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Obama Honoring Graduates of America's Historically Black Colleges

President Barack Obama is honoring the graduates of America's historically black colleges and universities. VOA's Paula Wolfson reports he traveled Sunday to the coast of Virginia to a school that has its roots in the American civil war.

It began in 1861 under an oak tree. Its first students were escaped slaves.

That tree is now a piece of college lore at Hampton University, which was built by a retired Union general with contributions from Civil War Veterans and church groups.

President Obama says the founders knew that education would be the key to overcoming inequality. "They were not naïve. They recognized that barriers in our laws and in our hearts would not vanish overnight. But they also recognized a larger truth: a distinctively American truth. They recognized that the right education might allow those barriers to be overcome," he said.

On Sunday, he donned the robes of a scholar, and addressed the Hampton University graduating class of 2010.

It was his first commencement address as president at an historically black college, and he used the occasion to stress the important role education plays in overcoming the challenges facing the nation. "Class of 2010, this is a period of breathtaking change, like few others in our history. We cannot stop those changes, but we can channel them, we can shape them, we can adapt to them. And education is what can allow us to do so. It can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time," he said.

The president said improving educational opportunity is especially crucial for young black and Hispanic Americans. He noted statistics that show as a group, they are being outperformed by their white classmates. "All of us have a responsibility as Americans to change this; to offer every single child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy. That is our obligation as a nation," he said.

President Obama addressed about 1,000 graduates seated in folding chairs on the lawn of the university stadium.

He joined them in getting a diploma, in his case, an honorary doctorate of laws degree.