A vir­tual home­com­ing

This year’s tra­di­tional con­ver­gence at Howard Univer­sity is vir­tual, but the col­le­giate ca­ma­raderie re­mains real

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY LAUREN LUMPKIN, DANIELLE DOU­GLAS- GABRIEL AND JOE HEIM

Thou­sands who typ­i­cally flock to Howard for the an­nual cel­e­bra­tion will con­nect through screens.

Home­com­ing at Howard Univer­sity is many things. There’s a foot­ball game, yes, but alumni say the an­nual event is so much more.

It’s a pil­grim­age, re­turn­ing to events year af­ter year and never tir­ing of watch­ing your class­mates get grayer. It’s the me­mories made snap­ping pic­tures at Yard­fest while wait­ing for the con­cert to start. It’s grab­bing a stranger’s shoul­ders in cel­e­bra­tion and swag-surf­ing.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Nwaji Ji­bunoh, who grad­u­ated from Howard in 2001 with a de­gree in busi­ness man­age­ment, “to be around some of the most beau­ti­ful Black peo­ple in the SEE HOME­COM­ING ON B8

world.”

Home­com­ing typ­i­cally at­tracts thou­sands of Howard par­ents, stu­dents, alumni, friends and pro­fes­sors to the cam­pus in North­west Wash­ing­ton ev­ery year. Stu­dents from neigh­bor­ing schools and nearby his­tor­i­cally Black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties at­tend, too, ea­ger to get a taste of one of the most pop­u­lar cel­e­bra­tions in the coun­try.

This year’s event, like the school year and ev­ery­thing else, will be very dif­fer­ent. Un­able to meet in per­son be­cause of the pan­demic, the univer­sity or­ga­nized a slate of dig­i­tal events — in­clud­ing a vir­tual Yard­fest and a gospel con­cert this week­end — to bring the com­mu­nity to­gether through their screens.

It’s a nec­es­sary sac­ri­fice, said univer­sity Pres­i­dent Wayne A.I. Fred­er­ick, to pro­tect the com­mu­nity from a po­ten­tial su­per­spreader event.

But for some peo­ple, what’s lost this year feels greater. Home­com­ing, a mas­sive cel­e­bra­tion of Black­ness that ex­tends be­yond a sin­gle cam­pus, is also a salve — to nearly eight months of pro­found loss and a sum­mer of protests of vi­o­lence against Black peo­ple.

And, in a year when one of Howard’s own, Sen. Ka­mala D. Har­ris, be­came the first HBCU alum to be tapped for a ma­jor­party pres­i­den­tial ticket, many were look­ing for­ward to the faceto-face fel­low­ship.

“Home­com­ing is about com­ing home, as it says, and that means com­ing back to a place that’s safe and has given you so much,” Fred­er­ick said. “This year, we have to rec­og­nize that that place is within us and we don’t nec­es­sar­ily need a phys­i­cal space.”

‘One of the great­est events’

The home­com­ing tra­di­tions at Howard started with a sports ri­valry. Throngs of stu­dents gath­ered al­most ev­ery fall, start­ing in the late 19th cen­tury, for the “Orig­i­nal Ne­gro Gridiron Clas­sic” be­tween Howard and Lin­coln Univer­sity, an HBCU in south­east Penn­syl­va­nia.

It was one of the most im­por­tant ath­letic and so­cial events for Black col­lege stu­dents, de­clared the Hill­top, Howard’s cam­pus news­pa­per, in 1924. “What the Har­vard-yale game and the Army-navy strug­gle are to white Americans, the Howard-lin­coln clas­sic is to Ne­groes,” the news­pa­per re­ported.

From its first of­fi­cial home­com­ing that year, stu­dents and alumni were de­ter­mined to make the oc­ca­sion “one of the great­est events of the school year.” Through the years, they have added more events: brunches, fash­ion shows, con­certs, and fra­ter­nity and soror­ity step shows.

Jean C. Tap­scott has been at­tend­ing the alumni brunch for al­most 30 years. The event used to in­clude a fash­ion show. Two years ago, it was re­placed by a jazz show, Tap­scott said.

“It’s an op­por­tu­nity for grad­u­ates, or even the younger ones, to come back and have fel­low­ship and also talk about what’s been go­ing on in their lives,” said Tap­scott, who grad­u­ated in 1963 with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in so­ci­ol­ogy then stayed for an­other two years to earn her mas­ter’s in so­cial work.

And then there’s Show­time. Howard’s march­ing band, with its leg­endary brassy ren­di­tions of the lat­est hits and chore­og­ra­phy, is as big a draw as al­most any event in the week-long lineup.

Se­nior Kayla Len­non is the third gen­er­a­tion of her fam­ily to at­tend an HBCU. Grow­ing up in Cincin­nati, she never at­tended home­com­ing at her par­ents’ alma maters.

The fes­tiv­i­ties at Howard, where Len­non’s grand­mother is an alumna, ex­ceeded her ex­pec­ta­tions. She was so en­am­ored when she saw the march­ing band her fresh­man year that she tried out as a sopho­more.

Now in her third year with Show­time, Len­non was look­ing for­ward to play­ing her clar­inet one last time at Home­com­ing. And she will, just not in front of a live au­di­ence.

The band is host­ing a vir­tual event Satur­day with alumni to raise money for new uni­forms.

“Peo­ple are ex­cited, sad and long­ing for the ex­pe­ri­ence of get­ting to be with each other,” said Len­non, who stud­ies po­lit­i­cal science and so­ci­ol­ogy.

