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Rapper and actress Queen Latifah, poet Rita Dove, and five other honorees were awarded the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard University Tuesday for their contributions to black history and culture.

Writer and educator Elizabeth Alexander, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie G. Bunch III, philanthropist and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television Sheila C. Johnson, artist Kerry James Marshall, and businessman and philanthropist Robert F. Smith were also honored during a ceremony at the university’s Sanders Theatre.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Medal is Harvard’s highest honor in the field of African and African-American studies, according to the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.

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“The people at our agency told my partner Shakim [Compere] I could never be an A-list artist,” Latifah said. “I’m gonna speak to all you students out here and let you know you can be whatever you want to be if you put your mind to it.”

Queen Latifah looked down at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal after receiving it.
Queen Latifah looked down at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal after receiving it.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

She said she realized the power of African culture when she took a trip to Egypt.

“Those arches that I saw in Greece and Italy, they look a lot like that building there. You see, it came from here. Black girl magic. They were making some black girl magic back then,” Latifah said to cheers from the crowd.

Latifah sat next to Smith, the commencement speaker who promised 400 Morehouse College graduates in May that he would pay off their loans.

Queen Latifah gestured to the crowd as she takes her seat on the stage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony.
Queen Latifah gestured to the crowd as she takes her seat on the stage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“You can make a difference in someone’s life. You don’t have to be a billionaire,” Queen Latifah said. “Robert Smith saw something and wanted to do something about it. Something he saw way before he was a billionaire. He saw imbalance. He saw injustice.”

The award is named after W.E.B. Du Bois, a Massachusetts-born civil rights activist, writer, and historian who died in 1963, according to the Hutchins Center. Previous award winners include Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, and Colin Kaepernick, according to the Hutchins Center.

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Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is awarded the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal.
Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is awarded the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
CEO of Vista Equity Partners Robert F. Smith spoke at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony.
CEO of Vista Equity Partners Robert F. Smith spoke at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Alyssa Lukpat can be reached at alyssa.lukpat@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlyssaLukpat.