At H.B.C.U.s, homecoming is part family reunion and part revival. It’s canceled this year, so let’s celebrate here.
Oct. 7, 2020
At historically Black colleges and universities (known as H.B.C.U.s), homecoming is more than a football game.
It’s the brisk fall air that calls for fashionably layered outfits. It’s the smell of barbecue and fried fish at tailgates. It’s the sound of sorority songs and fraternity chants, the vibration of the band as majorette dancers rush onto the field. It’s the feel of Black joy and unity, as crowds of students and alumni sweep across campuses in droves, their school colors emblazoned on their shirts.
And for many alumni like me, it’s fall’s biggest event.
I was first captivated by the experience as a freshman at Howard University. But it wasn’t until my return as an alumna to the Mecca (a nickname for the school adopted by many students) that I appreciated the experience of Black fellowship on a deeper level.
I’ll never forget one moment in particular when, waiting in line for barbecue at a tailgate party in a campus parking lot, I watched a crowd erupt as the D.J. blasted “Swag Surfin” by the Fast Life Yungstaz. In perfect unison, as if they had rehearsed it countless times, hundreds of people locked arms around the shoulder of the person next to them (whether they knew them or not) and dipped from left to right, shouting the chorus at the top of their lungs, all without missing a beat.
It was one of those perfect moments of belonging. I can’t remember if we won or lost the game that year, but like the old Howard saying goes: “We’ve never lost a homecoming!”
This year, festivities at most schools have been canceled because of the pandemic. Some are hosting digital events and virtual performances; others, like Morehouse College, have focused on other kinds of outreach, including voter registration.
A virtual civic event can’t be quite as lively as a normal homecoming, said Joe Carlos, the associate director of alumni engagement at Morehouse, but he hopes it will be just as uplifting. (Morehouse will also stream cooking exhibitions and a few good football games from recent history, Mr. Carlos said.)
“Its going to be different,” he said. “Nothing replaces a hug and that spirit of camaraderie and family, which is what homecoming is about.”
Likewise, the videos, photos and memories of homecomings past that are presented here (many of which were collected from readers) can’t replace the real thing. But we hope you will peruse this digital celebration to mark some semblance of tradition with us.
Sandra E. Garcia contributed reporting
Where Past and Future Collide
The real stars of homecoming aren’t the football players or the step team, the marching band or the drum line (though they’re great). No, the real stars are the H.B.C.U. alumni: Those who trek from distant places to — by their very gathering — collectively acknowledge the power in the consecrated soil of these schools.
For it was white supremacy that required the creation of parallel institutions of higher education. But it was Black ingenuity that transformed them into enduring shrines of excellence and achievement.
All but three H.B.C.U.s were created after the Civil War. Land-grant provisions for racially segregated universities, in accordance with Jim Crow laws and customs, and philanthropy from religious denominations and wealthy benefactors combined to create these universities.
For formerly enslaved Black people, who were previously prohibited by law from reading and writing, literacy was crucial to freedom. Initially, Black colleges offered rudimentary education. But by the early 1900s, nearly all H.B.C.U.s were degree-granting institutions that trained teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and scholars.
It was the students and graduates of these colleges who attended to the mind, body and soul of Black neighborhoods and towns throughout the country. It was these students and alumni who sat-in at lunch counters and engaged in nonviolent direct action, who faced water hoses, jail time and death.
It was these students and graduates who gave voice to the dreams enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, enlivening its meaning with their feet and their voices. Once reviled by public officials and surveilled as dangers to democracy, these graduates were later revered as model American citizens — their past actions, as the late John Lewis (an H.B.C.U. graduate) would say, celebrated as “good trouble.”
In the post-Civil Rights era, there have been questions about the continued necessity of H.B.C.U.s: Now that students can go anywhere, are racially segregated colleges still necessary? As if integration requires the abandonment of Black institutions for white ones. As if Black colleges were merely a place holder until white colleges recognized the value of Black students.
