What do Lionel Richie, Spike Lee, and Sean “Diddy” Combs have in common? All three entertainment icons are Oscar winners (check out Diddy’s 2011 documentary, Undefeated), and all three started out as undergrads at historically black colleges or universities.
HBCUs, as they’re commonly known, are rich in black history and seminaries for future stars. Empire’s Taraji P. Henson, Black-ish’s Anthony Anderson, and The Game’s Wendy Raquel Robinson were classmates in Howard University’s drama department, where legendary actors like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee served as mentors.
BuzzFeed News asked some of the most talented and successful people in the entertainment industry why an HBCU was the only choice for them, and heard the campus stories that set the course for their storied careers.
Sean "Diddy" Combs
Rapper, producer, actor, mogul, inventor of the remix
It was important for me to go to a school where I would be exposed to new things, and meet new people. But I also wanted to be part of a community that understood my life experience. Howard offered all of that, and more.
I still remember my first day at Howard. I walked up the hill, past the Quad, through the main gate. I made my way to the Yard and my mind was blown! Growing up, I rarely traveled outside of New York. I had never heard so many different accents. I had never seen so many different types of people.
It was my Howard professors who supported my decision to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and work at Uptown MCA Records under the legendary Andre Harrell. The lessons I learned while on campus, and the connections that I made, are part of my life and career every day.
And Howard became my family. It gave me a second home. When I couldn’t afford a place to live, it was my Howard friends who let me sleep on their floors. It was my Howard family who looked out for me when I didn’t have any money for food. When I started my career in music, many of the people I met at Howard — like Harve Pierre — came with me on my journey.
Actor (Black-ish, The Departed)
Howard University was the only college I applied to, because of the history of their fine arts department. The likes of Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad and Roberta Flack had come through those doors.
I go back and I meet students and I go to homecoming. I talk about how great it is, and I’m like, well, you know, there was never really a better time at Howard than when I was there.
I understand that every generation has their time, or whatnot, but we had Puff, we had Ananda Lewis we had AJ Calloway, we had myself, Wendy Raquel Robinson, we had Wendy Davis, we had Carl Anthony Payne, we had Marlon Wayans, we had the group Shai — Taraji P. Henson! And I say, "You look at all the people that I have named, and how we've become successful in our own fields, in our own right. Just imagine all of that creative energy on the yard at the same time. The hype that you're feeling right now isn't the same as what it was once when we were students there."
And then they understand, they say, "OK, you may have a point. You may have a point. But, you know, Howard’s fly as hell right now."
Rapper, producer (Lil Wayne), and actor (The Butler)
I never planned on being Student Government Association president. Two things that I don't trust are preachers and politicians. Both of those positions are designed for regular people to rise to the occasion. As soon as you get done with it, you go back to being a butcher or whatever you were in society. I don't like that you now have professional preachers and professional politicians. Whenever you have a constituency that pays you, you can never be for the people.
But being Southern’s SGA president taught me something. It showed me that you can do something right. That was the first time in my life that I did something all the way right and didn't cut any corners, taking advantage of the position. I didn't take no money, I actually wasn’t even sexually active with any woman on campus while I was SGA president. (I did go over to Louisiana State University, though!) I didn't want anything. I worked every day for eight hours a day in the office. It gave me a microcosm of what my life was going to be, because I was a star on that campus, for the most part.
Actor and comedian (The Wanda Sykes Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm)
My brother went to Norfolk State, my father went to Virginia State. I knew I wanted to go to a historically black college, and so I said, "You know, I should go to the best, the real HU!" Though at that time it was the Hampton Institute.
My aunt Dolores, she was teaching there, so I was familiar with the school. I was going away to college, but I was still in familiar territory.
Really, I was just like, OK, I have to go to college. I should make it as fun as possible!
Actor and comedian (co-host, The Real)
Prairie View A&M
I spent like a half a semester at Western Michigan University, and I just felt lost. I didn't understand college because nobody in my family had gone to college. I just didn't understand the whole process. I felt alone. I was in a room with a whole bunch of people that didn’t look like me, and being a girl from the projects, that was a culture shock. Everybody around me was not African-American.
I ended up getting a job at General Motors — I had a friend who was an engineer and he said, "Well, why don't you try a historically black college?" I didn't know anything about it. I ended up finding a college that graduated the most engineers, and that happened to be Prairie View A&M University.
