Honorary Degree Recipients

Mr. Harry Belafonte
Artist and Human Rights Activist
Doctor of Humanities, honoris causa

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 • Commencement Remarks

Harry Belafonte is a beloved national treasure. A renowned activist, humanitarian, and the “consummate entertainer,” the former “King of Calypso” is revered for his activism in achieving civil rights for African Americans while putting at risk a very successful entertainment career. He is credited with being one of the few and earliest African- American entertainers whose art form “crossed over” and garnered broad commercial success. Through his work in popular music, he has raised his voice from Alabama to Bosnia for the support and rights of the poor and racially oppressed. His charitable work with UNICEF and USA for Africa is legendary. 

Born on March 1, 1927, in Harlem and raised in Jamaica, Belafonte first supported his acting studies as an intermission singer at the Royal Roost, a famed New York nightclub, where his backup band included Max Roach, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. His world of jazz changed when he discovered The Village Vanguard and folk music. Watching artists like Lead Belly, Woodie Guthrie, Josh White, and Pete Seeger, Belafonte found the art form that became his ultimate expression.

A succession of club appearances led to his first Broadway appearance in the musical, "John Murray Anderson's Almanac," for which he won the Tony Award. A recording contract with RCA followed and, in 1955, against all advice, Belafonte recorded his third album, "Calypso," which became the first album to ever sell over one million copies. It contained the Top 5 hit, "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," which was used to delightful effect in the 1988 Tim Burton film, Beetlejuice.

In 1953 Belafonte made his motion picture debut in Bright Road, opposite Dorothy Dandridge. He again starred opposite Dandridge the following year in Carmen Jones. His other films include Odds Against Tomorrow; The World, the Flesh, and the Devil; Uptown Saturday Night; and Island in the Sun (for which he co-authored the title song). In 1960 Belafonte produced and starred in a stunning musical epic called, "Tonight with Belafonte," for which he won an Emmy.

During the 1980's, his most portentous achievement spanned both his artistic and social interests. He conceived the idea for USA for Africa, the fund-raising effort that has raised more than $60 million for famine in Africa, mainly from sales of the "We Are the World" single and album. He also helped organize the "Hands Across America" campaign in the 1990's, raising money for this country's poor and underfed, and played a role in the series of "Farm Aid" concerts. 

Belafonte is the recipient of numerous awards for his distinguished career in entertainment and as a human rights activist. He lives in New York with his wife, Julie, a former dancer with the Katherine Dunham Company. They have two children, Gina and David. He also has two children from a previous marriage, Shari and Adrienne. 

Ms. Rita Dove
Commonwealth Professor of English
University of Virginia &
United States Poet Laureate Emerita
Doctor of Letters, honoris causa

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 • Commencement Remarks

An extraordinary writer of both poetry and fiction and the author of ten books, including Thomas and Beulah, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987, Rita Dove is a phenomenal artist of broad horizons. In her work, the African-American experience is integrated into a larger picture of Western cultures in the United States and Europe. Her writing, which reflects a broad social awareness, also evokes U.S. history, African-American culture, and memories of her family. 

Among her outstanding literary creations are The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), Grace Notes (1989), Selected Poems (1993), Mother Love (1995), On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), Fifth Sunday (1985), the novel, Through the Ivory Gate, 1992), The Poet's World (essays, 1995), and the play, The Darker Face of the Earth, which had its première in 1996 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was subsequently produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and other theatres.

Ms. Dove served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress from 1993 to 1995, making her the youngest person---and the first African American-- to receive this highest official honor in American letters. She was re-appointed Special Consultant in Poetry for 1999/2000, when Dr. James H. Billington, Librarian for Congress, credited her with having "more ideas for elevating poetry in the nation's consciousness than there is time to carry out in one term."

Currently Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Ms. Dove has received numerous literary and academic honors, including: the 1996 Heinz Award; the 1996 Charles Frankel Prize/National Humanities Medal, the U.S. Government's highest honor award for writers and scholars; the 1997 Sara Lee Frontrunner Award; the 1997 Barnes & Nobel Writers for Writers Award, and the 1998 Levinson Prize from Poetry Magazine. In 1993 she was named one of ten "Outstanding Women of the Year" by Glamour Magazine, and the NAACP honored her with its Great American Artist Award, followed in 1994 by the Folger Shakespeare Library's Renaissance Forum Award for Leadership in the Literary Arts, the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement, and the Carl Sandburg Award from the International Platform Association.

Ms. Dove was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1952. A 1970 Presidential Scholar, she received her B.A. summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio, and her M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. She also held a Fulbright Scholarship at Universität Tübingen in Germany. She is the recipient of 18 honorary doctorates.

by Rita Dove

Back when the earth was new
and heaven just a whisper,
back when the names of things
hadn't had time to stick;

back when the smallest breezes
melted summer into autumn,
when all the poplars quivered
sweetly in rank and file . . .

the world called, and I answered.
Each glance ignited to a gaze.
I caught my breath and called that life, 
swooned between spoonfuls of lemon sorbet.

I was pirouette and flourish,
I was filigree and flame.
How could I count my blessings
when I didn't know their names?

Back when everything was still to come,
luck leaked out everywhere.
I gave my promise to the world,
and the world followed me here.

Special permission:
May be quoted in its entirety in Howard University publications with the following acknowledgment: 
"Read by the author upon receiving the honorary Doctor of Letters degree at Howard University’s Commencement on May 12, 2001. Reprinted by permission of the author from Rita Dove, On the Bus with Rosa Parks, W.W. Norton & Co., New York. ©1999 by Rita Dove. All rights reserved."

The Honorable 
John Edward Porter

Member, U.S. Congress, 1980-2000
Doctor of Laws

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 • Commencement Remarks

John Edward Porter is a veteran of 21 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. He retired in January 2001, and is now a partner in the prestigious Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson. His practice with the firm is focused on health law, education policy, legislative strategy, and international and environmental issues.

Prior to joining Hogan & Hartson, Mr. Porter represented the people of the 10th Congressional District of Illinois. In Congress he served on the Appropriations Committee as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education; as Vice-Chairman of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations; and as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Construction. Mr. Porter has been honored by many organizations for his exemplary effort to balance the federal budget, protect the environment, promote human rights, and secure unprecedented funding increases for biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health.

Mr. Porter founded and co-chaired the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, a voluntary association of over 250 members of Congress working to identify, monitor, and end human rights violations worldwide. He was chairman of Global Legislators Organized for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE USA), part of a worldwide network of parliamentarians (GLOBE International) working to coordinate efforts to protect the environment. He also sponsored the legislation that created Radio Free Asia.

Before his election to Congress, Mr. Porter was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives from 1973 to 1979. Born in Evanston, Illinois on June 1, 1935, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and received his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University. Following service in the United States Army, he graduated with distinction from the University of Michigan Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review. He then became an Honor Law Graduate Attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice during the Kennedy administration. From 1963 to 1980, Mr. Porter practiced law in Evanston, Illinois.

Mr. Porter is a member of numerous boards, including the Rand Corporation, Public Broadcasting Service, Research! America, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the Kemper Insurance Companies, and the Population Resource Center in Princeton, New Jersey. A supporter of the arts and humanities, he served as a Trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Mr. Porter has received more than 275 awards for his outstanding service in Congress.