Today, students arrive at H.B.C.U.s having been educated in K-12 schools that have similar levels of segregation to schools before 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. H.B.C.U.s represent less than 10 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities but are responsible for 26 percent of African-American college graduates in the United States and 32 percent of Black students with STEM degrees.
Many of these colleges face serious financial challenges, with nearly 75 percent of their students eligible for Pell Grants; over half of their enrollments are first-generation college students. And still, they are better at retaining low-income and first-generation African-American students than non-H.B.C.U.s.
These schools should and could never be abandoned. The work they do remains vital to Black life and to the nation.
Inspired by the television show “A Different World,” I made the choice in 1991 to attend Prairie View A&M University near Houston. At that time, academically talented Black kids were not encouraged to go to Black schools, so my twin sister and I were pushed toward state flagships and private liberal arts colleges.
One teacher asked how we could ever learn to work with people of different races without going to an “integrated” college.
What that teacher didn’t consider was the fact that we arrived at school that very morning — and every morning for seven years — after an hourlong bus ride from our segregated poor Black neighborhood, and that there was another hourlong trip waiting in the afternoon to take us back across town.
My sister and I were ready to immerse ourselves in an environment where being Black and exceptional were not novelties. We were the youngest and the first of my mother’s six children to go away to college. The whole family prepared for our departure for weeks, pooling their resources to buy the things we would need in the dorms. And we have remained forever grateful. Because the decision to attend Prairie View A&M University changed the trajectory of our lives.
In recent years, Black colleges have experienced a resurgence. One of the contributing factors is the current political climate. Like previous generations of H.B.C.U. graduates, Black students are looking for an oasis free from racial hostilities.
They want to acquire a degree that leads to a satisfying profession and contented life, but they are also interested in avoiding the potential isolation of being one of the few Black kids in class, or constantly combating negative stereotypes about how Black students perform.
H.B.C.U.s are not utopias, of course. They cannot protect Black students from all problems. But much like the canvas tents erected each year for homecoming — under which students and alumni mingle and rekindle old friendships — H.B.C.U.s provide shelter to grow.
Under those tents, generations of Prairie View Panthers or Mississippi Valley Delta Devils or Bethune-Cookman Wildcats communicate the struggles and joys of life in and out of college. There, in deep and rich communion, dancing to music across decades, Black people shake off the never-ending hostilities and microaggressions that commingle with the daily demands of adulthood, to return to the place that affirms our intellect, our brilliance, our worth — no matter what the world outside believes about people who look like us.
These are gatherings that could only be described as part family reunion and part revival.
This year, the pandemic has made gathering unwise when it is needed most. We are without the physical reminder that we need each year, that in the long struggle for civil rights, we will live to see transformation.
The good news is: That transformation is inevitable, because our ancestors left proof — in the form of these colleges.
Homecoming Memories: ‘The Blackest Thing That I Get To Do’
A selection of stories from proud graduates.
Homecoming is a celebration that spans a lifetime — from your student years, well through adult life. My favorite memory is being with close friends at Howard celebrating each other in a place that shaped us into the people we have become.
Senator Kamala D. Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee
H.B.C.U. homecomings and marching bands have always been a part of my life. My parents met in the marching band at North Carolina A&T State University in the 1960s: My dad was the band president and trombone section leader, and my mom was the band secretary and the French horn section leader (and a music major).
In 1976, the year after I was born, my parents participated in A&T’s newly-created alumni band, and marched in the homecoming parade. Fast-forward 20 plus years, and I had the honor of marching in the band alongside my parents — in the clarinet section — as an A&T graduate and an alumna of the marching band myself. We are the first mother/father/child to march in A&T’s alumni band.
My parents ended up marching in 40 consecutive homecoming parades with the alumni band before they decided to “retire” in 2016. I still continue to march. This is a legacy that I am proud of.
Christy A. Walker, Durham, N.C.
