“You gotta to conform to the society in which you live. You got to live within it or outside of it. You can’t straddle the fence. Now are you going to live outside of the American culture or are you going to live within it? As long as you stay in America, you got to conform. What else can you do?”
— Mrs. E. Franklin Frazier, 1968
In the midst of the Wakanda euphoria the past two months most people either overlooked or were unaware of an important event which shaped “the culture” as we know it today. March 19th was the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student takeover at Howard University in Washington, DC. 2,500 students staged a sit-in at the university’s administration building to issue a host of demands including the president’s resignation. The five-day takeover culminated in the birth of black studies programs at Howard and other HBCUs nationwide. It can be argued that this takeover led to the rebirth of Howard as “the Mecca” of black education and culture as so many alumni and current students view it today. It was at the Mecca that a teenage Ta-Nehisi Coates found his voice that would years later produce the graphic novels that would be adapted into Marvel’s Black Panther blockbuster film. It was at the Mecca that 18-year-old Sean Combs was inspired to become Puff Daddy. Thurgood and Taraji found their voices at the Mecca. The Mecca nurtured the future Clair Huxtable. And it was at the Mecca that some of the nation’s top black professionals, scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, and entertainers would matriculate.
Yet, despite all of the pomp and circumstance, some of the underlying problems that motivated the student protest 50 years ago have not been solved. Recently, the media has been filled with stories of student and faculty displeasure. This is not a new phenomenon for Howard. Such stories have appeared in the news every decade since the 1980s. As a proud alumnus of Howard, I recently asked myself the question: Is it time for another student takeover? I was in the middle of writing this article just as news broke that a financial scandal was revealed at Howard. The next day students staged a takeover of the Administration building and demanded the resignation of the president. I had the opportunity to return to campus to witness this new occupy movement for myself. In this article I examine the complicated legacy of student takeovers at Howard University.
Howard in Retrospect: Building the Capstone
The majority of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) to provide African-Americans with higher educational opportunities. Howard was founded in 1867. The University was named after Oliver Otis Howard, a Union army general in the Civil War and the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. General Howard served as the university’s president from 1869-1874. Since its founding the university, which is located just miles from Capitol Hill, has relied on funding from the federal government to function. The Freedmen’s Bureau covered the cost of building the main campus. Historian James Anderson discusses the impact of white funding and influence on early black education in The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (1988). Howard’s first ten presidents were white men. Rev. Mordecai Johnson became Howard’s first black president in 1926. He held that position until 1960, making him the school’s longest tenured president. Johnson, the son of former slaves, oversaw the rise of Howard as the nation’s “Black Harvard.” Today we find many of the nation’s most well-known black scholars (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Nell Painter) teaching at predominantly white schools to majority white students. However, this was not the case in the early 20th century due to Jim Crow. As a result, Howard was able to hire the nation’s top black intellectuals such as Alain Locke, E. Franklin Frazier, Carter G. Woodson, Sterling Brown, Rayford Logan, Kelly Miller, and Ralph Bunche. The university attracted notable alumni like Zora Neal Hurston and Toni Morrison.
The Howard University Law School became a major force in the Civil Rights Movement during President Johnson’s tenure. Johnson recruited the Harvard educated Charles Hamilton Houston to serve as the vice-dean and dean of the school from 1929-1935. Upon Houston’s arrival the law school was unaccredited and functioning as a night school. Houston was able to get the school accredited and replaced the majority white faculty with black professors. Under Houston the law school’s mission was to land a death blow to Jim Crow. He and his students traveled through the South filming the conditions of white children taking buses to nice schools as black children walked to dilapidated school houses. Houston argued that states needed to enforce separate but equal laws by forcing states to make their segregated facilities equal. In actuality this was far too expensive. Houston’s strategy soon spread across the South planting the seeds for the Brown v. the Board of Education case. He died four years before his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall, successfully argued the landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Howard University is the founding location for the original chapters of several Greek-letter organizations: Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Phil Beta Sigma (1914), and Zeta Phi Beta (1920). The founding members of Delta Sigma Theta participated in the Women’s Suffrage March of 1913. Other Howard students, Greek and non-Greek, took part in demonstrations to combat segregation in Washington, DC. As far back as 1888, students tore down the fences separating the campus from the “whites-only” surrounding neighborhoods. This spirit of activism on Howard’s campus reached a fever pitch in the late 1960s.
Ungawa. Black Power. Ungawa. Black Power.
In October 1966, Howard students and alumni gathered for their annual homecoming celebration. Just four months earlier Stokely Carmichael (class of 1964) ignited the black power revolution. At Howard five women ran for homecoming queen that fall, and among them was junior Robin Gregory. “She had an afro, which was the statement. Robin talked about the movement. Robin talked about black politics. Robin was not the traditional homecoming queen candidate,” says Dr. Paula Giddings (class of 1969). Gregory saw her natural hairstyle as a statement on black beauty and not conforming to mainstream standards. After a two-week campaign, students gathered for the coronation of their new queen. “The lights were down. The curtains opened. You heard the crank of the revolving stage begin. As the stage revolved and turned around to the audience the lights began to come up. Before you saw Robin you saw the lights cast a silhouette of her afro. People started jumping and screaming. Some were raising their fists. Then a chant began…Ungawa. Black Power. People started to march to the rhythm of Ungawa. Black Power. And there was a line that went all the way around the auditorium and finally out the door into the streets of Washington, DC, past the campus,” says Giddens.
