Entertainer Queen Latifah and Robert F. Smith the entrepreneur who announced that he would pay the college loans of more than 400 Morehouse College students who graduated in May are among W.E.B. Du Bois Medal recipients. The Du Bois Medal celebrates black excellence and opportunity.
The Du Bois medal is the highest honor Harvard gives to scholars, artists, writers, journalists, philanthropists, and public servants for their contributions to African and African American history and culture. It is awarded by the African and African American Studies Department, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary at Harvard.
“Understand that there will be times when you will have to stand alone. There will be no one else that will believe in your dream,” Queen Latifah, hip-hop artist, actress, and medal recipient, told a packed audience Tuesday evening at Sanders Theatre. “There are plenty of people who told us we will never be where we are today … but we don’t believe those people. You have to be strong and be courageous and just know that if you believe in it, it’s going to happen. Don’t give up. Do not quit. Fight for it.”
In a moving speech, Smith — the founder, chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a firm that manages equity capital worth upwards of $50 billion — recalled how his upbringing and community inspired him to succeed for those who didn’t have the opportunities he did, and to open doors to success for others. Of his $34 million gift to the 2019 graduates of Morehouse, he said, “To me that’s my job. It is to liberate the human spirit.”
Besides Smith and Latifah, this year’s honorees included Elizabeth Alexander, a renowned poet, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and former fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; Lonnie Bunch III, the head of the Smithsonian Institution; Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate; Sheila C. Johnson, philanthropist and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; and Kerry James Marshall, an award-winning artist.
Past winners include such luminaries as poet Toni Morrison, boxer Muhammad Ali, children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, comedian Dave Chappelle, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, writer Maya Angelou, politician and civil rights leader John Lewis, opera star Jessye Norman, rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and entertainer and media executive Oprah Winfrey.