Tak­ing the tra­di­tions on­line

Char­lie Lewis, pres­i­dent of the univer­sity’s alumni as­so­ci­a­tion, has re­turned to “the Mecca” — the name the com­mu­nity has given to Howard — nearly ev­ery year since grad­u­at­ing in 1989.

“Ev­ery time I go back, I’m al­ways look­ing for baby bi­son,” Lewis said, re­fer­ring to the teenage chil­dren of alumni or, in his eyes, fu­ture Howard stu­dents.

Howard in­tro­duced Lewis to life out­side his small home­town in Ge­or­gia, he said. He joined “ev­ery­thing you can name” when he landed on cam­pus — the year­book club, stu­dent gov­ern­ment, fi­nance clubs.

Home­com­ing is a chance to cel­e­brate those ex­pe­ri­ences, he said.

“Even though we’re not on the Yard this year, we’re go­ing to have a won­der­ful vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ence,” Lewis said. “It’s not go­ing to be the same, but we’ll still be able to come to­gether.”

This year’s home­com­ing at­ten­dees are gath­er­ing over the theme of ad­vo­cacy, a con­cept in­spired by a sum­mer of so­cial un­rest and in­tended to spark con­ver­sa­tions about racial justice, said Fred­er­ick, the univer­sity’s pres­i­dent.

Of­fi­cials or­ga­nized events, in­clud­ing a na­tional con­fer­ence to am­plify so­cial and racial justice work, a re­cep­tion to cel­e­brate LGBTQ+ ac­tivism and a tribute to ac­tor and alum Chad­wick Bose­man, who died in Au­gust. The streamed events are open to the pub­lic.

The univer­sity will also at­tempt to re-cre­ate Yard­fest, tra­di­tion­ally a fes­ti­val and con­cert on the univer­sity’s iconic Yard. With its grassy patches and criss­cross­ing path­ways, the Yard is where the his­tor­i­cally Black Greek soror­i­ties and fra­ter­ni­ties honor their or­ga­ni­za­tions and sing songs dur­ing home­com­ing.

“It’s re­ally the cul­tural epi­cen­ter of the univer­sity,” said Tay­lor Jones, who grad­u­ated in May with a his­tory de­gree.

“When I look at old pic­tures of stu­dents at Howard in the 1930s and 1940s and they’re on the Yard, it looks al­most ex­actly as it does now,” Jones said. “It’s sur­real to think I’m walk­ing across the same Yard Toni Mor­ri­son walked across.”

For as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor Jen­nifer Thomas, home­com­ing has al­ways been the can’t-miss event of the school year. And her con­nec­tion goes deeper than many. As a ju­nior in 1987, Thomas reigned over events as Miss Howard, the equiv­a­lent of home­com­ing queen.

But “we say Miss Howard and Mr. Howard be­cause it rep­re­sents the in­sti­tu­tion and why we’re here. And I took that very se­ri­ously at the time and I still do now,” said Thomas, who has taught broad­cast jour­nal­ism at her alma mater since 2013.

Home­com­ing, for Thomas, has al­ways been a chance to re­con­nect on the Yard with her sis­ters in Al­pha Kappa Al­pha soror­ity, eat great food and at­tend the big-name con­certs. The event is also an op­por­tu­nity to net­work, look to the fu­ture and rel­ish be­ing in a sea of tal­ented co­horts.

“It’s won­der­ful to come and see this mo­saic of dif­fer­ent shades of brown that are there and who are all do­ing amazing things,” she said.

Thomas is in­spired by the ef­forts stu­dents and alumni have made to con­nect with one an­other in vir­tual happy hours and pan­els on top­ics such as vot­ing and the dis­parate im­pact of covid19 on Black Americans.

Howard’s home­com­ing is not the only one to go vir­tual this year. Grad­u­ates at nearby HBCUS, in­clud­ing Mor­gan State Univer­sity in Bal­ti­more and the Univer­sity of the District of Columbia are among those that will cel­e­brate on­line, as well.

“It took a lot to make the de­ci­sion not to have home­com­ing,” said David Wil­son, pres­i­dent of Mor­gan State. For cur­rent and for­mer stu­dents, their HBCU is the place “you never have to won­der, ‘Do I re­ally be­long here?’ Every­body just comes and re­con­nects to the place that they credit for their suc­cess. It’s a very spe­cial week­end.”

Rachel How­ell, pres­i­dent of the Howard Univer­sity Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion, says home­com­ing has al­ways been “a time to re­flect on all the great­ness that has hap­pened at the univer­sity.”

“When it comes to home­com­ing, I fall in love with my univer­sity all over again,” said How­ell, a se­nior study­ing po­lit­i­cal science and phi­los­o­phy. “Be­ing here has changed my life.”

How­ell and the stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tion will use this home­com­ing to reg­is­ter vot­ers. They are also ral­ly­ing alumni and stu­dents over so­cial me­dia to head to the polls or mail in their bal­lots.

Mean­while, Ji­bunoh will try to keep his own tra­di­tions in­tact, all the way from his home in La­gos, Nige­ria. This week­end, he plans to pour him­self a drink and re­con­nect with friends while tun­ing in to some of the vir­tual events.

“I do think it will still evoke some emo­tions,” he said, con­nect­ing with “in­di­vid­u­als who have cho­sen to be part of your life un­til you die.”

TOP: Omega Psi Phi fra­ter­nity mem­bers and alumni dance dur­ing 2016’s Yard­fest at Howard Univer­sity. This year’s home­com­ing fes­tiv­i­ties will be vir­tual. ABOVE: Josh Howard dur­ing Yard­fest in 2016.

PHO­TOS By MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Grant Robertson and Kyla Cole, last year’s Mr. and Miss Howard, wave to spec­ta­tors dur­ing the home­com­ing pa­rade.

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