The following April a student group invited Muhammad Ali to speak on campus. Ali’s visit came a month after he began his three-year-suspension from professional boxing due to his opposition of the Vietnam War. With a copy of Elijah Muhammad’s book, Message to the Blackman in America, in hand Ali preached black power.
“We look at Miss America we see white. We look at Miss World we see white. We look at Miss Universe we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of jungle in black Africa, he’s white.”
Tom Jones (class of 1969) was on campus during Howard’s black power phase. On February 21, 2018, he discussed with me the factors that brought about these activities on campus.
“I was there from fall of 1964 until 1969. The draft for military service was initiated my freshmen year. Now you had all these black guys being scooped up and sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Many of us (males) were required to sign up for the ROTC. That caused a bit of tension. The other thing that was crucial had to deal with generational issues. Here you have young, conscious kids. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 “woke up” black people and scared whites.
When the homecoming queen appeared wearing a bush and some African garb you are talking about a generation of older people who were unsettled by such a sight. During that time questions came up in barbershops – Oh Lord, we’re going to be out of business – soon the barbers embraced the bush and they encouraged students to come get their hair shaped up. If you’re a guy you wanted to have your hair looking right for the girls on campus.
Social consciousness was a ‘virus’ that spread across the campus in the sixties. During that time students were coming from all over the country and overseas. The school was a hub for all these ideas about blackness. Around lunchtime people would show up on the yard and start playing the Congo drums. Soon there would be a large gathering around the drummers. You’d have dancers from the Fine Arts department, notably Debbie Allen, who would come out and dance to the rhythms of the drum.
In the School of Liberal Arts, especially, you had students who were raising questions about the curriculum. Now the administration was much older and traditional in their ways. Faculty members believed they could teach any course. Many of them were very distinguished and could teach at any elite university in the country barring Jim Crow. So when you project that attitude to your students it becomes a turn off. Students could look and see that the textbooks they were reading had been used years before. The professors’ attitude was that I don’t care about your damn drums. When you come into my class you are going to learn what I have been teaching for the last decade.
Then in 1967 Ali comes to campus. Ali arrives with his entourage consisting of Bundini Brown and few members of the Nation of Islam. I remember seeing Ali and his entourage walk by us. Ali saw me staring and said, “You look like Larry Holmes’ brother.” Bundini said, “Yeah he do.” “Ali says, ‘I am just kidding. Come on with us.’” So, my friends and I got to go up on the steps of Douglass Hall with Ali.”
In 1967 General Lewis B. Hershey, director of Selective Service, was booed off stage by student protestors. Ewart Brown, Jr., vice president of the student assembly, was forced by the administration to offer an official apology. One year later he was among the students involved in the five-day takeover. Ewart’s political stance caused his father, a businessman in Bermuda, to cancel his financial support. “This is the new Howard University,” he told Marilyn Robinson (class of 1968), who commanded the student switchboard in the Administration or A building. Didi Bailey, a friend of the four little girls murdered in the infamous bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, September 1963, was among the takeover participants. Other students like Craig Herndon were too busy trying to juggle a full-time job and a full course load, in addition to raising a newborn baby, to risk getting expelled from school.
Why did Howard students take over the A building in March 1968? If you watch the 1968 documentary film Color Us Black or episode 11 of Eyes on the Prize: “Ain’t” Gonna Shuffle No More (1964-1972),” you are left with an image of Howard as an Ivy League institution in blackface. Adrienne Manns (class of 1968) was the editor-in-chief of Howard’s newspaper, The Hilltop. As a junior, she wrote a column titled “Coon’s Corner. Times Change.” Manns viewed Howard as “the puppet of a white government.” In 1968, 53 percent of the university’s budget was being financed by the federal government. “Do you know they wouldn’t even let us listen to jazz in the fine arts building? Nigger music, I guess,” she told The Washington Post ten years after the takeover.
I interviewed Dr. Thomas Battle on February 14, 2018, an alumnus and the former director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center on campus. He believes that it is too simplistic to say that Howard was not a “black” school prior to the Black Power Movement.
“Howard has always been an international hub for students. The conversation at HU during my time was not just concerned with the black American experience. You had students from overseas who were concerned with colonialism and issues abroad. They brought their culture to campus. Remember that most of our HBCUs are located further south. Those schools and students were right there in the midst of what was going on. If you were a student or a faculty member at those schools you had front row seats to that activism. In terms of HU students, they had to go on trips to Mississippi and parts of the South to get involved (those who were not coming from those territories as residents).”
