It’s been 24 years since Azikiwe DeVeaux graduated from Morgan State University, but he still makes it a mission to attend its homecoming celebration each year.
The New York City native likes to build on the fond memories he made as a transfer student more than two decades ago at the Baltimore-based university, a member of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.
“At an HBCU, you create these friendships that become like your cornerstone as you navigate through life,” said DeVeaux, 47, of Mount Washington. “In the real world, you are oftentimes outnumbered. Your HBCU family are people who can relate, they can be that anchor for you in a storm, and it is also reminiscent of a time when you didn’t have certain pressures.”
Homecoming at Morgan State University is the culmination of all the deeply nostalgic feelings of college for DeVeaux, who likens it to an annual family reunion.
“It’s more about a flashback to a great time when we were able to have the luxury of figuring ourselves out and feeling a sense of pride in who we are and getting the opportunity to debunk stereotypes and to define ourselves and not be defined by the court of popular opinion,” he said.
More than a football game
Homecoming at a historically black college is more than a football game. It represents an opportunity to see familiar faces and new ones. The day also offers the promise of a safe space where Blackness is celebrated and where strangers become immediate family, according to alumni and other attendees. And the event is a chance for the institution to raise money while showcasing its best and brightest, from famous alumni to current students.
The tradition of the HBCU homecoming has been captured in popular culture throughout the years, from TV’s “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” during the 1980s and ’90s to Notorious B.I.G. rapping about “Howard Homecoming” in the mid- to late-’90s and Beyoncé’s 2019 “Homecoming” concert film, featuring her performance at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Vice President Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University, has called HBCUs “a cathedral of education.”
“The value of this education is that it teaches you something very special — that yes, you can be anything and do anything,” she said at Tennessee State University’s commencement last May.
The event can span a weekend to an entire week, and typically attracts thousands of alumni and visitors alike.
Sea of orange and blue
At Morgan State, Homecoming Day draws upwards of 15,000 people to the campus. The event this week includes a parade and a Saturday football game.
The university becomes a “sea of orange and blue,” with most of the attendees wearing Morgan State apparel, according to Natasha Williams, Morgan State’s interim associate vice president for student affairs. Fraternity and sorority members will pepper the wave of blue and orange with colors of their respective organizations.
“It is truly a family reunion. People from the class of 1953, 1993 and their grandkids are here. It bridges the gap. We have a host of different activities that they can find on campus that day,” said Williams.
And homecoming can also result in a financial boon for the university.
In 2020 and 2021, alumni giving increased around Morgan State homecoming during the second quarter by 23.7% and 100.4% respectively when compared to the first quarter. So far in 2022, the school has already seen an increase in alumni giving of about 23% leading up to homecoming weekend. The annual homecoming gala has generated $370,000 in revenue this year, which is 28% more than was raised in 2021 and 42% more than was raised in 2020 when it was virtual, according to Dell Jackson, public relations director for Morgan State University.
“The spirit of homecoming ignites a renewed interest in alma mater,” Jackson said. “Not only is it a wonderful opportunity to come back and reengage with old friends and show school and class sprit, it is also a great opportunity for universities to reconnect and create avenues and opportunities for reinvestment.”
Unique Black culture experience
While homecomings at predominantly white colleges and universities tend to focus on the football game, tailgating, the rekindling of friendships, excitement and rivalry, HBCUs take additional steps to stand out, according to Marybeth Gasman, an HBCU historian and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education at Rutgers University.
“HBCU homecomings include all of those same elements, even if football isn’t present. But they go beyond the traditions and excitement of majority institutions. They offer an opportunity to rekindle friendships broadly, and also within Black Greek letter organizations,” she said. “They offer an opportunity to come home to the community surrounding the HBCU and to enjoy the diversity of Black culture — including the unique Black culture around each HBCU.”
Gasman said HBCUs can include concerts, fashion shows, step or dance shows, parades, a marching band, pep rallies, parties, and service projects.
“They bring in Black-owned businesses to be vendors on campus and engage Black-owned businesses for catering events,” Gasman said. “Homecoming on HBCU campuses celebrates all aspects of Blackness, institutional pride, institutional rivalries, and gives HBCU graduates an opportunity to support their alma mater.”
Most importantly, Gasman added, “Students can feel the long traditions of the institution and the support from alumni for their future success … Every HBCU has unique aspects to their homecoming — be it special food, annual events, and parties that everyone looks forward to. Self-expression and diversity of Blackness are key.”
Williams has worked at Morgan State, her alma mater, for 11 years.
“My first homecoming, I was an undergrad. I transferred from Lincoln University. It was all new to me,” she said. “I just went outside and walked the campus. I didn’t know many people, but they all knew me. People were greeting me. They were hugging me. It made me feel good because I’m from New York. It felt like family.”
