Billionaire Robert F. Smith, Morehouse commencement speaker, to pay off class of 2019's student debt

Published: Sunday, May 19, 2019 @ 12:14 PM

Tech billionaire Robert F. Smith (from left), Morehouse College President David Thomas and actress Angela Bassett prepare to walk to the graduation ceremonies at the college on Sunday, May 19, 2019.  Smith and Bassett  received honorary degrees.
Bo Emerson/AJC
Tech billionaire Robert F. Smith (from left), Morehouse College President David Thomas and actress Angela Bassett prepare to walk to the graduation ceremonies at the college on Sunday, May 19, 2019. Smith and Bassett received honorary degrees.(Bo Emerson/AJC)

Billionaire Robert F. Smith, who received an honorary doctorate from Morehouse College at institution’s Sunday morning graduation exercises, had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the school. 

But during his remarks in front of the nearly 400 graduating seniors, the billionaire technology investor and philanthropist surprised some by announcing that his family was providing a grant to eliminate the student debt of the entire class of 2019

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“This is my class, and I know my class will pay this forward,” he said. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the ceremony.

The announcement elicited the biggest cheers of the morning.

Tonga Releford, whose son, Charles Releford III, is a member of the class of 2019, estimates that her son’s student loans are around $70,000.

“I feel like it’s Mother’s Day all over again,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Smith’s gift has been estimated at $40 million.

Tonga Releford’s husband, Charles Hereford Jr., is also a Morehouse graduate. He said their younger son, Colin, is a junior at Morehouse, an all-male historically black college.

The father said he doesn’t know who the keynote speaker will be at Colin’s graduation ceremony but is hoping for a return performance by Smith. 

“Maybe he’ll come back next year,” he said.