I was broke, so I was up in a bar one night and they were like, "Well, whoever can tell the best story will get 50 bucks." I needed the 50 bucks and I got up and I just told a story, just made it up, and that's what made me realize people get paid to tell stories. I kind of always said that was my introduction into stand-up.
I became a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and I did a sorority event called "The Wanda Winfrey Show." Oprah Winfrey was just starting to ramp up, and I played her sister, Wanda. My talk show addressed the issues that affected the campus; it really became a hit.
Stephen A. Smith
Sports journalist and television personality (ESPN2’s First Take)
Winston-Salem State University
I was in a critical persuasive writing class, and the professor for the class was the editorial page editor for the Winston-Salem Journal. He read an essay of mine and said, "You are a natural born sports writer. Let's go out to lunch." He took me straight to the Winston-Salem Journal and introduced me to the sports editor, who hired me on the spot as a clerk.
My career just essentially went from there. The guys that I worked with on the copydesk were all white, and they were absolutely fantastic to me. They treated me like family and literally taught me the business: how to write, how to go about pursuing a story.
One day the sports editor, Terry Oberle, asked me to write a feature about Wake Forest soccer, which was ranked No. 3 in the nation. I had never watched a game of soccer in my life. I walked up to the coach and I said to him, "I know nothing about soccer whatsoever, but I want to be a sports writer. Is there anything you can do to help me?" ... He called the whole team over, and he said, "Give him complete, unadulterated access to the next three days. Whatever he wants, give it to him." The coach taught me the game of soccer … over the next three days. I wrote a two-page feature and the sports desk ran it in the Sunday paper. Terry called me into his office that Monday and said, "Congratulations, you're the new lead writer for the Wake Forest soccer team."
DJ and producer (Gang Starr, Nas, Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G.)
Prairie View A&M
My dad was a biology professor on campus and a dean, so I was always at Prairie View A&M. I was actually doing parties on campus before I started going to Prairie View. And I had all the latest records. People would be like, "Man, he has everything." We didn’t have CDs back then. There was no such thing. It was all vinyl.
We did big parties at the Newman Center — it’s not there anymore. That started to transcend to step shows. Back then, they were called stomp shows. One thing led to another and all of the sudden the Kappas are calling me to do a party, the Ques are calling me to do a party, the Alphas are calling me to do a party, AKAs are calling me to do a party, the Sigma Gamma Rhos are calling me to do a party, the Wisconsin Sleepers are calling me to do a party. It just kept going.
The stuff you see in Drumline with the bands playing all the funky stuff and doing all the ill drum patterns, Prairie View has been doing that, even back when I was in junior high. As a kid, it was amazing to see a black marching band get down. It was normal to see that, and I felt like there was no other place to go but Prairie View.
My dad said he wanted to see us be as on point as any other race. He wanted us to be at a high level. That was always the Prairie View motto: producing productive people. That carried into me being a producer and a businessman. I didn't graduate because I stepped out to see if I could get my music career off the ground. It was totally my instincts and my belief in myself that made me say, if I get a shot at it, I’m going to go do it.
Legendary top-selling soul singer, songwriter, and musician; father of Nicole
I was born and raised on Tuskegee University’s campus. It was probably one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my life. All of the things that black America stands for today were actually built into my growing up. It was a part of the lesson plan.
It was one of the greatest decisions I ever made to return to Tuskegee and attend the university. Going to that school gave me the confidence of basically knowing who I am and where I am in this great big world that we live in.
I think the part that I loved the most was who came through Tuskegee at that time. We had some of the greatest leaders and controversial subjects of our time. From Malcolm X to Martin Luther King to H. Rap Brown to Stokely Carmichael to Odetta to Hugh Masekela, the Temptations to James Brown and every other wonderful artist. It was just a cultural mecca. I should say James Baldwin! Dick Gregory.
It was just one of those wonderful times in history when everyone would come through. Not to mention the fact that I was born and raised in and around the Tuskegee Airmen. The community and the environment — it just raised me. It raised me to who I am today.
Comedian (The Rickey Smiley Show, Dish Nation, Rickey Smiley for Real)
Alabama State University
You go to a black college, you're really going to learn a lot about your culture. You're going to have an appreciation for the people that came before you because those professors are not going to let you forget what you came from. At some schools you might be just a number, but I know at Alabama State, and different HBCUs, teachers know you by name, and you have a relationship with these teachers.