For a student, homecoming can be a transformative moment, according to Nyla Thompson, a 22-year-old senior from Upper Marlboro. She distinctly remembers her first Morgan State homecoming.
“I didn’t necessarily quite understand what it meant. I wasn’t dressed up. My godmother — who is an alumni — saw me in my t-shirt and leggings and told me that ‘this not the vibe.’ She told me about all the traditions. She made me change, put on my best outfit, and come back outside,” Thompson said with a laugh. “The next three years I was prepared.”
Thompson now serves as executive chair of Morgan State’s campus activities board, which oversees the activities associated with the annual event.
“There is nothing like seeing all the alum bring their family with them,” she said. “For students, it’s like a family reunion. For alum, it is like a class reunion.”
The great equalizer
Like the Black church, HBCUs offer a safe space for Black people, according to Edwin T. Johnson, special assistant to the provost and university historian at Morgan. Many of the country’s 107 HBCUs were founded after the Civil War and thus became centers for Black thought, where questions such as “What does freedom mean?” took hold.
“These were spaces for expression. They could gather and not worry about scrutiny, racism,” Johnson said. “For African Americans, higher education was the great equalizer. All of those things take root in HBCUs as people of color are evolving and figuring out, and in a lot of cases, were arguing their place into society. They were figuring out their logical next step.”
At Morgan, which was founded in 1867 as the Centenary Biblical Institute by the Baltimore Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and later broadened its mission before being acquired by the state of Maryland in 1939, alumni events, such as luncheons and convocational programs, predate football games, according to Johnson.
“Before there was an official and organized sports program, it was very important for the Methodist church to keep alumni engaged through events like the alumni breakfast. There were more formal programs that kept alumni engaged and showcased what the institution was doing,” Johnson said. “That was critical to Morgan’s survival.”
Events like homecoming became a reprieve for Black graduates and a place to network and celebrate Black excellence.
“It’s a time to look back and commemorate all of those who came before and where we are in society,” Johnson said.
Graduates of other HBCUs report a similar experience at this time of year.
“There’s something about attending an HBCU,” said Sherise Malachi, a graduate of North Carolina Central. “It’s more than getting that diploma. It’s about the experience.”
She said she’s talked with Black friends who attended predominantly white campuses and said homecoming feels very different to them.
“With them, I compare it, it’s literally what ‘A Different World’ was,” she said. “Your professors know your name and know your stories. You go back to see them during homecoming. Their experiences were that they were just a number. You go to class, and [your professor] might not know you and you never see them again.”
Malachi, a 43-year-old Bowie resident who oversee a nonprofit focusing on HBCU community relations, loves the experience so much she attends homecomings at other HBCUs.
“You are having fun on their campus, but you share that common bond of going to an HBCU, and you are continuing to build your network,” said Malichi, who also plans to attend Clark Atlanta’s homecoming this fall in addition to her alma mater’s.
A cultural explosion
HBCU homecomings are “unmatched” because they are a “cultural explosion” mixed with a Black family reunion celebration centered around a football game, according to Marcy Crump, a 58-year-old Towson resident and founder of The Flywire, a digital platform that celebrates Black culture and has more than 50,000 Instagram followers.
“Our homecomings are where tales of new college folklore are made,” said Crump, a graduate of Virginia Union University.
At Crump’s alma mater, homecoming is a multigenerational gathering with “different eras of past students and current students doing their own reunions in the same vicinity.” She added, “Like many other HBCUs, each facet of our college experience is outside on display with many individual tailgate parties with DJs, food and frolicking. It’s a battle of sound systems, a tour of cookouts, dancing and impromptu step shows during the day.”
Williams is quick to say that alumni from other HBCUs will also be embraced as family.
“Most of the time, we won’t know who they are until they tell us where they went to school or wear their own school apparel,” Williams said. “If you are an HBCU, we love you regardless.”
DeVeaux loved his Morgan State experience so much that he began hosting events around the annual homecoming event. He ultimately became an event and production planner.
Ironically, the New York City native acknowledges that he didn’t take college very seriously in the beginning.
“I didn’t want to be on campus. I had no interest in any extracurricular activities. I wanted to be in and out,” he recalled. “Morgan really gave me that opportunity to grow and change. My experiences as a student grew as I grew. I became someone more engaged and interested in school. It was more than the classroom.”
DeVeaux, the founder of Events 4 Good People, or E4GP, will host five events this year, including a party at Rye Street Tavern that is expected to attract 1,000 people. Tickets will be $40 per person to encourage attendees to donate money to the university.
“We keep the ticket price low,” he said, “so so that it’s just about getting together and having a good time.”