Taraji P. Henson says it’s an ‘honor’ to serve on White House HBCU Board of Advisors

EXCLUSIVE: The Howard University graduate and Hollywood star told theGrio she wants to bring mental health resources to HBCU campuses and be a "liaison" for students.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 03: Taraji P. Henson attends the 8th Annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center on November 03, 2019 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Next month, the Biden White House’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) will be sworn in. The 20-person board currently includes HBCU presidents and alumni, executives, an HBCU student, NBA All-Star Chris Paul — and award-winning actress Taraji P. Henson.

TheGrio caught up exclusively with Henson while the soon-to-be sworn-in board member was in Atlanta, Georgia, filming the adaptation of The Color Purple. The 51-year-old Washington, D.C. native and graduate of Howard University is playing the role of Shug Avery.

Henson said it is an “honor“ to have been asked to sit on the prestigious board and that she takes her latest role seriously as she understands more than most the value and needs of HBCUs. Henson, who became pregnant with her son during her junior year at Howard, graduated from the university in 1995 with a degree in theatre arts. 

Howard University grad Taraji P. Henson
Howard University grad Taraji P. Henson waved to the crowd as she and Ludacris made their way down Georgia Avenue at the Howard University homecoming parade Saturday morning. (Photo by Mark Gail/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I think because they see that I am a product of an HBCU and my activism in the community, I guess that combination seemed like someone who would want to be on the board, and I am HBCU from the heart,” said the actress who has starred in films like Baby Boy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Hustle and Flow and the popular series Empire.

Henson’s activism will be prominent in her work on the White House Board of Advisors on HBCUs, she told theGrio. “I want to bring the student voices to the table…I’m there as their liaison,” she said.

Henson referenced last year’s campus protests at her alma mater, where students boycotted class and demanded better living conditions in dormitories, among other campus grievances. “The upkeep was horrible,” Henson said.

Eventually, the protests ended, and the university reached an agreement with student activists and their legal representation.

The student protesters also called for a vote of no confidence for Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick, who announced last week that he will retire and leave office in 2024

In a statement provided to theGrio, President Frederick expressed support for Henson’s appointment. “As an alumna of Howard University, her intimate knowledge of the HBCU experience will allow her to bring a unique and relevant perspective to the advisory board at an important time in our nation’s history,” he said. 

Henson said it’s important for her to use her celebrity and role on the board to do more for HBCUs than simply “retweet” posts on Instagram. “I’m in a position now where I can tap on the shoulders,” she said. She noted that the Biden-Harris administration has already provided $5.8 billion to HBCUs since January 2021 in grant funding and federal investments from the American Rescue Plan and more. 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden deliver remarks on the day tens of millions of parents will get their first monthly Child Tax Credit relief payments in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on July 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Dr. Tony Allen, Chair of the president’s HBCU Board of Advisors and President of Delaware State University, acknowledged, “Having already invested an unprecedented $5.8 billion in our institutions, the President, the Vice President, and the entire Biden administration have been clear on their dedication to HBCUs in word and deed. And they are just beginning.” 

Henson will also spotlight mental health, which has become her passion beyond the glitz and glamour of Hollywood over the years. This past February, a series of bomb threats on the campuses of more than 20 HBCUs caused a lot of angst and anxiety for students, faculty, and staff. 

“Mental health is very important…I’m going to make sure that we have the resources that we need on every campus of the HBCUs. And we need those resources. And now we see why those resources are very important. And it’s deeper than just a counselor,” said Henson. 

During the 15-minute interview on Zoom, Henson resembled a schoolgirl as she donned a baseball cap while still allowing her natural curls to shine through. Henson, who owns a hair and body care line called TPH by Taraji Henson, said she plans to bring her authenticity to the table. 

Taraji P. Henson poses with TPH by TARAJI product display as the actress surprises guests at Herald Square Target Store on January 24, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Target)

That authentic nature is captivating for supporters of her White House appointment like Lodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at United Negro College Fund. 

“Ms. Henson, as a proud Howard graduate, brings the special qualities of authenticity and deep commitment to stage and screen, and we do believe those attributes will serve her and our HBCUs well,” said Murray. 

“She has access to pockets of our society and influence that will assist the board’s efforts to advance and promote educational equity, HBCU excellence, and economic opportunities for graduates and Black Americans as a whole,” said Dr. Glenda Glover, Vice-Chair of the White House HBCU advisory board.

The White House Board of Advisors on HBCUs, which has also been known as the White House Initiative on HBCUs, was created through an executive order in 1980 during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. According to The White House, the board is meant to increase the capacity of HBCUs to provide the highest-quality education to its students and continue serving as engines of opportunity.

A last October view of the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C., which was among the HBCUs that received bomb threats Tuesday, officials said. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The 105 or so HBCUs, many founded during slavery, have built a reputation for propelling Black Americans into the middle class and developing them into model citizens who contribute to the nation’s social and economic fabric.  

HBCUs boast titans in their respective industries like businessman, publisher and founder of Black Enterprise Earl Graves, entertainers like Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee and Chadwick Boseman, playwright David E. Talbert, and countless others. The most luminary HBCU graduates are arguably the civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Henson noted that an HBCU experience and education are invaluable. The actress recalled her experience in the public school system, where she was taught about historical figures like Christopher Columbus or historical events like the Holocaust. However, lessons about slavery or Black historical figures like Harriet Tubman and Dr. King, she said, were taught only “briefly.”

At Howard, Henson said she was reminded that she and all African Americans could achieve anything they desired. “This was the place where I saw us in these leading positions,” she said. “It wasn’t until I went to an HBCU where I really understood who I was as a Black woman in America and taking pride in that.”

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