Remembering when Obama singled out Morehouse grad Leland Shelton

It's a private, all-male HBCU located in Atlanta, GA. It was founded on Feb. 14, 1867. The mascot is the tiger. Alumni include Martin Luther King and Samuel L. Jackson. "Hidden Figures" and "Drumline" have filmed on the campus.

Young man who triumphed over seemingly insurmountable odds still doing great things

Former President Barack Obama’s appearance at Morehouse College on Friday in support of gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams brings to mind a memorable moment from five years ago, when Obama delivered the commencement address at the historically black college for men and gave one student the surprise of his life.

The day before Leland Shelton graduated from Morehouse on May 19, 2013, he spent all day running around.

He was making sure his family was in place after their trip from Baltimore to watch him become the first person in the family to graduate from college.

He ignored his cellphone all day. He missed a call from the White House.

So, on that graduation day, sitting in the rain, listening to the country’s first African-American president, he allowed himself to drift into the speech — remarking to himself how great it was.

One more time, he ignored being called.

"When Leland Shelton was 4 years old,” Obama began a passage. “Where's Leland?"

Shelton froze when he heard his name. His classmates had to nudge him and make him stand up before the president.

"When Leland Shelton was 4 years old, social services took him away from his mama, put him in the care of his grandparents. By age 14, he was in the foster care system. Three years after that, Leland enrolled in Morehouse. And today, he is graduating Phi Beta Kappa on his way to Harvard Law School."

President Barack Obama told Leland Shelton's story at his 2013 Morehouse graduation.
President Barack Obama told Leland Shelton's story at his 2013 Morehouse graduation.

Very few people even knew about Shelton’s situation while he was a student at Morehouse. Obama’s acknowledgment of it, singling him out as an example for other black men, humbled him to tears while his fellow graduates slapped him on the back and applauded.

“It was amazing,” Shelton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday. “That moment is still very hazy for me.”


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Just a few months after his graduation, Shelton found himself in Cambridge at Harvard Law. He graduated in 2016 and moved back to Baltimore, where he works at a large firm doing commercial and corporate litigation.

In retelling his story, it was strikingly familiar as part of the experience at historically black colleges and universities.

“In the 1980s, my parents got caught up in addiction,” Shelton said. “As a result, my grandparents ended up taking all six of us and raising us.”

Shelton said up until his grandparents took him in at the age of 5, he had spent all his life in and out of shelters and projects and in unstable situations.

His grandmother had been a seamstress. But when she took in the children, she became a licensed foster care parent.

“Baltimore in the late ’90s-early 2000s was a tough place, where a young man could easily stray down the wrong path. I had seen the effects of drugs on my family. I had seen drug dealing,” Shelton said. “Luckily, I was in church several times a week and had a good church family and mentors.”

Aside from the one time he got in trouble for being a “knucklehead,” Shelton was identified early as a gifted student who took advanced classes and enrolled in magnet schools.

At one of those schools, he watched the cartoon “Our friend, Martin,” which mentioned that Martin Luther King Jr. attended Morehouse College.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was cooler than any superhero,” Shelton said. “If he went to Morehouse, I was going to Morehouse.”

Shelton, having never visited the school, applied and got accepted with a partial scholarship. He found the rest of the money and moved to Atlanta.

That’s where, in due course, he found himself sitting in the rain listening to a president.

“My grandmother passed away at the beginning of my sophomore year,” said Shelton, who helps his 87-year-old grandfather raise his two youngest siblings. “I was sitting there thanking God in my mind for her love and the support she gave me. Reliving my childhood. I am kind of glad that I missed the call from the White House. Made the moment more surprising.”

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