Adrienne Manns and other student leaders crafted a manifesto demanding the creation of an African-American Studies major and center; the resignation of university president James Nabrit; a bigger role in the addressing the concerns of the local black community; and a public declaration that it was a “black” university. Following the administration’s failure to take their manifesto seriously, the students took over the A building. My father was a student in Howard’s Divinity School at the time. Earlier that year he published a column in The Hilltop about the growing displeasure among the student body. He stressed the need for something to be done soon. He spent two days of the takeover camped out with his fellow students. Once the media caught wind of the boycott, the story spread nationwide. Congressional leaders like West Virginia senator Robert Byrd threatened to close the school and suspend its funding. Kenneth Clark (class of 1935) and other members of the Board of Trustees feared the presence of Washington, DC, police officers coming on campus. Four years later, white police officers fatally shot two students in the midst of a takeover at Southern University in Louisiana. The trustees told the students that Nabrit was retiring in a year so there was no need for him to resign. The trustees also refused to adopt the students’ definition of a “black” university. However, they did agree to allow the students to have more input or course options.
Tony Gittens (class of 1968) was the features editor of The Hilltop and a prominent leader of the takeover. He had been expelled a year earlier for his role in a boycott of the school’s annual Charter Day celebration, but he was allowed to return after winning a court battle. Gittens stood on the steps of Howard’s Frederick Douglass Hall proclaiming that “Howard is a contemporary plantation.” He shared stories from the five-day boycott with me on March 22, 2018.
“When we started walking towards the Administration Building we expected the usual 50 students that were normally with us. Then, before we knew it, we had 1,200 people in the A building. Once we realized how many students were in the building we had to set up committees to organize the takeover. We had the students from the engineering department set up a public announcement system within a few hours so that we could communicate with people throughout the building. People weren’t in one location, they were spread throughout the floors in the building.
We had the medical students there for first aid.
We took over the switchboards.
We had the folks from the steering committee hold morning meetings to plan out our steps for the day. We had a little community for those four days. We made the decisions—no outsiders.
In terms of food, people could come and go and get food from local restaurants. People in the community would bring us shopping bags of food.
In terms of entertainment, we had students from the new school of African thought who would come to play drums, play guitar. We had dancers and singers. There were many who came from off campus to help, not just with food and entertainment, but also by bringing us money.
Carolyn Carter was the editor of The Hilltop. Adrienne was the news editor. Without the women, the takeover wouldn’t have occurred. Without the women this could not have successfully taken place. They were the leaders. Sexism was not an issue in our leadership core.
The decision to end the takeover wasn’t our decision. It was the decision of the students in the building. We kicked out the press and had a 90-minute open mic discussion on what we should do. The students voted to leave the building and conclude the takeover. Those in leadership would have stayed longer but we wanted to do what the students wished.
Most of us believed that once we graduated that year it was up to the remaining students to take the lead. There was a dynamic freshman class led by Michael Harris who were still there to follow our lead.”
Howard sponsored a national conference called “Toward a Black University,” in the fall of 1968. The conference energized the growing black studies movement throughout the nation. According to Tom Jones the takeover’s impact was gradual.
“It was not immediate, but it did not take years. The faculty explained to the students a realistic timeline for the changes to occur. Each semester during registration it took for hours for students to sign up for their classes. The registration process was insane. So the takeover was not just about a new curriculum but other things like improving the registration process. You’d wait in line for hours to learn that classes you needed to graduate were already full. Parking on campus was another issue. Security on campus was another issue. You had people coming off the street walking around in the buildings and dorms. Students were getting beat up walking up and down Georgia Avenue.”
From the (Re)birth of the Mecca
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the term Mecca as a place regarded as a center for a specified group, activity, or interest. In Islam, the Mecca is regarded as the birthplace of Muhammad and the holiest city on Earth. Kelly Miller, former Howard dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, first used the term, the Mecca, to describe Howard in a 1925 essay. Decades later this term would become synonymous with this majority Christian institution. Few public individuals tout this notion of Howard as the Mecca more vehemently than Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates attended Howard for five years but never completed his degree. His most acclaimed book, Between the World and Me (2015), has been hailed as this generation’s version of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). The book is an open letter to his son, the Black Lives Matter generation, and America. At times the book reads like a love letter to Howard University.
“My only Mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University. The Mecca is a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body. The Mecca derives its power from the heritage of Howard University, which in Jim Crow days enjoyed a near-monopoly on black talent. Howard was in Washington, DC, and thus in proximity to both federal power and black power. The result was an alumni and professorate that spanned genre and generation – Charles Drew, Amiri Baraka, Thurgood Marshall, Ossie Daivs, Toni Morrison, and Kwame Ture. The history, the location, the alumni combined to create the Mecca – the crossroads of the black diaspora.” (Between the World and Me, pp. 39-40.)
Coates shares stories of taking a survey on Central Africa with Professor Linda Heywood who taught him about the legacy of Queen Nzinga. His father was employed by Howard’s Moorland- Spingarn Research Center. Coates met his wife at Howard.
“I fell in love at the Mecca one last time, lost my balance and all my boyhood confusion, under the spell of a girl from Chicago. This was your mother.” (Between the World and Me, pp. 64)
I spoke to Howard alumni, March 19-24, 2018, who shared similar sentiments.
