He attended Harvard University where he earned a BA degree in physics and then received a Master’s degree in astronomy from University of Texas at Austin. In 1988, he enrolled at Columbia where he completed MPhil and PhD degrees in astrophysics. Best known as a public spokesperson for science, Tyson is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. He has been a researcher at Princeton University and after joining the Hayden Planetarium he became its director and oversaw the massive reconstruction project of the Planetarium completed in 2000.

Tyson earned his Bachelor of Arts in Physics at Harvard University and his MA in Astronomy from The University of Texas at Austin. Tyson received a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Columbia University, where with his advisor R. Michael Rich he obtained funding from NASA and the ARCS Foundation to attend international conferences and make use of expensive equipment such as observatories, where in Chile he obtained important images of a supernova which advanced research in Chile and around the world.

Lani Guinier

1950 - 2022 (72 years)
Carol Lani Guinier was an American educator, legal scholar, and civil rights theorist. She was the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship there. Before coming to Harvard in 1998, Guinier taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School for ten years. Her scholarship covered the professional responsibilities of public lawyers, the relationship between democracy and the law, the role of race and gender in the political process, college admissions, and affirmative action. In 1993 President Bill Clinton nominated...
Other Rankings

Brandeis University was founded in 1948 with a mission of openness and inclusion. The university’s academic community was vocal in its support for equality. 1949, the university very first convocation speech was delivered by African-American scholar and future Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Dr. Ralph Bunche. The university supported the founding of the school’s own NAACP chapter in 1952. The following year, the chapter hosted African-American poet and social activist Langston Hughes. In the following years, visits from author James Baldwin and Martin Luther King would galvanize the student body. Many Brandeis students traveled from the Waltham, Massachusetts campus to the South to participate in Civil Rights protests and sit-ins. While the majority at Brandeis were white students, the environment would inspire some of the period’s most powerful Black activists, including Margo Jefferson and Angela Davis.

Angela Davis

1944 - Present (79 years)
Angela Yvonne Davis is an American political activist, philosopher, academic, and author. She is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Ideologically a Marxist and feminist, Davis was a longtime member of the Communist Party USA and a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism . She is the author of more than ten books on class, gender, race, and the U.S. prison system.

Other Rankings

Founded in 1950 as Oklahoma Christian College, the university is noted today as the undergraduate alma mater of Molefi Kete Asante, a leading figure in the fields of African-American studies, African studies, and communication studies. Today, Asante is both a Temple University Professor of Africology and the founder of the university’s PhD program in African-American Studies. In 2021, Oklahoma Christian College celebrated Black History Month by invited voting rights icon JoAnne Bland to speak on campus.

Molefi Kete Asante

1942 - Present (81 years)
Molefi Kete Asante is an American professor and philosopher. He is a leading figure in the fields of African-American studies, African studies, and communication studies. He is currently professor in the Department of Africology at Temple University, where he founded the PhD program in African-American Studies. He is president of the Molefi Kete Asante Institute for Afrocentric Studies.

Wilberforce University

Wilberforce , OH

Wilberforce University is a critically important institution in Black history. In addition to being an early forerunner in the establishment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Wilberforce was the first institution of higher education owned and operated by African Americans. Founded in 1856 with the mission of providing classical education and teacher training for Black youths, the Ohio-based school drew many of its first students from the south. Though Wilberforce struggled for survival during the Civil War, the 1890′s brought both a professorial tenure from top Pan-African scholar W. E. B. Du Bois and a resurgence of enrollees. Among the scholars who would pass through Wilberforce in the following century were NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan and highly decorated sociologist and Harvard professor William Julius Wilson.

William Julius Wilson

1935 - Present (88 years)
William Julius Wilson is an American sociologist. He is a professor at Harvard University and author of works on urban sociology, race and class issues. Laureate of the National Medal of Science, he served as the 80th President of the American Sociological Association, was a member of numerous national boards and commissions. He identified the importance of neighborhood effects and demonstrated how limited employment opportunities and weakened institutional resources exacerbated poverty within American inner-city neighborhoods.

