Reaffirming Howard University’s Excellence
President Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA
Hello everyone. It is my distinct pleasure to serve as the 154th Charter Day Convocation speaker. This year’s commemoration comes at a critical time in our nation’s history and our University’s evolution. To lead our institution and our society forward into the future, it is vital that we understand our present moment in the context of the history from which we came.
In the 12 months since Charter Day last year, our world has changed dramatically – certainly for the worse, but also for the better.
The coronavirus pandemic has now killed more than 500,000 Americans, claiming lives across the country and from every strata of society. But, of course, not every community has been affected equally. African-American people are still more than twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than our white neighbors. This disparity helped lay bare the inequities and injustices communities of color have been experiencing for generations – inside health care centers, at the hands of law enforcement, by the criminal justice system. So many social institutions that are supposed to exist for our benefit have, in actuality, been complicit in our disadvantage.
But despite all of the ills, shortcomings and failures that the pandemic has revealed, from within this current crisis has emerged one of our greatest symbols of hope: Kamala Harris’ ascent to the White House.
By examining the connection of these two events – the coronavirus pandemic and the election of Kamala Harris – we can see why Howard University’s charter continues to be so very relevant today.
A consequential part of Kamala Harris’ story as the first Black and first female vice president of the United States begins on March 2, 1867, thanks to the actions of one man who happened to be an open racist and misogynist.
Howard’s founding charter was signed into law by Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, who was dedicated to the idea of an America that operated only for the benefit of one class of people. President Johnson opposed the 14th Amendment that granted citizenship to African-Americans as well as the Freedman’s Bureau and the first Civil Rights Act. And on the same day he signed Howard’s charter, he also vetoed the first Reconstruction bill.
Attached to President Johnson’s signature is a legacy of disenfranchisement as his actions and inactions helped calcify a society in which Black people continued to be treated as unequal, despite the ending of slavery.
And yet, his signature also helped create an institution that would educate and spark the journey of the first Black woman to reach the White House, the very building from which he actively tried to deny her rights and diminish her standing in society.
Through its charter and its location in Washington, D.C., Howard has retained a strong connection to our federal government from its founding to the present day. Yes, government is messy. But our University is proof that it works. Howard as an institution is a testament to the good that can come from working within the system. Even if that system does not always seem to exist on our behalf, we can use its raw materials to change our fortunes for the better.
While it is certainly surprising that President Johnson should play such a critical role in Kamala Harris’ election, it is entirely unsurprising that the first African-American female vice president in our nation’s history would come by way of Howard University.
That a Black woman and a white man would join the same presidential ticket would not have been unimaginable for the founders of Howard University, either. Howard has always been dedicated to the proposition of educating all people and fostering collaboration between people of different backgrounds. Two people, of difference races, ethnicities and genders, sharing the mantle of power in America was precisely what our founders envisioned when they lobbied Andrew Johnson to sign the charter that brought Howard to life – even if he didn’t recognize what exactly he was helping bring into existence or how it would change the course of America’s future.
Howard was created out of a very real need to educate the freed slaves moving from the South to the North and empower Black people with knowledge and skills to participate more fully in American society and our national economy. But Howard has always been focused on being much more than just that.
Our charter specified that Howard was going to be a “university” from the very beginning – not just a seminary, not just a college, but a full-fledged university with multiple colleges and numerous disciplines. Within a year of the charter’s signing, Howard even created a medical school. Clearly, Howard was intended to be a place where students could come to get an education – not just a degree. To go out into society and act in accordance to the standards of Howard University, it was important that our students gained more than just technical expertise. They needed to be awakened to their mission in life and charged with the knowledge to pursue their purpose.
Howard and other HBCUs that were sprouting up at the time were the only places that Black people could come to get this sort of education. Over time, as other universities began to open their doors to African-American students, HBCUs have continued to play a critical role in the education of the Black community.
When Vice President Harris chose to come to Howard in the 1980s, it was for the same reason many students have been coming to our University for generations and why they still continue to come today: After attending majority-white schools for the first 18 years of her life, she wanted the experience of attending “a Black school.”
At the Mecca, no one tells our students what they can’t do; on the contrary, we surround them with the narrative of Black excellence so that they may be inspired to pursue greatness, pushed to accept social responsibility and driven to develop the confidence needed to change the world. When Harris matriculated to Howard, she set aside the burden of lowered expectations placed upon her and other minorities of color in the American educational system and stepped onto the shoulders of generations of Black trailblazers and changemakers. It is this legacy of greatness and service that led Harris to the White House and propels so many Howard graduates to make our country a better place.
At Howard, excellence is expected – it’s not the exception. We make sure to provide our students with the experience they need to excel. But we also work to cultivate within them the confidence needed to succeed once they leave the sanctuary of Howard’s campus and return to the wider world outside our walls. Most importantly, we teach our students to take Howard with them when they leave our halls and to feel the support of the Howard community at their backs as they go through their life’s journey.
