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Pioneering Black Alumni

This timeline honors a few of the Black graduates of UC Berkeley who are pioneers in the fields of arts, sciences, business, and government. These individuals have paved the way for future generations through their groundbreaking contributions to our communities and our world.

February 1, 2020

Walter Gordon ’18, J.D. ’22

A man of many firsts: the first All-American in football at Cal, first African American All-American on the West Coast, first African American to graduate from Berkeley Law, and first African American police officer in Berkeley.


Lionel Wilson ’38, J.D.

Broke barriers as Alameda County’s first African American judge and Oakland’s first African American mayor, despite the financial hardship and racial injustice he faced while pursuing higher education.


Archie Williams ’39

An Oakland native and Olympic gold medalist who would eventually train the Tuskegee Airmen.


Robert Colescott ’49, M.A. ’51

An American figurative painter who became the first African American to earn a solo exhibit in the Venice Biennale—a prestigious exhibition of contemporary art that began in 1895.


Thelton Henderson ’55, J.D. ’62

Became the US Justice Department’s first Black lawyer in its civil rights division in 1962, the same year he earned his law degree from UC Berkeley.


Warren Widener ’60, J.D. ’67

Berkeley Law graduate and director of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP who tackled issues of discrimination and advocated for minorities as Berkeley’s first Black mayor.


Jay Wright ’61, M.A. ’67

A professional baseball player turned essayist, poet, and playwright, Wright became the first Black writer to win the Bollingen Prize in Poetry and is regarded as one of the preeminent American poets of this century.


Ron Dellums M.S.W. ’62

Dedicated his life to fighting racial injustices through social work and politics. Became the first African American from Northern California to be elected to the US House of Representatives and the first African American to be named chairman of the Armed Services Committee.


Lee P. Brown M.A. ’68, Ph.D. ’70

Used his background in sociology and criminology to focus on crime prevention, leading him to become the first Black commissioner of police in Atlanta, Houston, and New York City, and eventually to election as Houston’s first African American mayor.


Carl Franklin ’71, M.F.A.

Actor, screenwriter, producer, and director who has won numerous awards for his directing talents, and has been nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series (House of Cards).


Barbara Lee M.S.W. ’75

First Black woman from Northern California to be elected to State Senate, and the first woman to be elected to serve California’s 13th (formerly 9th) district.


Terry McMillan ’77

New York Times bestselling author known for her novels Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which were both adapted for film.


Cynthia Marshall ’81

First female CEO in the NBA (Dallas Mavericks) and first African American chair of the North Carolina State Chamber of Commerce.


Sanaa Lathan ’92, M.F.A.

A Tony-nominated actress who has found success on- and off-Broadway, and a two-time NAACP Image Award–winner for her performances in Love and Basketball and The Perfect Guy.


Golden Brooks ’94, M.A.

Nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the category “Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series” for her role in television’s Girlfriends.


Nadine Burke Harris ’96, M.D., M.P.H.

A pediatrician and leader in addressing toxic stress in youth, recently appointed California’s first-ever Surgeon General.

Image credits in order of profile: Walter Gordon, California Magazine. Lionel Wilson, UC Berkeley. Archie Williams, Cal Bears. Robert Colescott, Arthur Roger Gallery. Thelton Henderson, Berkeley Law. Warren Widener The Bob Fitch Photography Archive. Jay Wright, Smith College. Ron Dellums, New York Times. Lee P. Brown, Black Past. Carl Franklin, African Artists’ Association. Barbara Lee, Wikipedia. Terry McMillan, New York Times. Cynthia Marshall, The Philadelphia Tribune. Sanaa Lathan, BET. Golden Brooks, IMDB. Nadine Burke Harris, Aces Too High.