Robert Harold, Jr. (class of 1989)
“The school was so diverse in terms of how people dressed, the music on campus, the student organizations, and how black students came from all over the globe. Homecomings were a display of artistic excellence in the Diaspora. The marching band was an event. Showtime band. Being at HU changed the game for me. This was where I gained my consciousness about the African Diaspora and black culture. My eyes were opened to history and culture and it made me thirst for more. I met my wife there. My oldest son attends HU.”
Lou Williams (class of 1987)
“I did not know anything about Howard being a Mecca or what an HBCU was when I arrived as a freshman from New York. I gained appreciation for HU, black history, black literature, and the purpose that HBCUs served during my time. I still have friends and co-workers, who attended other HBCUs, come up to me today and respectfully refer to us as the Mecca.”
The Takeover, Part II
The 1980s gave us fictional depictions of black college life in NBC’s A Different World (1987-1993) and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988), which turned 30 in February. The eighties also brought more student takeovers at the Mecca.
“As a freshman, in 1983, I was among 50-75 students who staged in a sit-in inside the A building. to protest a tuition hike. The sit-in was organized by the president of HUSA (Howard University Student Association).”
In early March of 1989, just few weeks shy of the 21st anniversary of the 1968 takeover, students shut down the A building for five days. This time the protest leaders included April Silver and Ras Baraka, son of black power activist Amiri Baraka. Students were protesting the appointment of Lee Atwater to the university’s Board of Trustees. Atwater was the chairman of the Republican National Committee. As George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager in the 1988 presidential election, he was responsible for Bush’s infamous Willie Horton commercials which exploited white fears of black criminality. During a private conversation Atwater was taped explaining the Southern Strategy. “You start out in 1954 saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights. You’re getting so abstract now (that) you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things are a byproduct of them (that is) blacks get hurt worse than whites.” 2,000, students sat-in the building from Monday through Friday, forcing the cancellation of the 122nd birthday celebration in observance of HU’s founding. Students demanded the creation of an African-American graduate studies program, enhancement of the undergraduate African studies program, a university-wide program that accepted community service as academic credit, a tuition reduction, better security, improved maintenance of the dormitories and classrooms, and the resignation of President James Cheek. Cheek was a black Republican known for using his clout to bring money to the university. Nevertheless, this did not sit well with many students.
Robert Harold, Jr.
“Students were mad with Cheek because he was unapproachable. I never saw him at sporting or social events. He was viewed as this “high and mighty” guy up in the heavens.”
The Washington Post published an article on March 12, 1989, titled “Why Howard University Exploded Last Week.” The article featured controversial quotes from E. Ethelbert Miller, then director of Howard’s Afro-American Resource Center. “There is a feeling that this is the plantation, and Cheek is the slave who has been put in charge while the master is away,” said Miller. Miller, who was laid off by the university in 2015, entered Howard as a freshman from New York City, five months after the 1968 takeover. Miller shared his thoughts with me on March 15, 2018.
E. Ethelbert Miller (class of 1972)
“What really changed Howard was the firing of President Nabrit. His departure opened the door for President James Cheek. At this point when everyone was up at arms over the war […] the administration closed the school down and people came from Morgan to Crampton (Auditorium). Cheek came on stage and addressed the audience as ‘brothers and sisters.’ I remember telling my boy, ‘this Negro is co-opting our movement.’”
When Cheek took over he hired Andrew Billingsley to serve as the vice president of academic affairs. This was a very radical sociologist coming out of Atlanta. Dr. Billingsley was at the forefront of a revolutionary think tank in Atlanta following King’s death. He began hiring many radical faculty and brought them to HU.
Howard’s golden years were from 1973-1982. They made HU the Mecca as we know it today. But even with them on campus there was still a tug of war between the administration/trustees and the more radical faculty.
Howard received a grant from the Ford Foundation to develop an African-American Studies Department that would be a model for the rest of the country. Michael Winston was a historian on campus. He was asked by the administration to write the proposal for the black studies program. Winston did not support the idea of African-American Studies as a discipline. It’s like women’s studies, queer studies, Chicano studies, etc., he did not take it seriously as discipline that was teaching students practical, applicable skills. I remember an advisor trying to persuade me to major in History rather than African-American Studies because it was fad. Winston opposed hiring Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the History Department. Gates could have been at Howard rather than Harvard.
Right before Howard magazine we had New Direction magazine. The final issue featured an article that I wrote in response to Ron Walter’s praiseworthy opinion of the university. I charged that Howard was not committed to a black agenda. Why was black studies necessary at an HBCU like Howard? Because it was not a black school. It was a Negro school so it needed a black studies department just as much as the PWIs. As far back as 1968 you had Claude Brown (author of Manchild of the Promised Land) referring to Howard as a plantation that needed to be burnt to the ground.”