I absolutely love Alabama State. But I love Alabama A&M as well, even though Alabama A&M is our main competition, because A&M was the first college to put me up on stage and pay me to perform.
They would book me for homecoming. I would jump in my '77 Cutlass and drive over to Huntsville with some friends. I remember my first check. I got maybe $400. I'll never forget it. That was a lot — that was like four grand now. Talking about '89, '90, $400 is like four grand. You can do a lot with that!
Wendy Raquel Robinson
Actor (The Steve Harvey Show, The Game)
There was a college counselor who came to my high school and was recruiting for several schools. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him that I wanted to act. I wanted to dance, I wanted to sing. And he was like, "Who is your favorite artist?" Right off the top of my head was Debbie Allen. And he was like, "Debbie Allen went to Howard. Have you ever heard about Howard?" And I had never even heard of Howard University, but I knew who Debbie was and she was always — she was, and still is — my role model. I put all my effort into going there.
At Howard, there was a passion for what we were doing. We didn't have all of the bells and the whistles and the state-of-the-art technology. We were forced to really, like, hang that lighting instrument with a shoestring and some bubblegum and just make the best of it. When you don't have everything, you have to work even harder and you appreciate it.
The class sizes were so small. That's one thing that I love about HBCUs. You're not just a number. You are a person. You're individualized, you're not a number in this massive roll call of students that are on campus. We all had relationships with our professors, in addition to each other. We knew our professors.
Director (School Daze, Do the Right Thing, three Denzel Washington films in the '90s)
My father went to Morehouse, my grandfather went to Morehouse, my mother went to Spelman, and my grandmother went to Spelman. I took a class at Clark with my film professor Dr. Eichelberger, who is still there teaching at Clark AU. He's the one that really said that I should try to pursue filmmaking.
School Daze, very simply, is my four years at Morehouse and the impact of the homecoming weekend. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I remember the man directing the coronation my senior year and that was a big success that left me with confidence. Those coronations at Morehouse, they're like Broadway productions!
Not just Morehouse, but I think black colleges are very essential to our education of young black minds. Being black in this country is never going to get old. There's an understanding, a nurturing at HBCUs, that you might not get elsewhere.
Showrunner and screenwriter (Black-ish)
Clark Atlanta University
I picked Clark Atlanta University because of Spike Lee. Lee actually went to Morehouse, but his mentor was a guy named Dr. Eichelberger who was a teacher at Clark. Morehouse doesn't have a film program, so kids would come over there. I'm basically doing what I'm doing because of Spike Lee. I think — for a lot of people my age — he was the first time I saw a dude do something that felt like he had a voice that I could relate to, but at the same time, crossed over and spoke to a lot of other different people. It felt like a genuine voice, and when he did School Daze and showed black colleges, I was like, oh my god, I want that experience. I’m from L.A., and coming from here, we had nothing like that.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Tony-nominated actor (A Raisin in the Sun, Sleepless in Seattle), met husband Samuel L. Jackson, a Morehouse alum, in college
I think Spelman chose me. I’m from Atlanta, and I knew I was going to be a theater major. One of my schoolteachers — Georgia Allen, she was a great actress — put on children’s theater at Spelman, so I was always in something. When applications came for colleges, Dr. Baldwin Burroughs, who was the head of the drama department there, said, "You filled out your application?" And I said, "Oh, do I have to? I’m here!" "No, you still have to apply."
I was in school in '68 into the '70s. We were part of a very political faction, the post–civil rights generation. I was very conscious thanks to people who graduated from the school — like Marian Wright, who is my mentor and dear friend. But what was my responsibility, and what we considered part of a contract that you sort of have with Spelman, as a graduate, was that I would choose to change the world and want to do something about it. It was a very rich experience for me, one that I don’t think I could have had on any other campus, because I saw every day that I went there who was in charge of me — and they were African-Americans.
Oscar-winning actor and comedian (Precious, Bessie)
Morgan State University
I went to Morgan State because A Different World was on television and I saw all of these beautiful black kids in college and it looked like fun. I really wasn’t in love with school; I wasn’t that student that said, "I can’t wait to graduate so I could go to college." So I think that A Different World played a major role in that decision. On top of that, Morgan State University was in my hometown of Baltimore and my father said he wasn’t going to pay for me to go out of state!
