The highs and lows of the 2024 HBCU commencement season

 Like the college experience, the 2024 graduation season presented unique ebbs and flows.

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Howard University graduates arrive for the 2023 Commencement Ceremony at Capitol One Arena on May 13, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)

As the sun set on the 2024 graduation ceremonies at historically Black colleges and universities across the country, this season illuminated a scene rich with jubilation, resilience, and a poignant reminder of the unique challenges these revered HBCUs continue to face. From the soaring cheers of families witnessing first-generation scholars cross the stage to tearful goodbyes shared with friends and faculty who became family, this year’s commencements were a vibrant tapestry of triumph and tradition. 

However, in a year not unlike when most of these graduates completed high school during the coronavirus lockdown, these celebrations were interwoven with moments of stark reality, highlighting the disparities and hurdles that still stand in the way of true educational equity. Here are seven notable moments from this 2024 HBCU graduation season, where each cap and gown carried a story of perseverance, pride, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.

Clark Atlanta University’s commencement speaker took attendees to church

During Clark Atlanta University’s ceremony, author and African-American studies professor Dr. Daniel Black delivered what may arguably be the best commencement address. In a moving, sermon-inspired speech, Dr. Black made guests feel like they stepped into Sunday service as he empowered and affirmed the university’s 2024 graduating class. Regardless of what year you graduated or whether you graduated at all, his speech served as a powerful reminder that “if Harriet Tubman ran to freedom, you can run to your destiny.” 

The political parallels underscored Morehouse College’s 2024 commencement 

Some graduating students turned their backs on President Joe Biden as he delivered a commencement address during Morehouse College’s graduation ceremony on May 19 in Atlanta. (Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

As previously reported by theGrio, the appointment of President Joe Biden as Morehouse College’s 2024 commencement speaker sparked backlash due to his administration’s stance on international conflicts. Despite concerns about protests disrupting the ceremony, Morehouse students found peaceful ways to demonstrate their disagreement with White House policies. While some graduates turned their backs to the stage during Biden’s address, others, like valedictorian Deangelo Fletcher, called for an “immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip” in front of the United States president. 

Angela Bassett reaffirms girl power at Spelman College

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Actress Angela Bassett speaks onstage during the Spelman College commencement ceremony at Georgia International Convention Center on May 19 in College Park, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

“Raise your head and embody the queen that you have been prepared to be,” Angela Bassett told Spelman College’s 2024 graduating class. The award-winning actor attended the graduation ceremony at the historically Black women’s college as its commencement speaker. In addition to sharing an empowering speech, Bassett received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree, alongside Supreme Court Justice Dr. Kentanji Brown Jackson, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the HBCU. 

Al Roker and Deborah Roberts joined forces as Fisk University’s commencement speakers

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Deborah Roberts and Al Roker were the keynote speakers at Fisk’s commencement. Above, the couple attend the “Origin” New York premiere in November. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Black media veterans Al Roker and Deborah Roberts served as keynote speakers at Fisk University’s 150th commencement ceremony on May 6. 

“Deborah and Al are more than just media icons,”  Fisk’s president, Dr. Agenia W. Clark said about the couple joining this year’s graduation ceremony. “They are now cherished friends of Fisk University, and their dedication to excellence and social responsibility mirrors our core values. We are incredibly grateful for their willingness to inspire our graduating class of future leaders as they embark on their journeys.” 

Howard University’s class of “courage” 

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Howard University faced seating problems at this year’s graduation. Above, 2023 graduates arrive at Capital One Arena in Washington for last year’s ceremony. (Photo by Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)

This year, Howard University’s commencement speaker, Thasunda Brown Duckett, president and CEO of the Teacher Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), recognized the 2024 graduates’ courage. Like most 2024 undergraduates, Howard’s graduating class began their collegiate journeys in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. From the moment they began their college careers to the second they walked across the stage, these students were forced to endure a series of unprecedented challenges.

This year, HU faced a seating issue at its graduation venues, limiting the amount of space available for guests and leaving many families unable to witness loved ones receive their degrees. During the nursing school’s graduation, the university was forced to end the ceremony before graduates could walk the stage due to the venue reaching maximum capacity and violence breaking out among families who were locked out.     

FAMU’s mysterious donation 

During Florida A&M University’s commencement ceremony, speaker Gregory Gerami boldly declared an ultimately controversial donation to the university. Despite reportedly proclaiming, “the money is in the bank” to the graduation’s applauding audience, Gerami’s $238 million donation subsequently sparked a series of investigations at the institution and, as reported by Fortune, may be worthless. Though FAMU President Larry Robinson reportedly stated the donation has been “ceased” without further explanation, the graduation speaker’s gift has shined a light on questionable practices at the university as members of the staff appear to have overlooked a series of “red flags” when accepting this donation. 

Hampton University celebrated its largest group of doctoral candidates

As Hampton University conferred degrees on over 665 graduates, the 2024 commencement marked a milestone for the HBCU. At its 154th commencement ceremony, the university honored its largest group of doctoral candidates to date, as well as its youngest graduate, Kyndall Johnson, who began her undergraduate journey there and received her degree at the age of 19.