At Howard University, Homecoming Is a Pilgrimage
‘Coming to Howard for the first time was seeing the beauty of blackness,’ one alumnus said.
Written by Bianca Ladipo
Photographs by Andre Wagner
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” Ashley Maltbia-Burgess, a 2010 graduate of Howard University, asked. She was standing with a group of fellow alums and her wife, Ashlee, looking out onto the crowded campus lawn. “I always told my wife, you have to come here to believe this, to feel this energy.”
At Howard University in Washington, homecoming encompasses more than collegiate nostalgia; it’s a celebration of black culture, a music and arts festival, a history lesson, a community reunion.
The weekend, which usually falls in mid-October, begins with Yardfest, held on the several-acre green at the heart of the 152-year-old historically black university. Vendors line the perimeter selling artwork featuring black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, President Barack Obama and Maya Angelou. At this year’s Yardfest, two young students stood next to older alumni; they were all admiring a framed print of an early 20th-century portrait of the wealthy men of “Black Wall Street.” Families pushed children in strollers and grandparents in wheelchairs as they shop for clothing adorned with slogans and sayings: “Support Black Colleges”; “HBCU Proof of Success”; “Black Girl Magic”; “Young, Black, and Educated.” Several vendors sell items dedicated to the nine black fraternities and sororities. Greek letters adorn everything from letterman jackets to baby bibs.
Current and former students say homecoming is an expression of what the Howard community is: unapologetically black. Eddie Robinson, a graduate of 1975, returns annually to celebrate and says the campus is still as vibrant as it was when he was a student. “Coming to Howard for the first time was seeing the beauty of blackness,” something Robinson said was a rare experience for him in those days. “To come here and find black poets, filmmakers and future doctors and lawyers, I knew Howard was the spot.”
Recent graduates expressed a similar sentiment, citing the diversity of Howard’s student body that drew them to the school. “You see the different shades and ranges of black people here,” says Aisha Beau Johnson, who graduated in 2011. Johnson said Howard fosters an environment that allows for individual expression in ways black people can often feel pressured to tone down: “You can really be whoever you are and find yourself without that distraction of race.”
Over the last decade, institutions of higher education across the country have struggled with declining enrollment, historically black colleges and universities being among the hardest hit. But recently, enrollment at H.B.C.U.s has begun to rebound as the schools have become increasingly visible in the culture. In 2018, for example, Beyoncé dedicated her Coachella performance to H.B.C.U.s, and Senator Kamala Harris of California, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and Howard graduate, has brought the university into the national political spotlight. Greg Carr, a professor and chair of Howard’s Afro-American Studies Department, said the current political climate is causing young black students to think in new ways about the college experience — what it means to grow intellectually in a predominantly black space. Homecoming pilgrimages at H.B.C.U.s, he added, are unique reflections of such spaces and their histories.
“Black college homecomings are informed by the same cultural logic as the church homecomings of the South,” Mr. Carr said, referring to the Great Migration of the mid-20th century: Even as millions of African-Americans left the Jim Crow South for cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, many would return to the communities they left for church homecomings in the summertime. “Put that on steroids,” he said, “and you have Howard homecoming.”
This open invitation is also a testament to the university’s nickname, “The Mecca.” Carr says the term emerged after the Civil Rights Movement. In the wake of the death of Malcolm X and in the spirit of the Black Power movement, students began to informally refer to the campus as “The Mecca of black education.”
Tashi Harrow, a Howard graduate, traveled from Canada with her family, including her three-year-old daughter, Mecca. “I gave her that name so that every time I thought of her, I thought of something that was really important to me,” Ms. Harrow said. Her young sons, De La, 7, and Maasai, 5, have already expressed wanting to attend Howard. “They want to come here because they love Black Panther and Chad Boseman,” Harrow said as the boys shyly nodded in confirmation.
While most of Howard’s students are not affiliated with sororities and fraternities, the presence of Greek life is strong. Trees around the campus yard are painted with the emblems of each organization, marking meeting places for members. Of the nine national Black Greek letter organizations, five of them were founded at Howard.
Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s first black sorority, was founded on the campus in 1908. This historical significance is a point of pride for AKA members like Ms. Maltbia-Burgess, who said the founding of the sisterhood leaves a legacy of mentorship for black women. “I was taught history through becoming an AKA, taught about the black people that built this country that allowed me to step here,” she said. Now a realtor and insurance franchise owner, Ms. Maltbia-Burgess attributes much of her professional success to sorority-sponsored career training and advice from her AKA sisters.
This weekend she was celebrating her 10-year anniversary of joining AKA with 62 other women. They marked the occasion by meeting at the sorority’s historical plot, a granite rock marked with their insignia and founding date. The women sang their signature chapter hymns, perfectly synchronized with one another: “By merit and culture/ we strive and we do/ things that are worthwhile/ and with a smile./ We know each other/ for we know there’s no other/ like our sisterhood/ Alpha Kappa Alpha.”
Adjacent from AKA’s historical plot, in the center of the campus yard, stands The Sundial of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Generations of Omega brothers have been meeting at this monument for 90 years. An inscription reads, “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to come.”
Jordan Uwhubetine, the chapter president, says the emblem is representative of the fraternity’s mantra: “‘Friendship is essential to the soul.’ We live by that.” Looking out onto a sea of purple and yellow gathered by The Dial, Mr. Uwhubetine saw brothers from the chapter at Morehouse College in Atlanta, from Tennessee and from New Orleans. They came all the way up here “just to celebrate with us,” Mr. Uwhubetine said.
As the weekend wound down, families and alumni packed up their things to head home. Ms. Harrow said the experience left a lasting impression on her kids: For spirit day at their school, they wore their Howard shirts. “They’d never seen a marching band before, so the other day they had their light-sabers out pretending they were drum majors,” she said. “Almost a month later and they’re still singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’”