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Sen. Kamala Harris at Howard University's Commencement in 2017

Howard University

When Kamala Harris stood before Howard University's graduating class last year to give the commencement address, she told the students she'd been where they sat when she graduated from the university three decades earlier.

"You are now official members of what I call the role model club," she said.

In being selected as the running mate to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, the California senator became the first Black candidate for vice president. But on Wednesday, Harris's selection was also being seen as a leap forward for historically Black colleges from Alabama to Louisiana to Washington, D.C.

"It's something that's never been done. You would think that in 2020, it would have happened already. But it hasn't. It's a pivotal moment in the evolution of HBCUs when one of our own is finally breaking through the barriers that exist," said Grambling State University President Rick Gallot.

Certainly, President Obama's election was historic, but this had a different flair. "He was an Ivy League grad," Gallot said of Obama, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities. "There was a sense that you can be Black but you have to be an Ivy League grad to make it at that level."

To his students, Harris's selection is a "visual representation that that's not true."

Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick called Harris's selection, "an extraordinary moment in the history of America and of Howard University." In his statement, he said also it was a "milestone opportunity for our democracy to acknowledge the leadership Black women have always exhibited, but has too often been ignored. Let's pause and take a collective breath that has been denied to so many."

Harris, he said, "is poised to break two glass ceilings in our society with one fell swoop of her Howard hammer! The HBCU community and I will be watching."

Howard, Harris has said several times, shaped her in much the same way. "There are two things that shaped who I am today, my mother and my family, and Howard University," Harris told Harry L. Williams, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, when he interviewed her last year at a conference for the group.

"Of course there are systemic barriers and they run rampant in our society, But you know there is no barrier that you have in terms of what you believe you can do," she told Williams of her time at Howard.

She explored Howard's impact further in her memoir, The Truths We Hold last year.

"As was the case for most Howard students, my favorite place to hang out was an area we called the Yard, a grass-covered place, the size of a city block, right smack in the heart of campus," Harris recalled.

"On any given day you can stand in the middle of the Yard, and see, on your right, young dancers practicing their steps or musicians playing instruments," she wrote.

"Look to your left and there were brief-case toting students strolling out of the business school, and medical students in their white coats, heading back to the lab," she wrote.

"That was the beauty of Howard. Every signal told students that we could be anything -- that we were young, gifted, and black, and we shouldn't let anything get in the way of our success. The campus was a place where you didn't have to be confined to the box of another person's choosing. At Howard, you could come as you were and leave as the person you aspired to be."

She'd gone to Howard, she wrote, because growing up in Oakland she'd wanted to be a lawyer. "Uncle Sherman and our close friend Henry were lawyers, and anytime somebody had a problem, within the family or the neighborhood, the first thing you'd hear was, 'Call Uncle Henry. Call Sherman.'"

"And what better place do that, I thought, than at Thurgoood Marshall's alma mater?" she wrote.

“We had Thurgood Marshall," Lita Rosario, who'd recruited her for Howard's debate team, observed on Wednesday. “Now we have Kamala Harris."

Rosario had noticed Harris on campus engaged in debates, like many other students, as they debated the questions of the day, from apartheid in South Africa to how well The Cosby Show captured life for Black Americans.

Men can use their size to try to intimidate women during the debates, but one thing Rosario said she noticed was Harris didn't back down.

The two have drifted apart over the years as Harris pursued a political career and Rosario became a corporate attorney and is now serving as an adjunct professor at American University's Kogod School of Business.

But when Rosario was devastated when her mother died two years ago, Harris called. "She said the sad thoughts you're having now are going to be the happy memories you have of her later. It really helped."

She mentioned the story as she scoffed at President Trump's reaction when Harris was selected for Biden's ticket --- that Harris is the "meanest, most horrible, most disrespectful of anybody in the U.S. Senate."

If she weren't a woman, she'd be called a tenacious interrogator, she said.

Speaking at the Howard commencement, Harris had said they were "part of a legacy that has now endured and thrived for 150 years. It endured when the doors of higher education were closed to Black students. It endured when segregation and discrimination were the law of the land. It endured when few recognized the potential and capacity of young Black men and women to be leaders," she said.

In her memoir, she recalled the diversity of the students HBCUs serve, when she walked into the university's Cramton Auditorium for freshman orientation.

"There were hundreds of people and everyone looked like me. Some were children of Howard alumni; others were the first in their families to go to college. Some had been in predominantly black schools their whole lives; others had long been one of only a few people of color in their classrooms or their neighborhood. Some came from cities, some from rural communities, and some from African communities, the Caribbean, and throughout the African diaspora."

Speaking about the need to increase the size of Pell grants at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund conference, Harris spoke of the challenges their students face.

"There are certain realities we need to face and some truths we need to speak," Harris said. “We have a significant number of our students who are not graduating in four years, and they are students who in many cases are the first in their families to go to college.

"The reality of it is that their parents are looking at it and saying, 'You better get a job. Graduate or get a job.' We don't want them to have to make a false choice, which is either go out and make some money right now or finish their education and increase the possibility of making much more money over their lifetime. Students every day at our HBCUs are making that choice based on money. We want to take that off the table."

Even Obama had to learn about the significance of HBCUs, Williams said, "because he didn't live it." Harris, would be different, he said.

"It's the second highest office in the world," Williams said of the prospect of Harris becoming vice president. "And to have an HBCU graduate as the number two person is potentially very very significant," he said.


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