Stomp the Yard
James Cheek served as president from 1969 until 1989. The 1989 takeover forced his resignation. He was succeeded by Franklyn Jenifer (1990-1994). Joyce Ladner was named Howard’s first woman interim president in 1994. Upon assuming power, Ladner found herself at odds with folks on campus due to unpopular employee layoffs and cracking down on students with overdue bills. Ladner entered office facing a projected $25 million budget deficit. She immediately fired 400 employees to cut costs. Critics called her layoffs a “massacre”. The Service Employees International Union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the university. When it came time to hire a permanent president in 1995, Ladner was passed over for H. Patrick Swygert (class of 1965). By the spring of 2007, the chair of the faculty senate was demanding Swygert’s resignation due to what was described as “incompetence and dysfunction at the highest level.” Swygert retired in June of the next year. He was succeeded by Sidney Ribeau, then president of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. In order to strengthen the school he appointed a Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal that recommended eliminating 20 academic programs, including African Studies.
Just like his predecessors, Ribeau’s tenure ended in controversy. In 2013, Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, the vice chair of Howard’s Board of Trustees, wrote a letter to the board that was subsequently leaked to the media. The Chronicle of Higher Education obtained and published the damning letter, which predicted that the university would be forced to close within three years due to onerous financial negligence. She pointed the blame in the direction of President Ribeau. A year earlier, after he announced budget cuts, some members of the faculty senate expressed disgust over “outrageous bonuses” totaling $1.1 million given to selected administrators in 2010. Higginbotham-Brooks called for a vote of no confidence in Ribeau. In the letter she spoke of incoming students being unable to arrange financial aid and high school counselors encouraging students to attend less expensive state colleges. She also recommended having the Washington, DC city government assume financial responsibility of the university’s hospital, which was opened in 1962. She called the hospital a “serious drain” on the school’s finances. Two years prior to the release of the letter Moody’s, a credit rating firm, gave the university an A3 rating, with a negative outlook. The following year Howard received an A- / negative credit rating from Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC.
I was a student at Howard during Ribeau’s tenure. I remember staff members with more than 20 years on the job being asked to accept buyouts. I remember hearing rumors that over $1 million had been spent on our world famous homecoming one year. Eventually homecoming was scaled down from a nearly 10-day star-studded celebration to barely a week. I had a classmate who used credit cards to pay his rent for an entire summer because the school was late with his paychecks. I remember being a student employee at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and hearing fellow students complain about the center’s reading room opening only three times a week for a period. The Research Center named after former trustee, Rev. Jesse E. Moorland, and Arthur B. Spingarn, the Jewish American who served as NAACP president, began collecting rare books, pamphlets, and other historical items in 1914. Andrew Carnegie donated a new library to house the special collection that evolved into a research center and museum over time. Moorland-Spingarn’s collection contains 175,000 bound volumes, 100,000 photographs, 1,000 audio tapes, black newspapers and periodicals, copies of the Black Panther Party’s newspaper, diaries of Frederick Douglass, rare works by Phillis Wheatley, and the historical papers of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the Congressional Black Caucus. According to Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Moorland is “one of the important collections to understand African-American culture writ large.” Only the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City has as prestigious a collection.
In 2012 when Howard Dodson, the former head of the Schomburg became director of Moorland, he used these words to describe the center to The New York Times: “Antiquated.” “Depleted.” “Grossly underfunded.” Moorland’s budget was reduced from $3.5 million in 1994 to $800,000 by 2012. Moorland’s staff was cut by one-fifth which contributed to its inability to operate daily. Joellen El Bashir, the curator of manuscripts, said at the time, “We need a place to store this stuff. Can you feel the temperature? We need room to process and spread out.” Martha Diaz, a hip-hop scholar and associate producer of the Nas: Time is Illmatic documentary film, wanted to house a special hip-hop collection at Moorland. Diaz reached out to me because I was the founding chair of the university’s Hip-Hop and Higher Education Symposium. I had also proposed the creation of a hip-hop major or minor, which never came to fruition. A special hip-hop collection meant potential partnerships with the likes of Chuck D. and Afrika Bambaataa; nevertheless, Moorland had to decline due to a lack of space and financial resources. Diaz eventually ended up working with the Schomburg, the Cornell University Hip-Hop Collection, and the Hiphop Archive Research Institute at Harvard.
President Ribeau received a vote of no confidence from the Board of Trustees in October 2013. He announced that he would be retiring at the end of the year, two weeks after the vote. Wayne A.I. Frederick was named interim president that same month. Frederick, then 42, became the university’s 17th president the following summer.
The Coldest Winter Ever
Frederick’s tenure as president started with a bang. He oversaw his first commencement in May 2014. Hip-Hop mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs received an honorary degree and served as the commencement speaker. Puff spoke highly of the Mecca’s new youthful leader. Frederick, a native of Trinidad, enrolled at Howard as a 16-year-old freshman. He earned a dual B.S./M.D. degree. He earned a Master of Business Administration from Howard’s School of Business and completed his surgical residency at Howard University Hospital. Frederick held several positions at Howard before becoming president. He was an associate dean in the College of Medicine, Director of the Cancer Center and Deputy Provost for Health Sciences, and the Provost and Chief Academic Officer. He received a five-year contract extension. Unfortunately, the student body’s affections for him did not match that of the trustees. In 2016, students protested the administration’s failure to respond to accusations of rape on campus and provide better public safety for female students. Students began a social media campaign on Twitter called #takebackthenightHU.