California State University comprises 23 campuses throughout the state of California. Each campus is a reflection of its surrounding community. This includes CSU’s Los Angeles campus, a university deeply tied to a city with both deep history of racial tension and the promise of great opportunity for advancement. The list of notable graduates and academics from the Los Angeles campus is a reflection of this promise. Prominent alumni include President of the African American Film Critics Association Gil Robertson IV, Mervyn Dymally, who was the first black Lt. Governor of California, and Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, Walter E. Williams.

Walter E. Williams

1936 - 2020 (84 years)
Walter Edward Williams was an American economist, commentator, and academic. Williams was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, as well as a syndicated columnist and author. Known for his classical liberal and libertarian views, Williams’s writings frequently appeared in Townhall, WND, and Jewish World Review. Williams was also a popular guest host of the Rush Limbaugh radio show when Limbaugh was unavailable.

Eastern University

Saint Davids , PA
Eastern University was founded in 1925, but its residential halls were not open to Black students until the 1950s. And yet, since integrating at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, more than 20% of Eastern University’s student body is Black. This growing diversity has been met with growing recognition and opportunity. This is why Eastern University has historically attracted and produced noteworthy scholars and leaders such as scholar of African American Judaica Carol Olivia Herron, community organizer and Pennsylvania House Representative Regina Young, and lawyer as well as founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson.

Bryan Stevenson

1959 - Present (64 years)
Bryan Stevenson is an American lawyer, social justice activist, law professor at New York University School of Law, and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, he has challenged bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system, especially children. He has helped achieve United States Supreme Court decisions that prohibit sentencing children under 18 to death or to life imprisonment without parole. He has assisted in cases that have saved dozens of prisoners from the death penalty, advocated for the poor, and develope...

Fisk University

Nashville , TN
Other Rankings

Fisk University, in addition to being a groundbreaking Historically Black College, is in fact the oldest institution of higher learning in Nashville, Tennessee. Founded in 1866, it was also the first Black College, in 1930, to gain accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Its importance is underscored by its most famous undergraduate, scholar and future NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Dubois, who graduated in 1888. Fisk would also be at the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Civil Rights icon and future U.S. Congressman John Lewis was a member of the university’s student coalition. And Fisk would also help launch the career of influential author and historian John Hope Franklin.

John Hope Franklin

1915 - 2009 (94 years)
John Hope Franklin was an American historian of the United States and former president of Phi Beta Kappa, the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Southern Historical Association. Franklin is best known for his work From Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1947, and continually updated. More than three million copies have been sold. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Other Rankings

West Virginia State University was founded in 1891, making the Historically Black College one of the original 19 land-grant institutions established by the Morrill Act. In 1939, West Virginia became one of six HBCUs to recieve authorization from the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program. As a result, West Virginia helped to prepare many African American pilots for service in World War II, including several who went on to join the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Among some of West Virginia’s most influential alumni are ground-breaking nurse, educator, and champion of African American nurses Mary Elizabeth Carnegie, Civil Rights leader Leon Sullivan, and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

Katherine Johnson

1918 - 2020 (102 years)
Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. During her 33-year career at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her “historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist”.

Yale University

New Haven , CT
Other Rankings
As one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, as well as home to the highly influential Yale Law School, Yale includes a number of prominent Black scholars among its alumni. Among them, Jane Matilda Bolin became the first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School in 1931. She would subsequently go on to become the first African American woman to become a judge in the U.S. Other notables include distinguished economist and activist Phyllis A. Wallace and the highly influence historian and literary critic, Henry Louis Gates.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

1950 - Present (73 years)
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, professor, historian, and filmmaker, who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is a Trustee of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He rediscovered the earliest African-American novels, long forgotten, and has published extensively on appreciating African-American literature as part of the Western canon.

