It’s Homecoming season at Howard University, but there’s a noticeable difference on the HBCU campus this year. Students line up under canopies offering free pizza, hot cocoa and snacks. Others huddle together under blankets to watch a documentary projected onto a portable screen. But these activities are not a part of the annual HBCU celebration. Students are camping out in an ever-growing tent city, directly in front of Howard’s student union, the Armour J. Blackburn Center, one of the bedrocks of campus life.
This tent city is the most visible part of what has been dubbed by student organizers as the #Blackburntakeover, a now weeklong sit-in which extends from the tent city to the interior of the Blackburn Center where over 100 undergraduate and some graduate students have set up air mattresses and other overnight gear in their effort to remain comfortable while they stay put until their grievances about housing conditions and student representation on the board of trustees are met. This sit-in began after a failed town-hall last Tuesday night when no invited members of administration showed up to hear the student’s grievances.
The student organizers focused on three original demands: an in person town-hall with Howard University President Dr. Wayne Frederick, the reinstatement of student, alumni and faculty trustee positions which were eliminated last year, and a meeting to propose a housing plan to protect future incoming classes.
Howard University traditionally had three affiliate board of trustee positions: student, alumni and faculty. Affiliate board members, like student trustees, are holdovers from the 1960s and ‘70s when many universities experienced mass uprisings during the counterculture, anti-war, and anti-racism movements that demanded expanded student and faculty representation in decision making.These three affiliate positions were unanimously voted away during one of the board's quarterly meetings over summer 2021. That decision was met with pushback and petitions from multiple undergraduate and graduate school groups, such as the Howard Young Democratic Socialists of America as the Fall semester began with students arguing that the loss of these trustee positions left them without proper voting representation.
A student who is currently occupying the Blackburn Center and wishes to remain anonymous, stated over the phone, “I am participating in the Blackburn Takeover because I am unwilling to wait for the administration to decide when to care about the health, safety and representation of the student body.” They continued, “It’s time to take power into our own hands and demand that our administration listen to our grievances for not only ourselves, but for future Bison.”
Of all of their demands, it’s the conditions in many student housing facilities that has inspired students to mobilize on campus and social media. One freshman, who also wishes to be anonymous, stated that the housing conditions were “deplorable” and they felt “students need representation in decision making so that the lifestyle we pre-pay for is actually promised to us. Freshmen were promised housing, but there are some with none, or if they have it, it’s disgusting.” According to protestors, homelessness is a concern as Howard has ushered in some of its largest incoming Freshmen classes in 2021 in the University’s history without the promise of guaranteed housing for all of them. Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Cynthia Evers disputed this claim in an October 13 email to students, stating: “Our current occupancy rate in student housing is 94%. There is no housing shortage.”
According to students present outside of the Blackburn Center, the administration responded to student occupation first with a verbal threat of expulsion and then in the same October 13 email to students from Dr. Evers, in which Dr. Evers alleged “multiple violations of the Student Code of Conduct,” including vandalism, “disorderly or disruptive conduct,” and stated students will “face consequences up to and including expulsion from the University.” Students then added a fourth demand: academic and legal immunity from any alleged violations incurred during the sit-in.
Dr. Evers, however, did acknowledge in the email a “mold issue” that she characterized as “not widespread.” Yet viral videos of the alleged building conditions have been shared on social media, including one apparently taken in the men’s dorm Charles C. Drew Hall, depicting a cluster of roaches in the shower. Other videos on Tik Tok catalog apparent mold, mildew, and mushrooms in dorms, on students’ items, and behind paintings hung on the walls. On Thursday, October 14th, a student spoke over a cell-phone held to a megaphone to express “I am paying Howard University to make me sick,” referring to the moldy rooms. Dr. Evers' October 13 email stated that the University has "held the third-party vendor fully accountable, and they are conducting mold remediation and HVAC duct cleaning throughout the impacted rooms and throughout the buildings."
The response from administration has varied. On the first night of the protest, the metropolitan police department was called into the lobby of the Blackburn Center as seen in a video posted to Twitter account @HarrietsDreams. A representative from the student housing offices visited to inform students that (although there are videos of apparent mold, mildew, and mushrooms in the dorms) the University contends it is not black mold. Later, a fire alarm was pulled in what many students believe was a false alarm attempting to drive them out of the building.
Last Wednesday, in response to students originally occupying a lobby area of Blackburn, protestors allege that the university closed the entire building — including the two eateries located in the basement, COVID testing stations located in the back of the first floor, and students offices in the halls of the ground level. Howard’s police force and security contractors have been positioned at every exit with constantly changing policy over whether or not students can leave with guaranteed reentry.
Some responses from administration have been far less tense. At 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, Dr. Frederick, along with several administrators, including Dr. Evers, and Executive Vice President Tashni-Ann DuBroy, agreed to meet with a select number of student leaders including a representative from The Live Movement organization, the president of the HUSA students senate and a reporter from The Hilltop student newspaper. During this hour-long meeting, as reported by The Hilltop, Dr. Frederick agreed to one of the demands: continuous meetings regarding the housing plan for future classes. The Hilltop reports that Dr. Frederick further confirmed that the University was cleaning mold from the dorms, starting in Drew Hall and moving throughout campus. The Hilltop reports that he also confirmed that no vandalism actually occurred in the student union and that students peacefully entered the building during operating hours. The Hilltop also reports that he committed to sending an email amending the accusatory language from Dr. Evers. As of today, a week after the meeting, Howard students have yet to receive the amended email.
Despite adhering to some demands, Dr. Frederick did not agree to all of the student demands. He voiced discomfort at the idea of an in-person town hall due to fears of “escalations he has seen in the past,” according to The Hilltop. As for the final two demands, he did not promise reinstatement of the affiliate board members and claimed that academic and disciplinary immunity was a matter for the existing board to vote on.
There have also been responses from other Howard affiliate groups, including the faculty senate who issued an email on October 13th stating they “hope there is no…retaliation directed toward student participants or their supporters.”
Howard University is no stranger to sit-ins and protests. The #Blackburntakeover sit-in comes three years after the nine day #HuResist sit-in that shut down the administrative building over demands related to scandals in the financial aid department. Famously, in 1968, Howard University students occupied the administrative building for four days of negotiations to establish Black studies in the university and call for the resignation of board members they found problematic. As the #Blackburntakeover continues, it has become one of the longest sit-ins in the university’s history.
We have reached out to Howard University and have not yet received a response.
**Michelle H. is a pseudonym of a current Howard University graduate student reporting from campus**