Historian Jelani Cobb, a Howard alum, addressed the growing displeasure found in the student body and among faculty members in a January 2018 article for The New Yorker. “Welcome to the Trump Plantation, Overseer: Wayne A.I. Frederick.” Cobb wrote that these words were spray-painted in blue block letters on the campus’s central plaza, known to Howard family and local DMV residents “the Yard.” The overseer title was the result of his dealings with the newly elected Trump administration. Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, selected Howard for her first official visit on the job. Students and faculty protested her visit. Frederick was one of many HBCU presidents who met with President Trump at the White House and posed in an ill-fated picture featuring Kellyanne Conway, counsellor to President Trump, kneeling on a sofa checking her phone. Trump stood alongside the majority black male presidents smiling. Students were quoted in The Hilltop saying “Frederick doesn’t care about black people.” Then it was announced that former FBI director James Comey would hold a one-year position at Howard, delivering a series of five public policy lectures. An employee at Moorland-Spingarn told me that the space once used as office space for the Research Center’s director and his administrative assistant would be used as Comey’s office space. Students objected to Comey’s characterization of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the FBI’s history with the black community. When Comey delivered the Convocation address in Cramton Auditorium on September 22, 2017, a large section of protestors interrupted his speech. Some in the 1,500, audience chanted, “Let him speak.” Others chanted, “White supremacy is not a debate!”
Conditions went from bad to worse for Frederick as the calendar turned to 2018. The title of Sister Souljah’s bestselling novel, The Coldest Winter Ever, best describes the first three months of the year at the Mecca. In early January it was announced that Howard’s spring semester would begin more than a week late, on Tuesday, January 16th, due to ruptured pipes, a lack of heat and hot water in two residence halls (Cook and Drew), and a lack of internet connectivity and access to BisonWeb. DC temperatures at the time were barely reaching ten degrees. Frederick sent a video to the student body explaining what was being done to fix the problem. Howard students posted their disgust on social media using the Twitter hashtag #HowardHaze. 300 students already returned and were stuck on campus. Freshman Marino Julian Goldstein, a founder of the committee of HU Concerned Students, organized a meeting in Howard’s Annex Café. “How many of you have felt played by Howard University?” he asked those in attendance. Following the meeting he posted a listed of student demands on Twitter.
In his video, President Frederick explained that cold temperatures caused the pipes to rupture resulting in flooding and water damage to dormitories and buildings like the historic Frederick Douglass Hall which could be closed for one to two years. Douglass houses various departments including History and Political Science. Many professors lost all of the materials in their offices, from rare books to diplomas. Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis lost grant proposals. Douglass had many rare photos hanging on the walls that were destroyed. Classes in the Douglass were moved to other buildings and dormitories. During the span of March 11-24, I interviewed students, faculty, alumni, and parents about the current state of the university. Many of the interviewees asked not to be named.
Anonymous student (class of 2018)
“In my opinion I’d say that the state of Howard University is deteriorating. I have not heard from the students on achieving happiness at the university at this present time. Students have taken issue with the President with his decision-making process as most believe that he doesn’t have the best interest at heart. This is derived from the continued closing of dormitories and the mishandling of housing distribution.
Students also have issue with the forced closure of buildings on campus such as Douglass Hall. It was one of the buildings on campus damaged during the winter as renovations had not been properly integrated to prevent such an outcome. Howard is hurting not just from needed maintenance but it’s bleeding from an internal wound that has not been addressed. It feels as though on paper and in the spotlight the Mecca is operating at efficiency, but everywhere students turn there is an issue.”
Anonymous student (class of 2019)
“Hollow promises aren’t enough to keep the ship afloat. The students’ voices aren’t heard and that is surprising if the student voice is the main voice for the university. The President can make changes by healing the internal wounds permanently instead of settling for temporary fixes. This would allow the school to be a place that every student could continue to call home.”
Robert Harold, Jr. (alumnus and father of a current student)
“I would say there are two sides to all of it. Not saying I am totally on Frederick’s side. But we have to look at what the administration is doing and what the students are doing. These kids are used to 32-inch TVs and king-sized beds. They don’t know what it’s like to struggle to register for your classes without internet access. So some of the complaints are based on the conveniences that they’ve been privy to. Students of the same major are grouped together so that their schedules and study habits coincide. When I was a student you felt like you were on your own in DC. In the cafeteria students have more food options. There are healthy choice options. You have name brand food vendors on campus.
I think many of the struggles that I experienced at HU and in the A-building prepared me for life after college.”
Lou Williams (alumnus and father of a current student)
“I think some of the students’ complaints about housing are overblown. When I was a student housing was an issue. I often did not know where I would be living the next school year until the last minute.”
First Anonymous faculty member
“People complained about Presidents Cheek and Swygert. They were Republicans, but the school was run efficiently. This issue with the deferred maintenance […] another president could have taken care of that. The maintenance on campus was outsourced to another entity. We were lucky if we had maintenance on campus two days a week. People were not working for HU. They were working for this third party. Many of the maintenance workers were fed up and took early retirement. For most of last school year there were fumes in my building and it smelled like sewage. The staff would come in early in the morning to open the doors and spray through the halls to get rid of the odor.”
