Student health and safety concerns were at the top of the agenda when a town hall meeting was scheduled to take place Oct. 12 at Howard University’s Blackburn Center. But the administration was a no show.
That set into effect a chain of events leading to what is now nearly a month-long protest, with students participating in sit-ins on the inside and outside of Blackburn Center and refusing to leave until their four-part list of demands were met. The demonstration even went on during Howard’s popular homecoming celebration, the first in-person gathering of the school’s students and alumni since before the pandemic.
With demands still unmet, and students now on day 24 of their protest, the movement has sparked conversations, concern, and controversy in social media and in the national news, highlighting the inequitable funding of HBCUs, housing insecurity and safety among students of color, and questions over the competency of Howard University’s administration. Misinformation has unfortunately also spread about what is actually happening on campus within the Howard community and inside of Blackburn.
Students have a long history of speaking up against the Howard administration with demonstrations occurring as recently as 2016 and 2018. With this marking the fourth protest in President Wayne A.I. Frederick’s tenure alone, I believe student demands are extremely reasonable.
The first demand simply asks President Frederick to follow through on the open forum promised back in October. The second demand seeks to rectify a change in the composition of the Board of Trustees.
The third, which has been reported the most, relates to safe and livable student housing conditions. Howard housing issues are an ongoing problem, often with hundreds of students left to find housing in the expensive Washington, D.C. area with little notice. During my own first semester in Fall 2019, students experienced flooding and rat infestations in dormitories, and moldy and undercooked meat in the dining hall. This year, flooding and rats still plague the dorms, but a neglected black mold issue compounded the health danger, causing some students to cough up blood and become hospitalized.
Finally, students want immunity from expulsion and legal action. The university administration threatened to expel any and all student protestors on the very first day of the protest, followed the next morning by an official email from the Vice President of Student Affairs threatening expulsion of all students who did not vacate by noon.
Despite what we feel are reasonable demands, and a peaceful protest, the administration skirts responsibility and mischaracterizes the protest as disruptive to the functionality and safety of school operations.
The administration’s bullying and gaslighting blames protesters for the layoffs of Blackburn Center employees and disruptions to homecoming festivities. Yet, the decision to close Blackburn activities rests with the administration. Its last minute decision to reinstate homecoming activities despite COVID-19 risks and situate festivities near the center, reeks of desperation to intimidate protestors and uplift Howard’s optics.
I reached out to the administrators to speak with them about the protestors and their demands and none of my requests for comments were answered. And yet, students, alumni, and parents are happy to tell their stories.
Sadirah Williams, the parent of a graduating Senior, describes the way Dr. Frederick has handled the entire situation as “wildly inappropriate and extremely unprofessional.” She said, “As the leader of Howard University, I would expect him to engage both the parents and students with compassion and understanding. Unfortunately, he has taken a bullying approach and it speaks to his lack of leadership.”
Nadiya Blair, a 2021 alumna, said to me, “I commend the bravery of the student protestors who are demanding action to the problems too often swept under the rug at our university. The administration has to see that their current plans and procedures are unsustainable for most college students, but especially students of color.”
What students need now is support from the broader community. They need students, faculty, and administrators from other HBCUs and beyond to condemn the university’s actions. They need continued monetary support, and legal aid (currently being provided by the NAACP).
If supporters are inclined to contribute a few dollars, or physically stand with student protestors, we will be one step closer to forcing the administration to take responsibility for their inaction. And one step closer to ensuring that current and future students at “the Mecca” and other HBCUs can fulfill their potential.
Sarena Straughter is a third-year Howard University Senior majoring in political science and double minoring in Classical civilization and African American studies. She is president of Revolt Inc., a campus community service organization, president of Howard's College of Arts and Sciences Honors Association, and a member of the Howard University Pre-Law Chapter of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, International. Reach her on Instagram at @sarenastraughterrr.
Financial contributions to students can be made to @_thelivemovement on Instagram.