Tuesday, 5 February 2013


It was 1865, and the Civil War had recently ended. General Oliver O. Howard, a White Civil War hero, had been made a commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, whose mission was to integrate freed slaves into Southern society and politics. Gen. Howard established a labor policy that required free slaves to work on former plantation land, under pay scales fixed by the Bureau, and on terms negotiated by the Bureau with White land owners.  The Bureau was primarily responsible for the legal affairs of the freed men. Gen. Howard attempted to protect the Negros from hostile conditions, but lacked adequate power, and was repeatedly frustrated by President Andrew Johnson, who vetoed many of the Bureau’s plans. Gen. Howard's allies, the Radical Republicans, won control of Congress in the 1866 elections and imposed Radical Reconstruction, with the result that freed men were given the vote.

General Oliver Howard

Political cartoon of Pres. Johnson Vetoing
Freedmen's Bureau policies

Anti-Freedman's Bureau advertisement

Radical Republicans of South Carolina

In addition to the vote, General Howard believed that Black people should be educated. He, along with members of the First Congregation Society of Washington DC, considered establishing a theological seminary for the education of African-American clergymen. Within a few weeks, the concept expanded to include a provision for establishing a University, primarily for African-Americans; but open to all races.  In March1867, Howard University’s charter was enacted by Congress; and was somewhat surprisingly, subsequently approved by President Andrew Johnson. Charles B. Boynton served as the first President at Howard, followed by General Howard from 1869 – 1874.

By the time Gen. Howard assumed the Presidency, the University consisted of the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Medicine.   In the early days, The Freedmen’s Bureau provided most of the early financial support of the University. In 1879, Congress approved a special appropriation for the University; and the charter was amended in 1928 to authorize an annual federal appropriation for construction, development, improvement and maintenance of the University.

Howard University Faculty, 1900

J. Stanley Durkee

J. Stanley Durkee, Howard's last White President, was appointed in 1918; and in 1926, when Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Howard’s first Black president, assumed the Presidency, the University was comprised of eight schools and colleges, none of which held national accreditation. The institution’s enrollment during this year stood at 1,700; and its budget at $700,000. By the time President Johnson retired 34 years later, the University boasted 10 schools and colleges, all fully accredited; 6,000 students; a budget of $8 million, the addition of 20 new buildings; and a greatly enlarged faculty that included some of the most prominent Black scholars of the day, including Dr. Charles Drew, who pioneered better ways of transfusing and storing blood, as the Department of Surgery Chair at Howard University College of Medicine.

Dr. Mordecai Johnson with African-American opera singer, Marian Anderson, and others

Dr. Charles Drew (2nd left) with other Howard University Faculty

Today, Howard University has many graduate programs as well, including a School of Business, a School of Law, a College of Medicine, a School of Communications, a College of Engineering, Architecture, and Computer Sciences, as College of Dentistry and School of Divinity.  

Howard University has played an important role in American history and the Civil Rights Movement on a number of occasions. Alain Locke, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and first African-American Rhodes Scholar, authored The New Negro, which precluded the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance.

Alain Locke
Beginning in 1942, Howard University students pioneered the "stool-sitting" technique, which was to play a prominent role in the later Civil Rights Movement. By January, 1943, students had begun to organize regular sit-ins and pickets at cigar stores and cafeterias around Washington, D.C. which refused to serve them because of their race. These protests continued until the administration asked the students to stop in the Fall of 1944. Stokely Carmichael, a student in the Department of Philosophy and the Howard University School of Divinity coined the term "Black Power" and worked as a voting rights activist.

Stokely Carmichael on the cover of EBONY magazine

In 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy spoke at Howard during his Presidential campaign, highlighting the future of African-Americans under his (hopeful) Presidency. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech to the graduating class at Howard, where he outlined his plans for Civil Rights legislation and endorsed aggressive affirmative action to combat the effects of years of segregation of African-Americans from economic progress.

John F. Kennedy speaking at Howard University

Thank you telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Lyndon B. Johnson

In 1989, Howard gained national attention when students rose up in protest against the appointment of then-Republican National Committee Chairman, Lee Atwater, as a new member of the University's Board of Trustees. Student activists staged a protest and occupied the University's Administration building. Within days, both Atwater and Howard's President, James E. Cheek, had resigned.

One of the more recent Howard University Presidents was H. Patrick Swygert, from 1995 to 2008.  He was a 1965 Howard University, and well as a Howard University Law School graduate; and for most of his tenure, he was extremely popular. However, in April 2007, it seemed time to inject new life into the University, as it had been suffering administrative and financial problems. So, President Swygert retired in 2008. 

President Swygert with President Obama

His successor was Dr. Sidney A. Ribeau, who remains as the 16th President, today. He has made some changes; but all for the good, as Howard continues to thrive. 

Dr. Sidney Ribeau

Of course, it’s not all about the academics.  To name a few extra-curricular activities on offer, there are several sororities and fraternities, NCAA sports programs, The Howard University "Showtime" Marching Band and The Hilltop, founded in 1924 by Howard University student and celebrated, Harlem Renaissance author, Zora Neale Hurston, is the nation's only HBCU daily newspaper, and still going strong.

The most recent US News & World Report’s College and University Ranking places Howard as the #2 HBCU in the country. Between1998 and 2009, Howard University produced a Marshall Scholar, two Rhodes Scholars, two Truman Scholars, twenty-two Fulbright Scholars and ten Pickering FellowsHoward also produces more on-campus African-American Ph.D. degrees than any other university in the world.

In addition to aforementioned alumni, Howard boasts a very long list of esteemed alumni – so long, that I have only chosen a few to name: choreographer, actress and singer, Debbie Allen; the first Nigerian President, Nnamdi Azikiwe; attorney, Vernon Jordan; Dr. LaSalle LeFall, the first Black President of the American Cancer Society; Thurgood Marshall, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice; Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison; and American actress and singer, Phylicia Rashad.

Nigerian President, Nnamdi Azikiwe

Toni Morrison

Phylicia Rashad

There is always something happening on Howard’s beautiful 254-acre campus (click here to see a 3-minute tour).    

Rest assured that its graduates will continue to make a huge impact in Washington DC, across the country and across the globe.

Howard University graduation, 2012

Sources:  US News & World Report, Wikipedia, Howard University, Google Images

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