Harvard University will hold a graduation ceremony exclusively for its black student population on 23 May.

More than 170 students and 530 guests have signed up to attend the Black Commencement event, the first university wide ceremony for black students.

The organisers say that the event is a celebration of "fellowship" rather than "segregation" and highlights the unique achievements of black students at an institution that has grappled with its historic ties to slavery.

Michael Huggins, a student who will receive a master's degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts at the end of this month, told The Root that the ceremony is "an opportunity to celebrate Harvard's black excellence and black brilliance."

He stressed that the event is not about segregation but about "building a community."

"This is a chance to reaffirm for each other that we enter the work world with a network of supporters standing with us. We are all partners," he said.

Huggins's grandfather left Mississippi with his family in the 1950s to escape the oppressive Jim Crow laws which legalised segregation in his home state.

"If he hadn't made his decision to leave and find a better life for his family, I wouldn't be here," Huggins said.

Courtney Woods, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant who will graduate from Harvard's School of Education, said that the ceremony recognises the contributions and sacrifices the families of black students have made to get them to Harvard.

"When we walk across that stage, all of our families will know that they're walking with us. They all know the sacrifices that they've made," she said.

The ceremony will include speeches from students about their experiences at Harvard and musical performances. All graduates will receive a shawl made of kente cloth, a representation of their African heritage, which they will wear over their graduation robes.

The Black Commencement event comes at a time of heightened student activism in response to racism on college campuses. Last week, Washington DC University launched an investigation after racist messages were found scrawled across bananas scattered around the campus.

In 2015, only 5% of the 7,595 Harvard degrees went to black students. Jillian Simons, incoming chair of the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, told The Boston Globe that the ceremony is a time to celebrate the success but also to reflect on the past.

"There is a very somber tone to it because of the things we've had to overcome," she said.

On 23 May, Harvard University will also hold its third annual graduation ceremony for students of Latin American descent.