Celebrating Black History Month: Roosevelt pioneers

I doubt there are many colleges or universities that have as much to celebrate during Black History Month as we do. Our founding story is so remarkable: We were created in 1945 to provide education for all qualified students, whatever their color or religion or ethnicity, at a time when most private universities discriminated against many groups with admissions quotas or just blatant rejection.

Dr. Wayne A.R. Leys, Dean of Faculties, and the first five students to register at Roosevelt College
Dr. Wayne A.R. Leys, dean of faculties, and the first five students to register at Roosevelt College, Fall quarter, 1945.

Our first students were black, white, Japanese, World War II veterans, new high school students and refugees. We hired professors who were women, black, Jewish, Latino and Asian, in addition to white men. We had the first integrated Board of Trustees and the first black athletic coach of racially integrated teams. When asked about the number of black or Jewish students at Roosevelt, our founding president, Edward James Sparling, said, “We don’t count that way.”

Early Student Leaders
Student leaders (from left) Frank London Brown, Raymond Clevenger, Harriet Fishman, Harold Washington, Charlotte Grossman-Wallk, Sheldon Perlman, Bernard Jaffe, and Marshall Dickstein making plans for sending representatives to a National Student Association meeting.

In honor of Black History Month, we have compiled a list of some of the remarkable black men and women who have been Roosevelt students. They have distinctive achievements in politics, civil rights, the arts, business, medicine, public service and academia.

Many are “firsts” in their fields. Many were and are civil rights activists and social justice advocates. Many have been awarded honors and honorary degrees and many give back to their alma mater in the form of scholarships and support for student programs.

This list could easily be five times as long, and there are more names and photographs in our book, Roosevelt University (2014). In fact, this is just a start. Please leave a comment with suggestions!

  1. Anna Langford (studied political science, 1946–1948). Civil rights activist and attorney. First black woman elected as an alderman to Chicago’s City Council, 1971.
  2. Robert McFerrin (BA music, 1948). First black male soloist, Metropolitan Opera. (Father of Bobby McFerrin.)
  3. Harold Washington (BA political science, 1949). First black mayor of Chicago, 1983–1987. Harold Washington Portrait
  4. Dempsey Travis (BA political science, 1949). Real estate entrepreneur, civil rights activist, author and jazz musician. Coordinator of Martin Luther King’s first march in Chicago.
  5. Timuel Black (BA political science, 1950). Social justice activist, educator and author. Organizer of the 1963 civil rights March on Washington.
  6. Lloyd Elam (BS zoology, 1950). Physician and president of Meharry Medical College, 1968–1981.
  7. Lorraine Hansberry (studied art, 1950). Playwright, A Raisin in the Sun. Lorraine Hansberry Headshot
  8. Charles Hamilton (BA political science, 1951). Professor at Columbia University and co-author of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.
  9. Matthew Holden (BA political science, 1952). Professor at the Universities of Wisconsin, Virginia, and Illinois-Springfield, president of the American Political Science Association, 1998–1999.
  10. Ramsey Lewis (studied composition in the Chicago Musical College, 1952).
    Jazz pianist.
  11. James Forman (BA public administration, 1956). Leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1961–1966. James Forman Potrait
  12. Leon Forest (studied accounting, 1957–1958). Novelist, Northwestern University professor.
  13. Thomas Burrell (BA English, 1962). CEO, Burrell Communications Group, which became the largest multicultural marketing company in the world.
  14. Anthony Braxton (studied philosophy and music composition, 1963). Improvisational musician, MacArthur Fellow and professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
  15. Darlene Clark Hine (BA history, 1968). Northwestern University history professor, president of the Organization of American Historians, 2001–2002, and recipient of the 2013 National Humanities Medal.darlene-clark-hine_34
  16. Ronald A. Williams (BA psychology, 1970). CEO, Aetna Insurance, 2006–2011.
  17. Hermene Hartman (BA sociology, 1970; MA sociology, 1974; MA philosophy, 1974). Founder, N’DIGO newspaper.
  18. Blanche M. Manning (MA urban studies, 1972). U.S. District Court Judge, 1994–2010.
  19. LeRoy Martin (BA psychology, 1972; MPA public administration, 1976). Second black police superintendent of Chicago, 1987–1992.
  20. Jesse Brown (studied at Roosevelt in 1973). First black U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, 1993–1997.
  21. Reginald Weaver (MA education, 1973). Teacher, public school advocate and president of the National Education Association, 2002–2008, the largest labor union and the largest professional association in the U.S.
  22. Bobby Rush (BGS political science, 1974). U.S. Congressman, 1993–present. Bobby Rush Speaking At Roosevelt
  23. Fred Rice (BA public administration, 1975). First black police superintendent of Chicago, 1983–1987.
  24. Brenda Gaines (MPA, 1976). Former president and CEO of Diners Club North America.
  25. Karen Gibbs (BS business, 1976). First woman to work on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Former anchor and financial news reporter for CNBC, PBS and Fox News.
  26. Danitra Vance (BA theater, 1977). Stage actress. First black woman in the regular cast of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, 1985–1986. Danitra Vance Portrait
  27. Sylvia Flanagan (MS journalism, 1986). Senior editor, Jet Magazine, 1985–2007.
  28. Merle Dandridge (BFA theatre, 1998). Broadway, video game voiceover and television actor. Played Rita Roosevelt on Sons of Anarchy.


  1. Tommye Sardin says

    I graduated from Roosevelt in 1991 and it is my most treasured life experience. It great to see the greatness in our race.

  2. Carol says

    Many of these remarkable are not known in the general sphere. This is a good article in noticing their works and capabilities that were succesfull in the time of their oppresion.

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