The “Blackness” of Howard is meant to convey a sense of pride and responsibility – not exclusivity. Howard is not a “Black school” the way so many institutions of higher learning in the 19th century were reserved only for white men. It is not now, nor has it ever been, an institution that places restrictions based on superficial characteristics. Just as we in the Black community want equal access and opportunity in our country, so too must we grant that at Howard. The very complaints that we lob at the world at large can find no comfort or compassion within our University. We always must strive to be better than, never equal to, the culture that has failed to meet our expectations and needs as a community.
Interestingly, Howard’s creation is due in large part to the work of white men. Its namesake and third president, Oliver Otis Howard, was a white general in the Union Army who helped create the Freedmen’s Bureau, an institution that helped freed slaves after the Civil War. Howard’s original Board of Trustees was comprised primarily of white men. But these individuals always believed they were creating an institution for all people. From its very beginning, the halls of Howard were open to anyone, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity or religion. In fact, at a time when few women were allowed to pursue higher education, four of the original trustees sent their daughters to study at Howard.
Howard’s Blackness and its embodiment of a more perfect America has less to do with demographics and more to do with values. It is not our ratio of Black students to white students that encapsulates our vision for what America should be – but rather it is our abiding principle that every person, regardless of their background, should have equal access to critical opportunities and the freedom to receive an education needed to pursue their life’s purpose. By focusing on Black people, men and women who have long been discounted, discluded and disqualified from so many aspects of American life, we are signaling our openness to and tolerance for all.
Howard has always been a mecca for those who could not find education elsewhere. From its very beginning, Howard let in women, both white and Black, who were barred from attending other institutions. Jewish refugees who fled persecution in Europe were turned away from most American colleges and universities when they reached our country’s shores; they only found the America they were promised, one of sanctuary and acceptance, upon arriving at Howard and other HBCUs. In the 1940s, Howard’s medical and dental schools accepted and matriculated Jewish students who were otherwise denied admission at many other institutions across the nation.
Howard has always been one of the few places that actually embodied the ideals of equality and freedom that America has conveyed to the rest of the world. Since the 19thcentury, Howard has been preaching and practicing diversity, equity and inclusion and showing the potential our country possesses if it could only adopt those principles.
From the ashes of the Civil War, Howard was called into existence within our nation’s capital to envision a new order of America, one that was refashioned on the ideals of freedom and equality for all people. For this new America to come to fruition, it was Howard’s unique duty to embody those ideals and disseminate them to all corners of our country. Howard was created to be a microcosm of America – if not what it was then, at least what it could one day aspire to be.
Of course, Howard’s founding did not usher in a new era of racial harmony in a fully equal American society. The Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 are an indication that many of the problems that compelled Howard into existence almost 154 years ago are still very much with us today.
Howard has a distinct duty and capability to shine a light of hope. Despite the Black community’s history of enslavement and injustice in a country defined on the proposition of liberty and justice for all, it is Howard’s responsibility to reconcile the American paradox. While we can never disentangle the deeply woven contradictions at our nation’s roots, we can still hope to realize America’s founding ideals for all people. Our historic responsibility, enshrined in our University’s founding, fuels our present-day mission to cultivate forward-thinking leaders who elevate the truth and dedicate themselves to service in order to better our country.
It’s no surprise that HBCUs have such a strong history of cultivating leaders in America. Many of our students, faculty and staff come from underprivileged and under-resourced communities. They understand the problems of our society and understand they are fortunate enough to receive an education and be in a position to do something about the issues around them. Students are seeing all that is wrong with our society – from the pandemic and health care inequities to police murders and systemic racism – and they want to come to Howard to learn how they can be leaders who work on these issues.
Howard has always existed at the nexus of America’s pain and its promise. We were planted intentionally close to the government that had both allowed our enslavement and granted our freedoms in order to hold America to account for the wrongs it committed and to insist on its reformation going forward. Our mission has always been to elevate and insist on the truth and to use that truth as a guardrail toward progress.
On Charter Day this year, we should pause to remember the great romance between Howard and America. Certainly, there is a great tension in that love affair, and plenty of contradictions that are embedded into our founding charter. We were given life by a president who was committed to limiting our freedoms and our rise in society. We are a Black institution that is open to any person regardless of the color of their skin. It is our everlasting duty to embrace that complexity, never to shrink away from it.
We have a responsibility of service to America, a country that has not always served our best interests. We are committed to combining America’s hallowed ideals with the truth about its flaws to mold a better nation and a more equal society. From the horrors of the Civil War, Howard saw the potential of America. Howard did not retreat from this country but decided to reside within it in order to change it from the inside.