North Carolina A&T State University
At Florida A&M University, a big homecoming half time tradition is when individuals and organizations present a “big check” on the field of $25,000 or more. It had always been a dream of mine to give a big check to the school that had given me so much.
Leading up to one homecoming weekend, my husband, Mawuli, secretly raised $30,000 from family and friends for me to donate to FAMU in celebration of the end of my breast cancer radiation treatments. I had chosen to begin my month of treatments a week earlier than my doctor suggested, just so that I could be finished in time to attend homecoming. So, I finished my treatments on October 3 and I headed to Tallahassee the next day.
At the game, when I heard the speaker announce, “the family and friends of Jana Johnson-Davis,” I was completely confused. I then looked at my husband, who smiled and nodded his head, and I began to cry. It was a dream come true, and I couldn’t think of a better place than FAMU’s homecoming to begin my cancer-free journey.
Jana Johnson-Davis, Decatur, Ga.
Florida A&M University
I attended Tuskegee University, graduating in 1987. In 38 years of homecomings I missed only one, in 1983, because my mother passed away.
One year, as we walked through sea of R.V.s, barbecue grills, fish frying, and D.J.’s blasting music, my husband mentioned that the buffet spreads looked amazing. I asked if he wanted some and he said, ‘But do you know these people?’ I said, ‘No, but watch this.’
I introduced myself and let them know that it was my hubby’s first homecoming. They welcomed us with open arms, and piled his plate high with fried fish, barbecue and all of the fixings. My husband, a jaded New Yorker, was amazed at the friendliness, the openness, and the sheer joy of hot fish in a sea of Black folk.
Homecoming is the blackest thing that I get to do each year. It will be missed.
Cassandra Brown, Mableton, Ga.
Homecoming is far more than a singular day or week. It is the physical connective tissue of the legacy and traditions of my college and the men who have come before me. Taking my sons to homecoming was a way to introduce them to that legacy, to observe those traditions and to start the process of Morehouse becoming more than just an idea to them — a living breathing thing, a brotherhood of Black men.
David Thomas, Brooklyn
I attended Howard University, which in our minds, holds the uniquely best H.B.C.U. homecoming that ever existed. Once we turned 40, a group of my 20 closest friends and I gave a joint birthday party to celebrate our milestone during one homecoming weekend. (We also held a party for our 45th, as well as for our 50th.) Our parties are invite only and are free, and we still have a line wrapped around outside the door.
Lynne Braggs, Dallas, Texas
One of my favorite homecoming memories is when I returned to Hampton University in 2019 along with members of the Ebony Fire Dance troupe from 1983 to present in order to honor our founder, Ms. Ann Stephens.
Cynthia Abrams Thomas, Michigan
Howard homecoming 2018 will always be one of my favorites. I hadn’t been to a homecoming in over six years because of work, being a mom, family emergencies, etc. I even missed my ten year reunion.
But that year, the weather was perfect, all of my friends were able to make it and the tailgate was lit! It reminded me of why I chose to attend Howard, to be a part of a dynasty.
Lauren Pedro, New York
Hands down my favorite memory has to be the year my line sisters and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary of joining the first and finest, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., at Virginia State University. We had a chance to sing our sorority songs and step with the other members of our sorority who crossed before and after us. Once we left campus we got dressed and partied the night away. Even dumped the heels for sneakers for the after-after party!
Mahalia Jessup, Washington D.C.
Virginia State University
Homecoming at a historically Black college or university is tradition of Black excellence. It is a legacy that is passed down, generation after generation, and shared with people of all ages and from all around the world. My favorite has to be my 2018 FAMU homecoming experience. Every aspect of that homecoming is something that will feed my soul forever.