Once I got there, I enjoyed the freedom. One day, my girlfriend Sherise came to the door of my classroom, and she said, "Come on, let’s go to the mall!" I was like, "Girl! I’m in class." She was like, "You can leave! We grown!" So I got my grown ass up that day!
My performance there was amazing. My character was a college student, but that’s truly not who I was and I had everyone believing it for a whole semester. They believed it, baby! I was a method actress, and in those moments, I believed it too. The moment they said class is over, I knew. I said, "OK! The clock is ticking for me. End scene."
At Morgan State I got the opportunity to be around different personalities, to meet people from all over the world, but they looked like me. I didn’t know that people in France looked like me. So now when there’s a student that goes to Morgan and she’s from France and she’s black and she’s speaking this beautiful language, it made me want to go there and see those people. Imagine the first time I went to Paris and I was under the Eiffel Tower and I saw these beautiful black people talking like that black sister at Morgan? I now am where she’s from.
I have a niece and she goes to school in Texas and her school is 99% white. And in looking for colleges, I said to her, "Why don’t you consider Howard University? Hampton University? Consider Clark, Spelman? You may find out really who you are when you go to those universities, because you’ll see we come from every walk of life, we come from all over the world." But already she had made up her mind that she couldn’t get a great education at an HBCU.
The education that we receive from, I’ll say, our history books — is valuable. And I tell those babies to get that history. It’s not staying shut off from the rest of the world. It helps you deal better with the rest of the world when you can really dig in to who you are and where you come from. And when you go to a historically black university, you gon get it.
Television personality (Access Hollywood)
I didn't really understand the importance of being at an HBCU until maybe my sophomore year. Growing up in Detroit, where there is obviously a large black population, I didn't feel in any way that I was lacking black culture. I was an English major when I was at Spelman, and just being introduced on a more formal basis to the writing of Alice Walker and Langston Hughes was very important — just learning more about black culture and black history and the impact that African-Americans have made on our country and around the world.
Today, whenever I meet a Spelman woman, there is almost an instant camaraderie. It’s like, "Hey, Spelman sister! How you doing?" I get emails and tweets and Facebook postings every single day from Spelman women. Like, "Hey Spelman sister! I didn't know you went to Spelman! That's so wonderful!" It's great to have that sisterhood that you have when you're a Spelman woman. Even if you're not in the same class as someone, we always like to make the connection, and there is an instant friendship and a sense of sisterhood when you go to Spelman.
Actor and television personality (E! News, Think Like a Man)
North Carolina A&T
I was not the best student in high school. I had poor grades, and so when I was applying to a lot of other colleges, I didn't get accepted. North Carolina A&T, they took a chance on me.
Pretty much everything that I went through in school helped to prepare me for my career. A lot of the business relationships that I have now — Steve Harvey, Shaquille O'Neal — they're all members of the fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, that I became a part of when I was at A&T. All the public speaking that I had to do there, as student body president, helps me now with all the other speaking I have to do when I'm on TV or I'm hosting an event.
It was a really transformative experience. Between when I entered at 17, 18 years old, and when I graduated, I became a new man because of the time invested me. And that's why I think HBCUs are so important. For a kid like me, it gave me a chance, and I wouldn't be where I am today if they didn't take a chance on me.
Growing up a black Seventh-day Adventist, academically Oakwood was really the only choice. What’s crazy about the school is the number of people who go there who are ridiculously musically inclined, from classically trained to just innately gifted. With that group of people all together at the same time, musical growth is exponential and inevitable. Getting kicked out of school is my most important Oakwood memory. If I hadn’t gotten kicked out, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Aaron D. Spears
Actor (The Bold and the Beautiful, Being Mary Jane)
Delaware State University
I had my mind set on playing football and I had my mind set on another school. The coach from the other school left between the time I went to go for the visitation to the actual time I was to arrive for football camp, and Delaware State was still asking, am I gonna come, am I gonna come, am I gonna come? And I said, you know what? They run the ball, I could get a lot of playing time. And they had John Taylor, who played for the San Francisco 49ers, that went there. I was also drawn to an HBCU. I went to a [high] school that was majority Caucasian, six hours in the Pennsylvania mountains. So it was a complete 180 from where I was to where I was gonna be. An HBCU allowed for me to walk around a multitude of different people, different ethnicities, different cultures, different ways people think. Seeing old friends and new friends — being a lot of times from totally different countries — allowed us to kind of mix and mingle food and culture, among other things, to experience human nature at its finest.