Students involved in the 34-day stand against Howard Univeristy's administration demanding better living conditions. In the twitter post by @Harrietsdream they call out Howard U student and celebrity Nick Cannon for appearing on television to talk about the protest when he was not seen to be actively involved. Photo credit:

Howard U students end successful Blackburn Takeover protest against deplorable living conditions in dorms

5 mins read

University administration and students say terms of agreement are confidential; some demands were not granted.

After 34 days of Howard University undergraduate students occupying the Blackburn University Center on campus, the university and the students reached an agreement. The protest, which became a hashtag, #TheBlackburnTakeover, began on October 12. It is said to be the longest in the university’s history. 

At issue was horrendous conditions in the undergraduate dormitories, according to the students. While Wi-Fi connectivity was a serious problem, at the center of protestors’ charges was that mold was in many of the dormitories along with a rodent and roach infestation in the dining halls.

Apparently, the complaints about living conditions for Howard students have been made off-and-on for years, but some of the complaints were new. University staff who documented the mold, explained that the cause was the result of a flood on campus this past summer. Out of 2,700 rooms, 38 dorms were found to have harmful fungus. So underwhelming were living conditions, in protest, students’ slept in tents outside the student center. 

Howard freshman Kymora Olmo, who was one of the demonstrators, told NBC News that some dorm rooms were cleaned near the end of October, “but at first they [the university] wouldn’t even acknowledge that there was mold in the dorms.”

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Demands in #TheBlackburnTakeover, insisted that the university offer more off-campus housing, as well as, clean up the dorms. Included in their pressured requests for change, they wanted to reinstate student and alumni representation on the university’s board of trustees. The university ended such representation last summer. 

While the details of the agreement between the students and the university administration are being kept confidential, it is known that the students’ demand for affiliate representation on Howard University’s board of trustees was rejected; as was a demand for President Wayne A.I. Frederick. to resign.

Many students were elated that there was finally a resolution to the dispute, but others were concerned that the agreement was confidential.  Howard alumna and journalist Alexa Lisitza tweeted, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m immensely proud of the students who fought for change with the #BlackburnTakeover and love that they were able to finally reach an agreement,” she wrote. “But, that agreement being confidential will make it hard to hold Howard to a standard we know it needs to reach.”

Washington, D.C.-based attorney Donald Temple, who had been a Howard student, worked with the protesters in their negotiations with the university. Temple said at a news conference that notwithstanding the confidentiality of the agreement, “it can be said without any hesitation or reservation that the students courageously journeyed on a path towards greater university accountability and transparency and public safety.”

Howard University marching band performs in the presidential escort to the White House, January 20, 2021 for the 59th Presidential Inauguration in the greater Washington DC area. First Black and Indian U.S. Vice-President, Kamala Harris, is a Howard University alumna. No known remarks by Veep Harris about the Blackburn student takeover have been issued. Photo by Jerry Glaser on wikimedia commons

Airing dirty laundry 

In late October, as the protest gained more attention during the school’s homecoming, President Frederick issued an open letter. He wrote, “while there have only been a small number of documented facilities reports relative to our entire inventory of residence rooms” that university personnel were going to each dorm to inspect conditions. For these affected rooms, Frederick assured that the university would provide whatever remedies were needed to make the students more comfortable.

While leadership conveyed discontent, various Black civil rights leaders backed the Howard protesters. The National Bar Association, an organization of Black judges and attorneys, issued a statement expressing shock over the condition of the dorms and dining areas. Its members said they not only supported the Howard students, but all students attending HBCUs. “Just as our HBCUs demand the best of their students, those institutions must also provide the best service possible to their students. If the reports are accurate, these reported conditions are indeed substandard and simply unacceptable,” the statement read in part.

Derrick Johnson, the NAACP national President and CEO called the students’ demonstration a “courageous act.” Other national and local NAACP officials released statements of unity with the students.

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Interceding in early November, Reverend Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition met with President Frederick and some of the students to discuss the protest. Afterwards, Jackson fell and hit his head as he entered a building on campus. Jackson was taken to Howard University Hospital. He was examined and kept in the hospital overnight for observation. He was released the following afternoon. 

Even dancer, choreographer and actor Debbie Allen and her sister, actor Phylicia Rashad, Dean of the Boseman College of Fine Arts, appeared to disagree about whether the students should have protested. Both are Howard University alumnae. A video was recorded of the sisters responding to reporters’ questions about the protest as they arrived on campus to attend university president Frederick’s state of the university address on November 5. 

“In any country when students don’t speak out, the nation is not doing well,” said Allen. 

Rashad replied to her sister. “When the students do speak out and they have been heard, and their concerns have been addressed and it’s still not enough, what about that?”

“So are their concerns being addressed?” Allen asked, just as Rashad ended the interview. Some students were audible in the background saying that their concerns were not addressed. 

Joining Howard students were other coeds at Historically Black Colleges and Universities who staged demonstrations in a display of solidarity. Among them were students from Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morris Brown College and Morehouse College. Collectively called, The Atlanta Student Movement Takeover, the group wants better student housing, and more federal funding for their schools.

In 1934, Howard University students picketed the National Crime Conference in Washington when the leaders of the conference refused to discuss lynching as a national crime. Photo credit: Library of Congress photo

Student unrest: a tradition of protest

Some HBCU supporters say that situations such as Howard University’s occur due to underfunding. The 101 HBCUs depend on federal funding, state and local funding, donations from alumni, and grants, with the largest percentage coming from Congress. They also depend on tuition. An American Council on Education report released in 2019 says that 54 percent of HBCU’s overall revenue comes from federal, state, and local funding, compared to 38 percent for non-HBCU’s. 

Nonetheless, demonstrations concerning student issues at Howard University are nothing new. In 1997, a young Chadwick Boseman, who went on to star in the Marvel Comic Universe hit film “Black Panther,” was one of many student demonstrators protesting the merging of Howard’s College of Fine Arts and its College of Arts and Sciences. Following Boseman’s death last year from colon cancer, the university reinstated its College of Fine Arts, which it named for Boseman.

In 2018, students occupied the university’s administration building for nine days. They demanded that the university revisit whether campus police should be allowed to carry guns on campus. Other requests called for more student input relative to the selection of a student “ombudsperson” to be placed on the board of trustees. In addition, they asked for a review of the university’s grievance procedure. In the end, the university agreed to most of the demands, while also forming a joint university-student task force which would provide support to students who fear reporting sexual assault incidents.

Students’ latest victory includes a town hall meeting between students and university officials. The meeting is scheduled for March 1, 2022. In addition, students have not given up on their demand for Howard president Frederick to resign.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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