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Howard University issues gain national attention

DFW Area Student Leading Protest

DFW Area Student Leading Protest

A movement to address poor housing conditions in dorms at the elite historically Black Howard University in the nation’s Capitol has gained the following of a U.S. Congresswoman and longtime civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley
Rep. Ayanna Pressley

The Rev. Jackson and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, (D-Mass.), one of Massachusetts’ most high-profile politicians, became the latest public figures to express concerns over a two-week long impasse between Howard students and the university’s academic leaders. 

“We’re interested in the plight of our children at Howard,” said Jackson during a media conference hosted by Howard University NAACP on Friday to update news outlets on the status of negotiations between Howard’s leadership and student protesters.

Howard is a 150-year-old private Historically Black University in Washington, D.C., It’s teaching hospital and other professional schools graduate a noticeable percentage of the nation’s African American physicians, lawyers, journalists, and actors. Vice President Kamala Harris is a notable graduate. 

Interest in the well-being of Howard and its students is broad among politicians, health science leaders, tech companies and big business because the college is among the few historically black “R2 Doctoral Research” institutions in the U.S. and, as such, produces considerable research in areas addressing the social justice and the political and health conditions of Black people. 

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Jesse-Jackson
Rev. Jesse Jackson

Friday, Jackson said the Howard protesters “represent a voice that must be heard, whether it’s at Howard or Mississippi Valley or Tougaloo…or Hampton.” 

He said the protesters had raised issues about housing infrastructure that went beyond Howard, but were part of a history of Congressional underfunding at HBCUs and colleges in general.

“It’s Howard, but it’s not just Howard,” he said. “It’s Congress. We’re building new jails, while not investing in the nation’s schools.

Jackson, who has Parkinson’s, was released just last month from a Chicago-area rehabilitation facility after he and his wife contracted the COVID-19 virus.

The civil rights activist said he supported addressing the students’ grievances and would tour buildings on the Howard campus in person on Saturday, Oct. 30, to better understand how widespread students’ complaints of mold, water leaks and rodents are on the 150-year-old revered private college campus.

President Frederick
President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick

Jackson also said he had spoken Wednesday with the Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick regarding, among other things, plans to discipline protesting students, who have staged a two-week sit-in at one of the university’s administration buildings.

“I made it very clear I’m concerned that students…should not be punished,” he said. 

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Howard administrators could not be reached immediately by phone for comment.

In an open message sent to parents via email earlier this week, Dr. Frederick said 

“The occupation of the Blackburn Center must end.”

“Protest has been a perennial part of our institutional culture,” Dr. Frederick wrote in the letter to parents, which has circulated among others, including the media. “Past and present Bison, motivated by concern for others, have used their platforms as student leaders, to call for change from institutional leadership.”

However, Dr. Frederick wrote “Howard University’s proud tradition of student protest has never been – and can never be – invoked as a justification for tactics that harm our students. 

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“The current occupation of the Armour J. Blackburn Center is a departure from past norms. There is a distinct difference between peaceful protest and freedom of expression and the occupation of a university building that impedes operations and access to essential services and creates health and safety risks.”

Meanwhile, Howard student protesters welcomed the support from Jackson and Pressley.

Channning Hill with champ
Channing Hill with champ

Channing Hill, a junior from Bedford, Tex. and president of the Howard NAACP branch, said Jackson’s alliance with the students was “a morale booster.” 

She said Pressley had visited earlier in the week with student protesters.

“You can’t expel a Congresswoman from our building,” said Hill, a Strategic Legal and Management Communications major and one of the leaders of the protest. 

“You can’t retaliate against Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.”

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The student protests began on Oct. 12. At that time, about 50 Howard students began a rotation of sitting on the second floor inside the Armour J. Blackburn University Center. 

Within days, allies of the students – alumni, local restaurant owners and student-serving business owners – had joined the protesters and pitched tents outside of the Blackburn building. 

The allies are providing sleeping bags, food, water and personal supplies to the protesters. 

The students staged the sit-in to call attention to mold, rodent infestation, leaky water pipes and other issues inside Howard’s dorms. 

They said Howard’s leadership had not acted urgently enough to address the issues this semester before some students fell sick. Further, they said, administrators had failed to act with urgency on a long-standing problem of insufficient university housing for juniors and seniors: Upper level students were being forced to find their own housing within the uber-expensive District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia areas, they said.

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Among the protesters other concerns are:

  • Restoral of affiliate seats for students, alumni and faculty on Howard’s board of trustees. Howard eliminated the positions earlier this summer saying, among other things, the board’s size was too large.
  • Immunity, or amnesty, from disciplinary action for protesters
  • An in-person town hall with Dr. Frederick

This week, tensions escalated between protesters and administrators. 

An attorney representing the protestors said communications with administrators had broken down after he asked Howard’s leadership to sign an “amnesty agreement” guaranteeing the Howard students would not face suspension or expulsion.

“The objective of the amnesty agreement is to ensure that they are not suspended, expelled and their scholarships taken away,” said Donald Temple, attorney for the students who also is a Howard alumnus.

Temple said Howard leaders, including President Frederick, declined to sign the agreement and insisted they would not speak with the protesters until they left the Blackburn building and discontinued speaking with news media.

“They’ve gone from not negotiating to not communicating,” said Temple, who also represented a group of Howard students who staged a similar protest in 2018.

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Temple said the university leadership’s decision was disappointing because the protest leaders, all students between the ages of 19 and 21 years old, were “incredible young women” with reasonable demands to address housing needs far into the future.

“They’re not asking for themselves,” he said, adding that protestors hope the administration would “put in place (a housing plan) for future students.”

Hill, a junior honor student who graduated from Euless’ Trinity High School, said administrators’ emphasis on retaliation against individual protesters and their seeming disinterest in negotiating a long-range student housing agreement was disheartening.

She said the Howard NAACP on Friday had issued a “vote of no-confidence” in the administration of Dr. Frederick, whom she said had refused three times this week to meet with her and other student leaders.

“The pressure is increasing on the students,” said Hill, a 20-year-old strategic legal and management communication major. 

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“They said ‘We will look at …an amnesty agreement if you stop talking to the press’,” but, she said, “the only protection we have is our voices and our bodies in this building.”

Instead, Hill said, university administrators indicated to their attorney Donald Temple, himself a Howard alumnus, that they would suspend or expel the protesters unless the undergraduates abandoned their two-week long occupation of the Blackburn Center. 

Hill said the students would not be leaving the building without an amnesty agreement. “A signature will get us out of the building,” she said. 

Hill said the situation on the college campus is a serious health risk.

In September, Howard students began circulating now viral images on their social media platforms showing mold growing in vents and walls in their campus dormitories. One image is water puddling in a dorm hallway. Another shows water leaks from dorm pipes. The images have led to the now viral #BlackburnTakeover. 

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Since Oct. 12, protesting students have refused to leave the Blackburn Center, and other community stakeholders have joined their protest, pitched tents and are living in them just outside of the Blackburn Center.

The graphic images of students living in tents on the concrete grounds of the campus have garnered the attention of Martin Luther King III, celebrity rapper Gucci Mane, students on other historically Black college campuses and a growing number of media outlets including Black Star Network, NNPA, NBC Today.com, CNN, BET and #RolandMartinUnfiltered.

Friday, Jackson indicated that he, too, had been told by Dr. Frederick that protesting students must face disciplinary actions.

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