It was convocation on Friday morning, where Keisha Lance Bottoms — an alumna and the current mayor of Atlanta — spoke, and generations of Rattlers returned in their “Sunday best,” to honor the institution that has given so much to us. It was the day parties and clubs on Friday night, were professionals took a break from their lives as lawyers, doctors, teachers, accountants and nurses to revel in unrestricted Black joy for a few hours. It was the almost indescribable “Game Day Experience.” And the ocean of Blackness surrounding the football stadiums — where all differences in Black income, nationality, education, region, and religion come together for the sole purpose of Black college football, marching band, tailgating, vending and reverie.
Derrick McMahon, Florida
Florida A&M University
My favorite homecoming memory is the year I brought my former company, Complex, to cover my beloved alma mater’s historic homecoming for the first time! Howard University gave me my start as an on-camera reporter, so when I heard no major pop culture outlets had covered our historic homecoming on video, I had to change that. We were able to bring awareness and appreciation of the H.B.C.U. homecoming tradition to a larger audience.
Sidnee Michelle, New York
In 1995, as a sophomore, I was crowned Miss Howard University. Our homecomings always attract celebrities and that year, guests on the yard included Foxy Brown and Biz Markie. But, the brightest star of them all was a guest of Puff Daddy’s, Biggie Smalls.
I don’t recall how the newly crowned Mister Howard and I happened on Biggie that day, but I do remember how I greeted him. “Hi. I’m Miss Howard,” I said in my most cheery campus queen voice. I don’t recall a real response from the icon, other than a head nod. But that was enough. I’d met Biggie.
A campus newspaper photographer captured the moment. “Ain’t no telling where I may be, may see me in D.C. at Howard homecoming.” Biggie’s appearance on campus that day is now legendary. Over 25 years later, our image is still widely shared. The photo — and the memory — are now a part of Howard homecoming and even more fascinating hip-hop history.
La Chanda Ricks, Houston, Texas
My favorite homecoming was in 1995 when I was Mister Howard and I met Biggie Smalls. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember when they took the pic, (with an actual camera that had film, no cellphone). Indeed, one of the best homecomings in Howard’s great history.
La’Mont Geddis, Washington D.C.
My most memorable H.B.C.U. homecoming experience is coming back shortly after graduating 5 months prior in the spring of 2009. It was the first homecoming where I felt free to strictly celebrate. I got to see members of my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, and even participate in winning the homecoming step show later that night.
Jeeda Barrington, Glenarden, Md.
Bowie State University
My mom returned to Hampton University for homecoming in 1982 to party with me — instead of attending my three brothers’ graduations. I was part of the homecoming royal court and she came for the homecoming court coronation, game and activities. She loved walking the campus and reacquainting herself, meeting my friends and seeing some of her classmates who also returned (Class of ’46). She just passed last week at 95 years old. She would have celebrated her 75th Class Reunion in May 2021. I love having this memory of a fun, shared Hampton homecoming with my beautiful, vivacious mom, Edna Miller Gardner.
Lynn Gardner, Atlanta, Ga.
One of the most memorable was in 2017. It was the 15 year reunion for my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, Delta Iota Chapter at Grambling State University. My soros have grown into beautiful successful women and I realized at that reunion how blessed I was to have this family. As a physician and often the only Black person in the room, having my family — biological and chosen — is everything.
Zanetta Lamar, Naples, Fla.
Grambling State University
I graduated in 2006 but had not attended a homecoming until 2016, a decade later. After having one of the best times of my life, I declared that I wouldn’t miss another. I refuse to miss being reunited with richly educated, like-minded and like-spirited Black people, who hold just as much pride as I do for our alma mater and for our culture.
Shanell Jeffries, Rochester, N.Y.
Norfolk State University
My favorite homecoming experience was in 1976 at Kentucky State University. It was my freshman year. I was a member of the KSU Concert Choir, a choir that had members of the R&B band Midnight Star before they became stars.
I was not the best singer, but was told that I had a good “choir voice.” In other words I was far from a soloist!
