National Institute on Aging

Honorary Degrees Given to Blacks by Leading Liberal Arts Colleges in 2012

The nation’s leading liberal arts colleges gave out 16 honorary degrees to Blacks during this spring’s commencement season. Last year, this group of liberal arts colleges gave out honorary degrees to 12 Black scholars. Mount Holyoke College and Oberlin College are the only members of this group to give awards to two African Americans in 2012.

(L to R) Top row: Ulric St. Clair Haynes Jr., Gwen Ifill, Carrie Mae Weems, Randy Weston, Jamaica Kincaid, Geoffrey Canada, William E. Strickland Jr., and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Bottom row: Bernard Lafayette Jr., Ntozake Shange, Stanley Cowell, David Murray, Edwidge Danticat, Judy Richardson, Glenn Ligon, and Anna Deavere Smith.

Here is a list of the 2012 honorands at the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges:

Amherst College

Ulric St. Clair Haynes Jr. is a 1952 graduate of Amherst College. He was one of only two African American students in his graduating class. He went on to graduate from Yale Law School. From 1977 to 1981, he was the U.S. ambassador to Algeria. Currently he is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Central Florida.

Bates College

Gwen Ifill is senior correspondent for PBS Newshour, and is moderator and managing editor of Washington Week. She is the author of the best-selling book The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (Doubleday, 2009). Ifill is a graduate of Simmons College in Boston.

Bowdoin College

Carrie Mae Weems is an internationally known photographer and visual artist. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts and a master of fine arts degree from the University of California at San Diego.

Colby College

Randy Weston, an accomplished jazz pianist and composer is a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. He was born in Brooklyn to Jamaican parents. His autobiography, African Rhythms, was published by Duke University Press in 2010.

Grinnell College

Jamaica Kincaid is a native of Antigua. She is an award-winning novelist and short fiction writer and also is the author of books on gardening. She currently holds the Josephine Olp Weeks Chair and is a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Hamilton College

Geoffrey Canada is founder and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College and holds a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Middlebury College

William E. Strickland Jr. is the president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. While still in college in 1968, he founded the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, which serves about 3,900 young people each year through classes and workshops in areas such as ceramics and design. It is also home to a Grammy-winning record label and a world-class jazz performance series.

Mount Holyoke College

Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. He is a graduate of Harvard University and holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia University. Dr. Tyson has written nine books, including his memoir The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.

Bernard Lafayette Jr. has been a civil rights movement activist, minister, educator, and lecturer. An authority on the strategy on nonviolent social change, he co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. LaFayette is an alumnus of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. He holds master’s and doctoral degrees in education from Harvard University. He currently serves at Emory University in Atlanta as distinguished senior scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology.

Oberlin College

Ntozake Shange is a renowned poet, performance artist, playwright, novelist, children’s book author, and educator. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and a master’s degree from the University of Southern California.

Stanley Cowell, a graduate of Oberlin College, is a classically trained jazz pianist and composer. He holds a master’s degree in music from the University of Michigan. Currently, he is chair of the jazz studies program at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Pomona College

David Murray is an internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist. He attended Pomona College for two years, studying under Stanley Crouch and Bobby Bradford, before launching his career as a musician and composer.

Smith College

Edwidge Danticat, a celebrated author, is a native of Haiti and came to the United States at the age of 12. She is a graduate of Barnard College and holds a master of fine arts degree from Brown University. She has taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami. In 2007 she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Brother, I’m Dying.

Swarthmore College

Judy Richardson is an award-winning documentary film producer and civil rights activist. She is the co-editor of Hands on the Freedom Plow: The Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. Richardson attended Swarthmore College but left school to participate in the civil rights movement. She later earned a bachelor’s degree at Antioch College.

Wesleyan University

Glenn Ligon, an artist, is a 1982 graduate of Wesleyan University. His works have been shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. His work gained national attention when President and Mrs. Obama chose his painting “Black Like Me #2” for their private living space at the White House.

Williams College

Anna Deavere Smith is a tenured professor at the Tish School of the Arts of New York University, Two of her best-known works are the one-woman plays about racial tensions she wrote and performed: Fires in the Mirror (Obie Award winner and runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (Obie Award winner and Tony Award nominee).


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