When our beloved alumnus, actor Chadwick Boseman, died in August 2020 from colon cancer, our grieving community resurrected the call of “Howard Forever.” The debut of the “Black Panther” movie in 2018 immediately drew comparisons between Wakanda, the fictional African country and home of Boseman’s character T’Challah, and Howard, Boseman’s real-life Alma Mater. To many, Wakanda evoked the essence of Howard, a safe and comfortable environment for Black people to explore their identity and the full extent of their powers and abilities. The “Wakanda Forever” salute from the fictional world became enshrined in reality as “Howard Forever.”
While there are certainly similarities between Wakanda and Howard, there is a crucial difference as well. Where Wakanda is depicted as prosperous because it exists in Africa, far away from the systemic racism of America, Howard was founded to be a part of America – not to be separate from it.
So it should stand as no surprise that a university chartered by the federal government has produced it’s most diverse leader. Vice President Kamala Harris represents the flowering of Howard’s vision for America, if not its culmination or ultimate fruition. A better America is still ripe for harvesting, and we must realize this opportunity to bring it forward.
For Howard to fulfill its destiny of creating a more just, more tolerant and more equal America, we must work to achieve these same standards within our own institution.
Our University has never been perfect. It wasn’t until 1926 that Howard finally had a Black president presiding over our institution – up until that point, all of our presidents had been white men. In fact, our University has had more white men serve as president than Black men.
And still to this day, we have never had a woman occupy the office of Howard’s presidency, even though the majority of our student body is female.
So as we clamor for greater diversity in the world at large, we cannot overlook our own shortcomings. Clearly, we have more work to do to ensure the leadership of Howard looks more like the people it represents. We have to make sure that we have built a tolerant home for all minority groups, no matter their religion, sexual preference or gender affiliation.
We also have to do more to tolerate and encourage a diversity of thinking and ideas. Clearly, when the 17 founders of Howard were working on our University’s charter, their ideas and vision did not represent the majority opinion. They certainly did not represent the beliefs of the president of the United States at the time. And yet, they did not refuse to work with him. They did not refuse to have conversations with him. If they had walled themselves off from those with whom they disagreed, then we never would have had a Howard University.
We have to do more to foster a culture where conversations can be had among people who do not see eye to eye on every issue. We should approach each new person we meet not with a desire to have them reaffirm what we think we already know, but with a thirst for them to teach us something new.
At the core of Howard’s essence is a DNA consisting of two strands. One of those strands is diversity. Not only have we worked to achieve greater diversity in society at large on behalf of African-Americans. But we have also sought to embody diversity within our own institution in order to demonstrate the heights that a diverse and equal society can achieve.
The other strand of Howard’s DNA is social justice. For 154 years, Howard has been leading the caravan of social justice issues in America. Right now, in the wake of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others, more people and institutions than ever before have joined that caravan.
But as time goes on, we will discover that not everyone currently aboard the caravan thinks the same way or holds the same views. We should strive to keep as many of them on board for as long as possible rather than throwing them overboard because they do not adhere to our exact idealogy.
As our country is finally reckoning with systemic racism and seeking to have conversations about how to end it, HBCUs and Howard in particular are being thrust into the spotlight. More and more, the media and our country seem to be seeking our ideas, our thought leadership and our perspectives.
Since we know that not everyone currently aboard our caravan will be with us for the duration of the journey, we have to take advantage of their current presence and focus to initiate and enshrine systemic and social changes.
Throughout the pandemic, we have continued to call out inequity and injustice, while always making sure to include solutions along with our criticisms. Our research and scholarship gives life to the narratives that change societies. For the Black Lives Matter movement to take hold of our national discourse, the protests needed to be supported by data. Cries of injustice continue to rise when they soar on the wings of research and fact. What for so long had been discounted, can no longer be disputed thanks in part to our persistence in elevating the truth.
Particularly during the pandemic, when historic distrust for institutions like the medical establishment, government and law enforcement have been on full display, the Black community has reinforced its trust in HBCUs. We have been leading institutions advocating for the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging African-American men and women to get vaccinated safely.
HBCUs have always played an important role in the Black community, we have always contributed to the greater society, and, more and more, we are being recognized for our outsized contributions toward creating a more just, equitable and fair America.
From a small piece of paper, Howard has risen to become a monumental institution.
Andrew Johnson, who helped Howard become a reality with one stroke of his pen, would never have anticipated what we would have become. But those who have called The Howard University home have always recognized our greatness and our potential to be even greater.
We have transformed from an institution to educate former enslaved people to an institution that educates future vice presidents. And we have shown that a single mission enshrined in our founding charter can encompass both of those goals.
Never before has the founding of our University been so in step with the present moment. Of course, we recognize that our vision for what we could be will always outpace our reality for what we are. But without compromising our hopes and our dreams, we must continue to push our lived reality closer and closer to our hopes and aspirations, until, one day, they will finally meet.