By the time Raashaun Casey arrived as a freshman at Hampton University, he already was an experienced DJ, having learned to make mixtapes while growing up in Queens, N.Y.
The first in his family to attend college, he chose to major in business administration — it was part of a plan, but so was his music.
“I knew that was what I loved, and the music helped me with college — tuition, food, laundry,” he says. “I loved music and loved DJ-ing, so I stayed on that plain. I studied business marketing management, but I figured I would give music a year or two. If it took off, great. If not, I could use that business education.”
Today Casey is known as DJ Envy, one of the hosts of The Breakfast Club, a syndicated hip-hop radio show out of New York that airs in dozens of markets around the U.S., including 103 JAMZ in Hampton Roads.
Like many of the creative artists and entertainers who graduated from Hampton, he pursued a more traditional path of study. But he said his experience at HU influenced him and helped shape his career. The university celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Yes, he acknowledges, the business education taught him how to market himself — an important skill for a young man trying to break into a competitive field.
But Hampton’s influence goes well beyond that.
“Hampton University exposed me to so many different people from so many different places,” he says. “Before I went there, I was from New York and I knew New York music. But then I had a roommate from New Orleans, and I learned their kind of music. And another friend from New Jersey, who taught me what New Jersey music is. Friends from D.C. taught me gogo and opened me up to a portfolio of so many different things.
“Now I can work the East Coast, the West Coast, the South. It really opened the business up to me, so that I’m not a one-trick pony.”
DJ Envy makes it back to Hampton several times a year. He has emceed homecoming, and most recently participated with his wife in a panel discussion for students about challenges facing African-American couples and families.
“I want to come back and help out, and I feel like I might have a lot of power to be able to help some of these students,” he says. “I wish I had more people in front of me when I was that age, so that maybe I would have avoided some pitfalls. If I can go back and tell them my story, some of them might say, ‘He came from the same place I came from,’ and learn from it.”
Hampton’s history in the performing arts dates to the school’s earliest days, when its original concert choir toured the nation and abroad. That choir has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, The Kennedy Center in Washington, and was featured at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
But many of the successful creative artists who emerged from HU were not active participants in the school’s musical and dramatic programs.
James J. “Biff” Henderson came from Durham, N.C., but in many ways he grew up on the then-Hampton Institute campus. Today he is retired and living in New York, but he still makes it back almost every year for homecoming.
In between he took a degree in business administration and parlayed it, rather improbably, into a long career as the stage manager — and frequent deadpan comedic foil — on David Letterman’s late-night TV talk show.
“A lot of people don’t know that Hampton exists, but Dave absolutely knew about it,” Henderson says. “The first time I met him he told me he went to Ball State and I mentioned Hampton. He said, ‘Oh you must be really bright, really smart.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, every school makes mistakes.’ He was totally familiar with it, which helped our initial conversations.”
Henderson’s father, James J. Henderson Sr., was a Hampton graduate who would become the first African-American to serve as chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees. Henderson recalls many trips to the campus when his father attended board meetings, and he remembers playing in junior tennis tournaments on the school’s courts — occasionally crossing paths with a young Arthur Ashe.
After graduating in 1968, Henderson served in the U.S. Army and spent more than a year in Vietnam, and later took a sales job at NBC’s radio affiliate in New York. He developed an interest in production, which in 1980 led him to a job with Letterman that would last for the next 35 years.
He remembers attending plays while he was at Hampton Institute, but not participating in them, either on stage or behind the scenes. Henderson doesn’t have a specific explanation for how he went from an education in business administration to playing a poker-faced straight man to an iconic comedic talk show host.
He is a regular at homecoming, sometimes visiting with the broadcasters at the football game and always tracking down HU President William R. Harvey to chat.
“Whatever I was interested at the time I was in Hampton, it wasn’t radio or television entertainment,” Henderson says. “If I thought about it, in my wildest dreams I never imagined it going where it did. It was destiny, I guess. I look at my career in terms of faith and destiny. I was blessed.”