Spelman College

Atlanta , GA
Other Rankings

Spelman College began as an Atlanta-based female seminary in 1881, but received its charter in 1924. This would make the second oldest private Historically Black liberal arts college for women in the United States. It would also make it a future hotbed for both thought leadership and activism within both civil rights and women’s liberation movement. Among Spelman’s notable alumni are author and activist Alice Walker, voting rights leader and Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams, and civil rights icon Marian Wright Edelman, who is said to have had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. during their time working together.

Marian Wright Edelman

1939 - Present (84 years)
Marian Wright Edelman is an American activist for civil rights and children’s rights. She is the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund. She influenced leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Hillary Clinton.
Other Rankings

Western Michigan University was home to a number of extremely prominent Black scholars. Among them were professor Vernie Merze Tate is responsible for a remarkable number of “firsts” including becoming the first African American woman to graduate from Western Michigan’s teaching college, the first to attend University of Oxford, and the first to earn PhD in government from Harvard. Another of Western Michigan’s most noteworthy graduates was Dennis Archer, an attorney and legal scholar who would become the first African American to preside as president over the American Bar Association (ABA).

Dennis Archer

1942 - Present (81 years)
Dennis Wayne Archer is an American lawyer, jurist and former politician from Michigan. A Democrat, Archer served as Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court and as mayor of Detroit. He later served as president of the American Bar Association, becoming the first black president of the organization, which, until 1943, had barred African-American lawyers from membership.

Carson–Newman University

Jefferson City , TN

Founded in 1851, this Jefferson City, Tennessee institution is home to roughly 2500 students. However, this small private Baptist university would be responsible for graduating a highly influential author, minister, and Vanderbilt University Professor of Divinity Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson is noted for his prolific writing on Black icons, with more than 20 texts on subjects such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Marvin Gaye.

Michael Eric Dyson

1958 - Present (65 years)
Michael Eric Dyson is an American academic, author, ordained minister, and radio host. He is a professor in the College of Arts and Science and in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. Described by Michael A. Fletcher as “a Princeton Ph.D. and a child of the streets who takes pains never to separate the two”, Dyson has authored or edited more than twenty books dealing with subjects such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Marvin Gaye, Barack Obama, Nas’s debut album Illmatic, Bill Cosby, Tupac Shakur and Hurricane Katrina.

In 1961, the Martin, Tennessee campus became the first in the University of Tennessee system to begin racial desegregation. This would help to open the door to a number of highly influential Black civic leaders. policy makers and activists. Noteworthy among them is Van Jones, who served as President Barack Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs before becoming a New York Time’s bestseller, television personality and general policy advocate.

Van Jones

1968 - Present (55 years)
Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones is an American news and political commentator, author, and lawyer. He is the co-founder of several non-profit organizations, a three-time New York Times bestselling author, a CNN host and contributor, and an Emmy Award winner.
Other Rankings

MIT is highly noted for its contributions in the sciences and technology fields. But the prestigious institution is also noted for facilitating a number of “firsts” among African American scholars. This includes Marron William Fort, the first African American to earn a PhD in engineering, Robert Robinson Taylor, who was both the first African American enrolled at MIT and the very first Black accredited Architect in America, and Shirley Ann Jackson, the first woman to earn a physics doctorate at MIT as well as the 18th President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Shirley Ann Jackson

1946 - Present (77 years)
Shirley Ann Jackson, is an American physicist, and was the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the first African-American woman to have earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . She is also the second African-American woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in physics.

Duquesne University

Pittsburgh , PA
Other Rankings

Duquesne University largely appears on our list for the towering influence of a single figure. Attorny, activist and professor was born and raised in the Pittsburgh region. He would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University. Today, Derrick Bell is widely regarded as the scholar who introduced Critical Race Theory to academic circles. Critical Race Theory has become a highly consequential school of those as scholars and students work to better understand the intersections of race, economic justice, legal justice, gender, and more.

Derrick Bell

1930 - 2011 (81 years)
Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was an American lawyer, professor, and civil rights activist. Bell worked for first the U.S. Justice Department, then the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he supervised over 300 school desegregation cases in Mississippi.

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