At 20 years old, R. Donahue Peebles was a penniless college dropout, he told an audience of hundreds Sunday, as the keynote speaker during the 30th commencement of Baltimore's Sojourner-Douglass College.
Roughly seven years later, he was a multimillionaire real estate investor. And today, at 50, he's in the top 10 on Forbes' list of wealthiest African-Americans.
His Florida-based company, Peebles Corp., is the largest African-American-owned real estate development business in the country, with a $4 billion portfolio and offices in Washington and Las Vegas. And politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have turned to him to raise funds: Peebles has served on the national finance committees for both presidents. And the Democrat is said to be exploring his own potential bid to become Washington's mayor, having gotten his start there in real estate with help from former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.
"My story clearly illustrates that anything is possible and there are no excuses not to succeed," the District native said, crediting strong family support — particularly from his female relatives — for his success.
It was a message that resonated with the 170, mostly black, graduates — 32 master's candidates and 138 earning bachelor's degrees — and their families before him, filling much of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Many of those in caps and gowns were women, heads of their households, who worked full-time, cared for their kids and still found the will to graduate from college with honors.
One woman, who earned her bachelor's degree with a 3.95 grade-point average, put herself through school alongside three of her children at other universities. And another, Beverly Blackstone, endured financial troubles and her teenage son's recent cardiac arrest (and subsequent heart surgery to repair a congenital defect) to take the valedictorian spot Sunday.
"This is my story," Blackstone said while delivering the farewell address. "But each of us has a story, a period of [adversity] when you wondered if you could go on."
Yet go on they did, which one speaker called a testament to the school's namesake abolitionists: Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Both were born into slavery — 20 years apart and roughly two centuries ago — but rose to prominence as activists for women's rights and African-American freedom.
Sojourner-Douglass College began in 1972 as an off-campus affiliate of an Ohio-based university, and was accredited as an independent Maryland institution in 1980. The school now has five off-campus sites throughout Maryland and one in Nassau, Bahamas, which graduated 34 students earlier this month.
This year marked the first class to graduate with a newly created master's degree in political campaign management, and in the fall, the college plans to add a bachelor's of science in nursing. Next year, a hotel and hospitality division is expected to open, followed by various initiatives in the biosciences and "green economy," said the college's co-founder and president, Charles W. Simmons.
He described the school's mission as "offering quality education to mature students" in the hopes it will improve their lives and the community as a whole.
Community and family were solid themes Sunday. Peebles began his half-hour speech by asking the families to stand so the graduates could applaud them. He spoke of his "nurturing mother," who died last year, and his four strong aunts, who helped guide his development (The youngest, Doris Carroll, is now director of the Owings Mills Sojourner-Douglass campus).
Peebles was born in 1960, the son of an auto mechanic and the grandson of a doorman who spent 41 years working at what's now a Marriott hotel, he said.
"Now I own a Marriott hotel," he added to applause. Yet he never graduated from college himself, dropping out of Rutgers University shortly after he started to help his mother start her own real estate appraisal firm.
He said he worked hard and dreamed big, elbowing his way into D.C. political circles in his early 20s. By 23, he said, he was appointed to the District's tax appeals board, and by 24, he was its chairman. By 27, he was a multimillionaire and in the process of developing a $10 million office building in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood.
By the mid-1990s, though, he lost a deal he believed Mayor Barry was going to provide, and moved his focus to Florida, where he bought a vacation home with his family. There, he developed a luxury resort that he eventually sold for "the highest price [paid] of any hotel in the state of Florida" he said.
He called this country the greatest in the world yet still acknowledged that opportunities for minorities, particularly black Americans, are fewer than for others.
"You will experience setbacks," he told the graduates, who ranged in age from 21 to 61. "But you must stay the course, because quitting is not an option."