Ruth Carter’s education at Hampton related more directly to her career. She took a degree in theater arts in 1982, crafting her own curriculum to take a brand new course in costume design as a senior.
Carter’s costumes have earned Academy Award nominations for Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” two films steeped in African imagery. Her work in this year’s blockbuster “Black Panther” is expected to pick up a third nomination, and possibly her first Oscar.
At HU, she started out as a special education major but was drawn to the theater. When she didn’t land a part in one campus production, she agreed to do the costumes. In retrospect, it was the start of her career.
“My time there at Hampton was really like an exploration in this field,” she told the Daily Press earlier this year. “There was no course in the theater department on costume design, so as an undergraduate of theater with an interest in costume design, the best thing for me to do was all the plays. Everyone who did a play there or a musical or senior recital, they all asked me to do the costumes. …
“I was actually now kind of well known as costume designer, I felt like people were enjoying my costume designs. I was going to the library and reading up on costume design. I knew how to draw, I come from a family of artists, I even did illustrations and stuff like that. So that was my training at Hampton.”
Carter said she found a mentor in professor Linda Bolton Smith, who even provided a basement apartment when Carter needed a place to live during her senior year. In learning from Smith, she said, she was “immersed in my consciousness of black theater, which kind of leads you to black history which leads you to the consciousness of being positive and the African diaspora.”
Spencer Christian studied English and journalism at Hampton, envisioning himself one day as an investigative reporter at The Washington Post or The New York Times. Born in Newport News and raised in Charles City, he had received scholarship offers from schools such as Columbia and Swarthmore but decided he would feel more comfortable at Hampton.
Upon graduating in 1965, he took a job in television with WBBT in Richmond, covering state government and courts. When the station’s meteorologist left unexpectedly, Christian was asked to fill in — and the viewers quickly warmed to his charismatic style. He took the job full time, with a raise in pay. Within a few years he was at WBAC in New York, a position that led him to a 12-year run as the weather man for ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Today, at age 70, he is at the ABC affiliate in San Francisco. He doesn’t get back to Virginia often, but he knows that’s where the roots of his career were planted. Growing up in the Deep South during the civil rights movement, he became fascinated by journalism and news coverage long before he began taking journalism courses at Hampton.
“It wasn’t so much anything that happened in the classroom, or in my academic experience, that triggered my interest in this business,” Christian said. “That was already there, spurred by the events of that era. But Hampton prepared me quite well in many ways. In one of my courses, my professor was a retired Air Force colonel who liked the way I expressed myself in writing. He submitted something I wrote to the Columbia Journalism Review, which was very exciting to me. That really gives you confidence going forward.”
The university’s influence on the arts dates back more than a century. Orpheus McAdoo, whose parents were slaves in North Carolina, graduated from Hampton Institute in 1876 and — after a few years as a teacher — embarked on a long and prosperous singing career. He toured the world and developed his own minstrel show, known as the Virginia Concert Co. and the Virginia Jubilee Singers.
The great African-American composer Robert Nathaniel Dett worked at Hampton from 1913-32, founding the school’s choir and school of music. One of his vocal students at Hampton, Norfolk native Dorothy Maynor, toured the world and became the first African-American to sing at a presidential inauguration — serenading Truman and Eisenhower.
Leslie Garland Bolling, born and raised in Surry County, attended Hampton from 1916-18 and spent time visiting the school’s art museum. After eventually taking his degree from Virginia Union, he became a renowned wood carver and a respected figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
Another product of Hampton Institute, muralist John T. Biggers, rose to prominence in the years after the Harlem Renaissance. He had planned a career as a plumber but was exposed to art by professor Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee from Austria who would have a profound influence on African-American artists at several colleges. Biggers followed Lowenfeld to Penn State where he earned a degree in art education. His acclaimed murals focused on telling stories of racial injustice. He also worked as an educator, helping to found the art department at Texas Southern University.