Anonymous alumna (class of 2012)
“Honestly, I am not as up-to-date on the current state of my alma mater as I should be. I have been disappointed at times by some of the things I’ve heard coming off campus (especially the Trump situation). I also still think the administration has some serious issues […] but that seems to be an unfortunate part of HU. When I entered into grad school a professor basically told me I’d have an awesome educational experience at HU, but that the administration would frustrate. That professor was absolutely right.”
Second Anonymous faculty member
“President Frederick did not have any linkages to any community in the U.S. that could pressure Congress to get the funds needed for the school. You cannot tell me that you could not find an African-American to come in and lead this HBCU. There is not a single African nation or Caribbean nation that’s going to hand their university over to an African-American. Or allow that foreign born individual to replace many of their native born leaders in administrative roles with people from his country.”
Anonymous alumna (class of 2013)
“The school taught me how to engage in critical conversations (e.g., race, gender, impacts on society). It also provided me with an amazing network of people. But I do think the administration is one reason why it is hard for some to see it as the Mecca. Pains me to say this, but in a lot of ways I feel that HU is still riding on its reputation as being HU. But, I know HU has the power to really meet that potential. One day, we won’t be able to ride on reputation and the administration will have to step up.”
“Right now students are supposed to have their housing assignments in March or April. Students are concerned that they will not have housing because there are more students on campus than rooms available right now. So some students are contemplating if they should return in the fall if there is no room and board. If students are still without room assignments by finals it might be necessary to stage another takeover.”
Anonymous alumna (class of 2010)
“I think another takeover is necessary because it shows that the students care and want change. There are a lot of assumptions some people make about the younger generations, including that they are selfish and not invested in real issues. Such protests show that students do care. In having such protests, it is important for students to recognize the purpose and be able to articulate their points. HU should be proud that they have an institution of students willing to speak up (but they also need to do something about the issues students are discussing).”
You Need to Call Tyrone (Call Him)
On March 28, 2018, one of the students that I had previously interviewed texted me about a scandal that was breaking news on campus. Within the next 24 hours this salacious story was national news and leading the local primetime newscasts. Six employees in the financial aid office were guilty of embezzling $1 million in university funds from 2007 to 2016. The six had received grants and tuition reimbursement. The combined amount exceeded the total cost of attendance. The story came to light after a Howard student posted the story on the blogging site Medium. “This is so sad. The period of the theft corresponds to mid-year dismissal of hundreds of students who could not pay their fees and a 40% reduced freshman admission rate for the 2016-17 academic year,” says an anonymous faculty member. The alleged culprit at the center of the controversy was a 25-year-old employee and law student named Tyrone Hankerson, Jr. He is accused of stealing $429,000 in funds earmarked for financial aid. Tyrone told People magazine that he is innocent. He attracted attention from whistleblowers who saw him flexing on the Gram (Instagram) and other social media sites. Hip-Hop’s most notorious shock jock, Charlamagne Tha God, made Tyrone his “donkey of the day” on the March 29th episode of The Breakfast Club.
“Tyrone had it all—fur coats, designer rain boots, loafers and slippers with no socks, trips to exotic places, Range Rovers. Tyrone was ballin’. He is dressed from head to toe in black and he’s got a Gucci tote bag […]. Tyrone had his own personal videographer. While you was busy crying because you had a balance and could not register for class, Tyrone was busy finessing of financial aid. Now Tyrone has a lawyer with money I am sure he stole from Howard University.”
—Charlamagne Tha God
Black Twitter filled up with memes clowning Tyrone. Erykah Badu’s “Call Tyrone” was a common joke. One meme had Tyrone standing in front of a shiny black Range Rover truck and the caption: “Y’all can’t even spell embezzlement.” In a second meme Tyrone is taking financial aid-related phone calls from students while holding a “money” phone. Another meme has the caption: “No but seriously, is Tyrone having a yard sale before he goes to jail?”
Howard University students do not find any humor in this latest example of university neglect. The Tyrone scandal was the straw that broke the camel’s back. On Thursday, March 29th, a group of students calling themselves HU Resist staged a sit-in the A building. Students chanted the lyrics to Rihanna’s song “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Rihanna even showed love to the students by retweeting a video of them singing her anthem. Students also repeated the 1968 chant, “Ungawa. Black Power.”
I returned to the DMV the next day for Easter weekend and stopped by campus to speak with some of the student protestors. Outside the doors to the building the students taped a list of nine demands. A single sheet of poster paper hung for each demand.
Demand 1: We demand adequate housing for all students under the age of 21.
Demand 2: We demand an immediate end to tuition hikes and access to administrative salaries.
Demand 3: We demand that Howard fight rape culture on campus.
Demand 4: We demand that a grievance system hold faculty and administrators accountable.
Demand 5: We demand that Howard hire more counselors for mental health issues.
Demand 6: We demand the immediate disarming of campus police.
Demand 7: We demand that Howard allocate more resources toward combating gentrification within the LeDroit Shaw community.
