The transformative power of education

  • 1894 alumna’s grandson delivers stirring commencement message

    Tuesday, May 28, 2019
    L-R: Deviré Robinson, Dr. King, Camille, Jan and Denauvo Robinson

    The University of Maryland Eastern Shore's 2019 spring graduation will be remembered for the 426 new alumni it produced and an inspiring example of the long-term dividends an education from a historically black institution can yield. 

    Dr. John B. King Jr., U.S. Secretary of Education during the final year of President Barack Obama's administration, had the distinction of being the commencement speaker at his grandmother's alma mater. 

    Estelle Livingston Stansberry graduated in 1894 from then-Princess Anne Academy and went on to become a nurse and a mother who instilled in her children the value of a formal education. 

    King shared those aspirations and expectations with an audience that, unbeknownst to him, included his cousin, Jan King-Robinson and her family, who discretely slipped into the Hytche Athletic Center to witness a new chapter in the history of a remarkable and successful family. 

    “My own history and how I came to dedicate my career to education are both wrapped up in this university,” King told graduates. 

    “My grandmother recognized the importance of education and encouraged her sons to attend college in the 1920s and 1930s, when racism and segregation made higher learning inaccessible to most Black men,” he said. 

    Like King, his cousin and her husband Denauvo and their children Camille and Deviré were visiting UMES for the first time to surprise and support him.

    Dr. John B. King Jr. and President Heidi M. Anderson

    “Being here is a very emotional experience,” said King-Robinson, an attorney and educator. “I just don't have the words to describe this moment.” 

    King-Robinson, who is vice-chair of Elizabeth City (N.C.) State University's governing board, expressed joy in walking the campus of the institution her grandmother attended and hearing the man she helped raise after the death of his parents when he was still in elementary school. 

    King's commencement message highlighted the importance of second chances as he shared that he got into trouble as a teenager, and was kicked out of high school. Nevertheless, he went on to earn degrees from three Ivy League institutions that led him to a career as an innovative educator-administrator. 

    At a luncheon after the graduation ceremony, King said, “It is powerful to connect the experience of today's students with the experience of my grandmother.” 

    According to King-Robinson, their grandmother's Princess Anne Academy experience provided the earliest degree in the King family based on the genealogical research. 

    King shared with his audience that he recently discovered ancestors on his father's side were born into slavery in Montgomery County, Md. less than 25 miles from his current home. 

    “My great-grandfather grew up enslaved before the Civil War,” King told the audience.  “And three generations later, his great-grandson - the man standing before you - served in the Cabinet of the first African-American President of the United States.”  

    “My great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather-who is buried in an unmarked grave on that same property … lived their lives in the hope of a future they could not see,” King said. “They could not have imagined the life that I and my daughters are blessed to have in this very same country, in the very same county.” 

    Following the ceremony, the Kings embraced one another with hugs, smiles and laughter. 

    “I was surprised, and so happy to see them,” King said. 

    Spending a brief moment with her cousin following graduation, King-Robinson reflected on her decision to come to UMES, and expressed hope that the experiences of future Hawks will mirror those of her family.

    “Having the basis of an education, particularly as African-Americans, is just as important today as it was 125 years ago,” she said. “It allows us access to opportunities and a community of people who are looking upward, working to build their families.

    “Nothing we do is just about us,” King-Robinson said. “It's all about what we can do for our families, our communities, and our country. It's about service.”

    President Heidi M. Anderson presented King with a framed keepsake memento featuring his photo, an 1894 class photo of his grandmother and a program from the ceremony.

    “My grandmother's example,” he said, “shows the transformative power of education … for generations.”


     Dr. John B. King Jr. is President and CEO of The Education Trust, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to identify and close educational opportunity and achievement gaps. He resides in Montgomery County, Md. with his wife Melissa and their two daughters Amina and Mireya.

    By Tahja Cropper