Clarissa Sligh, who at age 15 was the lead plaintiff in a school desegregation case in Arlington County, earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hampton in 1961. She went on to a successful career in photography and book illustration; her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Perhaps the most famous contemporary performer to graduate from Hampton is comedian and actress Wanda Sykes. She took a degree in marketing in 1986 but never thought about performing on stage until friends at her first job in Washington, D.C., convinced her to try her hand at open-mic comedy. She has spent the past quarter-century writing and performing on stage, on TV and in the movies.
More recent Hampton graduates to forge careers in the arts include actor Brandon Fobbs, who had a recurring role on the cable TV drama “The Wire,” and musicians and MCs such as DJ Tay James, DJ Babey Drew and MC Ride.
The legendary comedian Bill Cosby did not attend Hampton but had a long relationship with the school, sitting on its Board of Trustees until his name was removed in 2016 amid rampant accusations of sexual misconduct. Cosby was a graduation speaker, served as emcee at a fundraising gala for HU’s Proton Therapy Institute, and was a philanthropist for the school and occasionally for prospective students.
Similarly, poet and author Maya Angelou was a frequent visitor and supporter. In 1998, appearing at Ogden Hall as part of a commemoration of Harvey’s 20th anniversary, she quipped that if she had not been invited to be a part of Harvey’s celebration she would have stood outside with a picket sign to protest.
Actors such as Lou Gossett and Danny Glover, and writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison have spoken and performed on the campus during Harvey’s tenure.
Some of the biggest stars to perform on the Hampton campus did so as part of the early Hampton Jazz Festivals. That event, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, originally was held at Armstrong Stadium on Hampton’s campus, before moving to the Hampton Coliseum in 1970.
The inaugural jazz festival in 1968, which tied the music to the school’s arts curriculum, received national coverage and drew a constellation of musical performers that included Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Dionne Warwick and Muddy Waters. The 1969 event at Armstrong included Ray Charlies, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock and Sly and the Family Stone.
For many of the artists who graduated from Hampton, even those who did not actively perform while they were at the school, the campus still holds a strong magnetic draw. For Biff Henderson, that is due to his family’s long relationship with the school, to all of the history he absorbed there, and to the fond memories of his time at Hampton.
“It’s a really amazing place to be and to learn,” Henderson says. “I remember a professor saying one time, ‘All this stuff is documented that I’m telling you — the grounds that you’re walking on.’ But if you went out and told somebody they might not believe you. It’s so rich in history. The people who passed through, and how they got there, from General Armstrong up to now.
“There were only 2,000 students when I was there. It was a family oriented, very good school. The things I picked up there, about history and about art and everything else — that’s a great place to learn it.”
About this series
The Daily Press takes a look at Hampton University, which celebrates its 150th birthday on April 1.
Sunday: The university’s founding as a teaching and trade school, and growth to today.
Monday: Hampton’s earliest mission was to educate teachers, which continued over the years.
Tuesday: A look at Hampton’s historic buildings and campus.
Wednesday: Famous artists, musicians and other pop-culture figures grew their craft during their time as HU students.
Thursday: Hampton has produced athletes and had firsts for historically black institutions.
Friday: In his 40 years as president, William R. Harvey has had an impact greater than inside campus walls.
Saturday: Students protested for civil rights and other issues over the years.
Sunday: What can be expected over the next 150 years at Hampton?
To hear more stories behind the story of Hampton’s growth, visit dailypress.com/hamptonuniversity150 throughout the week.
Hampton University’s 150/40 celebration
Several events are planned to honor the 150th anniversary of Hampton University and the 40th anniversary of Dr. William R. Harvey’s presidency.
April 1: Founding Day Celebration, 11 a.m., Ogden Hall.
April 14: First lady’s luncheon (by invitation), 1:30 p.m., Student Center.
April 28: Anniversaries gala to honor HU’s 150th anniversary and Harvey’s 40th, 6-11 p.m., Hampton Roads Convention Center.
July 1: William R. Harvey Day chapel service, 11 a.m., Memorial Chapel.
Aug. 8-11: Association of African-American Museums annual conference, campuswide.
Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479 or on Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.
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