Before Cathy Hughes even took a single step on stage to accept her lifetime achievement award from the NYC Mission Society this week, the accolades were already pouring in.
Mission Society President Elsie McCabe Thompson described Hughes as simply “amazing.”
A “transformer “ and “trailblazer,” said Don Peebles, an entrepreneur and recipient of the same lifetime achievement award last year.
“A great woman,” gushed Jean Shafiroff, a member on the Mission Society’s board of directors.
“Is there a better role model for our youth than Cathy Hughes?” asked Katrina Peebles, another Mission Society board member.
New York City’s oldest charity celebrated a “humbled” Hughes on Tuesday night during its annual Champions for Children Gala, where the founder and chairperson of Urban One, Inc., reflected on her family and upbringing to underscore the origin of her commitment to the educational ideals upon which the NYC Mission Society is based.
“I am so honored, I am so humbled that I moved to tears that you would feel me worthy of a life achievement award,” an emotional Hughes said shortly after the start of her acceptance speech at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan.
Amassing an impressive media empire since purchasing her first radio station in 1980, Hughes now presides over more than 50 radio stations in over a dozen markets, a TV network and multiple digital properties, for starters. She credited her family for her work ethic as well as her commitment to education, which falls right in line with why the NYC Mission Society was established in the first place.
It was her grandfather, Hughes said, who told her mother that education was the best and quickest route to success – “to free themselves from the bondage that were the residual effects of slavery” in the 1920s and 30s. That premise, combined with Hughes’ mother insisting “that every woman should have the right to determine what she wanted to do with her life” instead of the decision being “made by her father or her husband or her brothers,” helped propel her to this point of nearly unrivaled success.
As an example of the above – “I have more sidebars than an OJ Simpson trial,” she quipped at one point – Hughes pointed to her family’s 109-year-old boarding school in Mississippi to illustrate the influential role education has played in her life. The school was once one of nearly 50 Black-owned boarding schools in the U.S., but now there are just four, she said. The point of the boarding schools was to provide an alternative to a public school education, which she said back then “was a lot worse then than it is now for Black children and brown children.”
That was part of the reason why the Mission Society has established a new charter school in Harlem, board members announced Tuesday night at the gala. It was also a clear reason why Hughes and the Mission Society have gravitated to one another.
“If we don’t go back to properly educating our children; if we don’t establish charter schools that want a new and different approach to reach young people, then we will be like dinosaurs,” Hughes said toward the end of her remarks. “I don’t think any of us want that. We don’t deserve that. Too many of us have worked too hard.”
Watch a video of Hughes’ full speech on the next page.