As a pioneering higher education institution in diversity, inclusion and social justice, Roosevelt University has a celebrated history of renowned African American students, faculty and alumni. As we acknowledge Black History Month, we take pride in the impact that our African American alumni have made in their professional fields, as well as their local and global communities. Representing each day of this inspiring month of black history, the following alumni are only 28 of the many respected and accomplished African American Roosevelt alumni.
Anna Langford (BA Political Science, 1946–’48) As a civil rights activist and attorney, Langford was Chicago’s first black woman elected as an alderman to the City Council in 1971. Before her years of serving on the Chicago City Council, she was a civil rights activist and organizer, assisting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. plan his march in Cicero, Illinois to promote integration.
Robert McFerrin (BA Music, ’48) McFerrin was a talented baritone vocalist who became the first African American man to sing as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. Later, he stepped into the vocal role as Porgy in the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess. He shattered his fears of lacking roles for black males in opera and pursued his passions and talents in New York, finding great success in exposing audiences to the success of African Americans in opera.
Dempsey Travis (BA Political Science, ’49) Travis’ career spanned real estate, entrepreneurship, founding the Urban Research Press, civil rights activist, and accomplishments in writing and jazz. Travis was the instrumental coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first march in Chicago. This Renaissance man and African American leader embodied Roosevelt’s character of being a multifaceted agent of social justice.
Harold Washington (BA Political Science, ’49) Washington’s groundbreaking career as the first black mayor of Chicago from 1983–87 has defined his life and legacy in Chicago. As student body president at Roosevelt, Washington’s impact began early, and his leadership in the Illinois House of Representatives was another critical stepping-stone in his rise toward the office of mayor.
Timuel Black (BA Sociology, '52) After returning from service in World War II, Black received his bachelor’s from Roosevelt and began a career as a high school teacher in Gary, Indiana. Upon seeing the power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on TV, Black worked with members of Hyde Park’s First Unitarian Church to not only bring Dr. King to Chicago, but also organize the Chicago contingent of the March on Washington. Black has continued to honor Dr. King’s legacy through activism education and running for public office.
Lloyd C. Elam (Zoology, ’50) Elam broke barriers as an African American psychiatrist who paved an inspiring path for others to follow. The first African American graduate of the University of Washington School of Medicine, Elam served as department chair, dean and president of Meharry Medical College. The Lloyd C. Elam Mental Health Center at Meharry Medical College is named in his honor.
Lorraine Hansberry - An artist, playwright, activist and the granddaughter of a freed slave, Lorraine Hansberry’s life and career left an inspiring imprint on the lives of many. Her most well-known work, A Raisin in the Sun, swept Broadway with tremendous success and was followed by a film adaptation that received universal acclaim. Hansberry was also an active participant in the civil rights movement.
Charles V. Hamilton (BA Political Science, ’51) Beginning his career teaching at the Tuskegee Institute, Hamilton established himself as an academic catalyst to inspire civil rights action among his students. After teaching at several universities during the 1960s, including Roosevelt, Hamilton joined Columbia University’s faculty, where he has been instrumental in the publication of numerous influential works, including Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.
Dr. Matthew Holden, Jr. (BA Political Science, ’52) As the Wepner Distinguished Professor in Political Science at the University of Illinois-Springfield, Dr. Holden’s career has focused on political science, public administration and the study of political power. He has held the prestigious office of President of the American Political Science Association, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration.
Ramsey Lewis (Music Composition, ’52) A legendary jazz ccon, Ramsey Lewis explored his talents and ear early as a student at the Chicago College of Performing Arts. Winner of three Grammy awards, Lewis conceived some chart-topping favorites including “Wade in the Water” and “The In Crowd.”
James Forman (BA Public Administration, ’56) Forman was a leader in student politics at Roosevelt, specifically the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the delegation to the National Student Association conference. From participating in freedom rides through the South to publishing an entire book (Making the Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account), Forman’s bravery and commitment to social and racial justice has inspired many Roosevelt students and citizens across the country.
Leon Forrest (Accounting, 1957–58) Though he studied accounting at Roosevelt, Forrest’s legacy is found in his literature and novels which focused on history, mythology and Chicago. Praised throughout the mid-late 20th century, Forrest produced such novels as There is a Tree More Ancient than Eden, Divine Days, and Meteor in the Madhouse. Forrest also inspired a generation of young minds as a professor at Northwestern University.
Thomas Burrell (BA English, ’62) As the founder and CEO of Burrell Communications Group LLC, Thomas Burrell has used his renowned strengths in communications to speak meaningfully to diverse audiences across the country. With his leadership and savvy marketing skills, Burrell Communications has become the largest multicultural marketing company in the world, with clients such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola since the company’s founding.
Anthony Braxton (Philosophy, Music Composition, ’63) Since his time studying at Roosevelt, Braxton has released over 100 albums and has earned a global reputation for his remarkable skills as an improvisational jazz artist. By creating a unique sub-category of jazz that many professionals have declared hard to name, Braxton has left a musical legacy and is a highly respected graduate of Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts.