Anyway, the guest artist at homecoming that year was Natalie Cole. She was at the beginning of her career and the entire campus was beyond ecstatic that she was coming to our small historically Black college in Frankfort, Ky. Several members of the choir and myself went to Lexington, Ky., to get new clothes. We wanted to be sharp — decked out — and Frankfort did not have a men’s clothing store. The night of the show was thrilling! We sat fairly close to the stage and my roommate swore Natalie winked at him during the show.
Kenney Adams, Brooklyn
Kentucky State University
Howard University’s 2012 homecoming had the most iconic line up at Yardfest including 2 Chainz, followed by Drake who came onstage flexing a red Howard University sweater. His mere presence caused a stampede which sent a few students to the hospital. As the concert continued one could not help but notice the darkening of the sky and the storm clouds that gathered overhead. And as T.I. began to rap, it started to rain. However, the people did not move. Nor did the southern M.C. retreat to find shelter. In T.I. fashion he came and delivered. He left no one disappointed. As Meek Mill grasped the mic it began to pour. A gust of wind blew across the main stage claiming the tent and clearing the stage. People retreated to find cover in Douglass Hall and other buildings. The rain lasted all of 10 minutes. Then people retuned to the Yard, and in Woodstock fashion, made the most of the mud and a good moment.
Anton, Bowie, Md.
I’ve been living on H.B.C.U. campuses almost my entire life. I was raised on the campus of Jackson State University (both of my parents taught there and my brother graduated from there). My parents are Alabama A&M University alums. I graduated from Tuskegee University and North Carolina A&T State University. H.B.C.U.s are in my blood. I never knew to do anything else.
Tamara Y. Washington, Falls Church, Va.
Tuskegee University and North Carolina A&T
My most memorable homecoming moment was at Howard University’s homecoming in 2000, when the rapper Jay-Z gave a surprise performance on the yard.
Mo Shabazz, Austin, Texas
My most memorable H.B.C.U. homecoming moment, hands down, in the 5 years that I attended Tuskegee University, was my very first one. As a freshman football player from Atlanta, I was no stranger to the H.B.C.U. experience. But nothing could have prepared me for that November afternoon in 2010.
The first mention of homecoming came from the older players on the team as they witnessed our awe at the crowd size for the first home game of the season. They all shared the same sentiment with us: ‘If you think this is something, just wait until homecoming.’ And that turned out to be less a game and more a gigantic block party where my teammates and I happened to be playing football in the middle.
On a normal day our stadium is surrounded by grass, but during homecoming you couldn’t see a single blade. Only people, MY People. It was amazing. No animosity, no strife, just fun and a sense of camaraderie unrivaled as the smoke from endless barbecue pits and grills filled the air.
Melvin Hoyer III, Huntsville, Ala.
My most memorable homecoming experience was in 2018 when I returned to campus with my mother. As a 1969 graduate of Spelman, that homecoming ushered in her time as a Golden Girl, a special title reserved for women who graduated 50 or more years prior. It was just beautiful to be on campus with her, taking in the sights and hearing her memories. Whenever I return to Spelman, I feel energized and encouraged. That year was particularly special.
Shaundra Walker, Ga.
My fondest memories as a child were deeply embedded in the spirit of H.B.C.U. pride, tradition and legacy. As a graduate of Florida A&M University, coming back last year with two of my best friends from college was an unforgettable experience, but it wasn’t just about us. We brought along our Rattlers in the making, Jada, Austyn, and Zoe, who were ages 10, 11, and 12 at the time. Once they stepped foot on campus, my niece and my friends’ daughters quickly realized homecoming was a celebration of love, unity, and, most importantly, our Blackness — it’s a sense of community and a safe space that is rich in history and full of culture.
Florida A&M University
Opening video credits: Marvin Price via YouTube, Everlasting Decisions via YouTube, Sports Live Stadium via YouTube, Mfcool Productions via YouTube (step shows), Sports Live Stadium via YouTube, Mike WORLD via YouTube, HBCU Pride Network via YouTube, Kianah Robinson, Cole Mason via YouTube, Getty Images (marching bands)