Demand 8: We demand the immediate resignation of President Frederick.
Demand 9: We demand that students have the power to democratically influence the decisions of the administration and the Board of Trustees by way of popular vote.
#STUDENT POWER HU
President Frederick and the Board of Trustees released a letter to all students and alumni earlier that day. The students held a press conference to explain why they were unsatisfied with the administration’s response. By the time I arrived on campus, some students were heading towards the building with pillows and overnight bags. Other students stopped by the building to drop off food and water. A few members of the mostly white press stood across the street.
A sign was taped to the door stating that the building was closed to everyone who was not a student with a Howard ID. When I looked through building’s glass doors I saw three to four rows of students sitting in chairs looking out at me. I saw one male student sitting there wearing a Black Panther (film) t-shirt. A group of young ladies stood at the door letting people in and out of the building. Since I am an alumnus, I was allowed to speak with some of the students. I met a student named Eva, a junior, who spoke about the differences and similarities between their protest and those of the past.
Eva (class of 2019)
“Right now we do not have the same numbers as those previous protests. There are only about 100 of us right now. But we are determined to have our demands met and believe that we can have the same impact as those students who came before us.”
The following day student leaders from the 1968 and 1989 takeovers came to campus to speak with the students and provide support. Tony Gittens was among that group of alumni. Later in the day Gittens was interviewed by WUSA9 news. He stated that Howard would never be the same after this protest. On Easter Sunday the students met with the Board of Trustees. The Howard University Alumni Association (HUAA) and the Council of Deans published letters of support for President Frederick on April 1st and 2nd respectively. The trustees agreed to meet one of the students’ nine demands. However, the students refused to leave the building until Frederick resigned. The students demonstrated their willingness to stay committed to their demands. They organized their own worship service for Easter Sunday. They also set up a farmer’s market and held classes on their own when the weekend ended. The 2018 takeover comes at a time in which millennials in Sacramento are protesting the police shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, and three years after black underclassmen at the University of Missouri forced the resignation of President Tim Wolfe. As the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination (occurring days after 1968 takeover) Howard sit-ins reached day six, marking the longest takeover in school history. The takeover finally ended after nine days on April 6th. “This is a long time coming,” said HU Resist student organizer Alexis McKenney during a press conference.
The students and the Board of Trustees reached a compromise on seven of the nine demands. The university will adopt a new sexual assault policy. It will create a food bank for students and surrounding community. The university will review its policies regarding the use of weapons by its campus police force. The trustees will consider freezing undergraduate tuition rates. The university’s student housing policy will also be evaluated. The Trustees will also develop a task force, co-chaired by a student, with assistance from administration and the student body, to review the best practices for addressing grievances. The students dropped their calls for President Frederick’s resignation.
When I began writing this article I had no idea that we are on the brink of such a watershed moment in Howard’s history. This was supposed to be an article solely about the 50th anniversary of the 1968 takoever and its legacy. Instead it became an article about the 2018 takeover. Ironically, as all of this was happening ABC’s hit sitcom Black-ish aired an episode titled “Black Math.” On the episode the eldest son, Junior (Marcus Scribner), gets two college acceptance letters, one from Stanford and one from Howard. His mom (Tracee Ellis Ross), an Ivy League graduate, assumes that he will go to Stanford because it is a better school. His father (Anthony Anderson) wants more than anything to see his son attend his beloved alma mater, which he calls his Zumunda. Junior initially chooses Stanford; however, he changes his mind after spending a weekend at Howard (his future Wakanda). As he gives his reasons for selecting Howard, he talks about seeing black people from all across the Diaspora representing a multiplicity of classes, religions, political ideologies, and cultural sensibilities. As he arrives on campus a student protest is taking place.
While I am sure this episode was filmed weeks – maybe months – ago, there was a great deal of irony the timing of its release. The scene captures the essence of Howard. We – meaning all alumni and current students – do not know how to shut up and study [shade to Fox’s Laura Ingraham]. If we see something wrong with our university, we will always step up and let our voices be heard until change happens. This same attitude is what has allowed so many Howard graduates to become global change agents and leaders after they graduate. Howard alumni Chadwick Boseman (class of 2000), a.k.a King T’Challa/Black Panther, delivered the commencement address on Mother’s Day weekend. As he spoke to the graduates, he praised the work of those students involved in the recent takeover. He had participated in a similar three-day demonstration when he was a student. Boseman’s told the students that their sacrifice will pave the way for future generations of Howard graduates. He also praised President Frederick and the administration for their willingness to meet the students’ demands.
Hopefully, this will be the final takeover at Howard. Fifty years from now there should not be another article about a new occupy movement at Howard and this current generation of student leaders coming back to provide guidance. If the 2018 takeover creates a synergy that ushers in heightened transparency and accountability, a stronger sense of community on campus will be restored. Perhaps if earnest conversations begin about the inter-ethnic and class divide, the resurgence of nationalism and tribalism, and erosion of trust by recalcitrant gatekeepers and indefatigable opportunists, revitalization of the Mecca can get underway. I believe in my university—the real HU—and so should you.
HU! Youuu Know!