"Just think about this for a moment — for generations, in many parts of this country, it was illegal for black people to get an education," Obama told the predominantly black crowd, referring to the period in which Bowie State was founded. "Slaves caught reading or writing could be beaten within an inch of their lives."
The creation of the small school that eventually became Bowie State University was an "eloquent act of defiance," she told the crowd of about 600 graduates and several thousand of their supporters at the
Obama encouraged the students to keep a hunger to learn, quoting abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said education "means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free."
The first lady received thunderous applause from several thousand people attending the ceremony in a state that voted overwhelmingly for her husband. It was an intensely friendly and excited crowd — with shouts of congratulations to individual graduates from the crowd, along with calls of "Michelle! We love you!" and a standing ovation that began before she spoke a word.
In the second of three commencement addresses the first lady will give this month, she also called on the graduates to encourage other African-Americans to pursue higher education.
Too often, she said, young African-Americans "can't be bothered."
"Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they're fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper," she said.
"Please reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white," Obama said. "In short, be an example of excellence for the next generation."
Bowie State presented the first lady, a graduate of Harvard Law School, with an honorary doctorate of laws. It also recognized Valerie Simpson and her late husband, Nickolas Ashford, who made up the songwriting team Ashford & Simpson, presenting Simpson with an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
Obama's 21-minute address did not mention the political or policy issues that are at the forefront of her husband's administration. She stuck to the historical arc of African-Americans in the nation and the need to increase the number of black high school and college graduates.
"She's such a positive figure," said Williams-Edwards, who said she was overwhelmed at being singled out by Obama. "She stressed for blacks how important learning is and how young individuals need to stay focused. It was a significant message."
President Barack Obama has spoken at Bowie State twice — once as a candidate, according to university spokeswoman Damita Chambers. But this was the first time a sitting first lady has given a commencement speech here.
The occasion also marked the first time Bowie State has held its graduation ceremony away from the historically black university's campus. Some of the school's alumni had argued against the move to the Comcast Center on the campus of the University in Maryland,
Black students were once barred from the flagship institution.