Darlene Clark Hine (BA History, ’68) An accomplished historian and African American studies scholar, Dr. Hine has been a leader in the field of African American women’s history. She is currently a history professor at Northwestern University and is the recipient of the 2013 National Humanities medal, awarded by President Barack Obama.
Blanche M. Manning (MA Urban Studies, ’72) Manning was appointed U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Illinois by President Bill Clinton and served from 1994–2010. She is also an accomplished musician, and has played saxophone with the Barristers Big Band and Smaller Combo. Manning has served as a trustee at Roosevelt since 2002.
Jesse Brown (studied at Roosevelt in 1973) Jesse Brown was the first African American U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, serving under Bill Clinton from 1993–97. In his term, he achieved care for veterans including those suffering PTSD and the side effects of Agent Orange. He also oversaw the opening of veterans affairs healthcare to all United States veterans.
Carla Hayden (BA Political Science, ’73) Carla Hayden is both the first African American and first female Head Librarian of Congress. Her impact of social justice through improving community libraries in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington has earned her the prestigious position of highest librarian in the country. She is known nationally as an advocate for the power of learning that leads to community transformation.
Reginald Weaver (MA Education, ’73) Weaver’s passion for public education and its teachers has been embodied remarkably in his career as a teacher, public school advocate and president of the National Education Association from 2002–08. The NAE is the largest labor union and the largest professional association in the U.S. with 3.2 million members. He is recognized with multiple honorary doctorates for his work in education and has testified before Congress on federal education policy.
Bobby Rush (BGS Political Science, ’74) Rep. Bobby Rush is a current U.S. Congressman who has been serving Illinois’ first district since 1993. By representing diverse communities facing a spectrum of contemporary issues, Rush has advocated for progressive policies to improve the lives and equitable outlook for all his constituents.
Fred Rice (BA Public Administration, ’75) After many years of service through the ranks of the Chicago Police Department, Fred Rice was the city’s first African American police superintendent, in office from 1983–87. Appointed by Mayor Harold Washington, Rice was a critical leader in inspiring African Americans across Chicago of the possibilities available to them.
Brenda J. Gaines (MPA, ’76) Throughout her career, Gaines has served in key leadership positions and broken barriers as an African American woman. From heading the Chicago Housing Authority under Mayor Harold Washington to serving as president of Diners Club North America, Gaines has made a visible impact within the local and continental business and public sectors.
Karen Gibbs (BS Business, ’76) Karen Gibbs broke barriers in Chicago’s financial industry as the first woman to work on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. She is also a former anchor and financial news reporter for CNBC, PBS and Fox News. Her specialization in financial and business journalism has named her a leader in her dynamic fields.
Danitra Vance (BA Theater, ’77) Vance was classically trained in acting at Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts and London’s Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Vance was the first African American woman to appear in Saturday Night Live’s main cast in the 1980s. Dying of cancer in 1994, Vance is remembered for breaking barriers across Chicago, New York and London, stepping boldly into realms of performance where few African American actors had before her.
Sylvia Flanagnn (MS Journalism, ’86) Upon her graduation from Roosevelt, Flanagnn was the first African American graduate of Roosevelt’s master’s of journalism program. From 1985–2007, she was the senior editor of Jet Magazine, capturing contemporary African American current events, culture and perspective into celebrated journalism.
Joyce Hutchens (MA Education, ’97; MS Journalism, ‘87) As a seasoned educator in the Chicago Public Schools, which included teaching at Lincoln Park High School, educating inmates in a CPS high school located in the Cook County Jail, and serving as an administrator, Hutchens’ intelligence and passion for justice enabled her to fight for her own rights and dignity. After incurring unjust civil rights violations from CPS, Hutchens defended herself without a lawyer in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Following her victory, Hutchens outlined her career and path to legal victory in a book, How a Pro Se Won Justice: An Inside Look at an Educator’s Stunning Civil Rights-Employment Victory in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which is featured in more than 50 law school libraries across the country, including Harvard Law School.
Merle Dandridge (BFA Theater, ’98) As a CCPA graduate, Dandridge’s acclaimed career in performance has established her as a strong African American role model across the performing arts industry. From Broadway to voiceover work and starring in the cast of TV’s Sons of Anarchy, Dandridge has found great success while inspiring diversity on the screen and stage.
Melissa Conyears-Ervin (MBA, ’03) Born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, State Representative Conyears-Ervin was inspired early in life to develop her leadership skills and reach for a better life by her mother. After receiving her MBA from Roosevelt, Conyears-Ervin turned her attention to her community and led efforts in back-to-school drives, providing immunizations and dental health checkups, senior activities and other social services. Her community leadership led her to run successful to represent Illinois’s 10th district in Springfield in the 2016 election.