Howard University Bison fans cheer on the home team as running back Eden James scores a touchdown. Credit: Arnold Johnson/AFRO)

By: Amber D. Dodd
Special to the AFRO 

Homecoming may be a longstanding tradition at all universities, but Howard University’s homecoming is like no other. 

From all walks of life, alumni, students, friends and family, all gather in Washington D.C. to celebrate the lifelong bonds that Howard University has fortified. But, surviving the latest pandemic and the everchanging dangers of being Black in America, these reunions and long-time-no-sees hugs resonate harder for older alum. 

“This is going to be with you forever, take advantage of your time, even when the worldbeats you up, you can always come home. This is a safe haven from all the riff raff in the world.”

Elder alums spoke to the AFRO about the magic of Homecoming and how reconnecting with old friends, supporting their community and returning to Howard reignites their spirits.

Saturday morning, tailgaters and members of the Beta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha set up their tents in the parking lot across from Starbucks and food as they chatted after the homecoming parade. 2023 marks 47 years in the Alpha fold for Jonathan Johnson of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., 70, who graduated with a political science degree in 1974. “Because of Howard, I was prepared for the world,” he said. 

“Howard has been great to me, I got a great education. I worked downtown at the White House and the folks from Harvard or Yale could tell me nothing because I went to Howard,” Johnson said. “My degree took me all over the world, in every continent except Antarctica.” 

Jonathan Johnson, one of the elder members of the Alpha Phi Alpha’s Beta chapter attending their homecoming tailgate, returned to The Mecca to reminisce on his times at Howard. Meeting his wife Bonny Johnson on campus, earning a degree in 1974 and traveling the world, he called his Howard memories “priceless.” (Source: Arnold Johnson/AFRO)

One of the eldest members present from the Beta chapter, Johnson said he returned to  enjoy the festivities and boasted about the Alpha’s Homecoming Greek Step Show win on Friday night. He visited his old dorm room in Cook Hall Room 129 and found landmarks where he met his wife of 47 years, Bonny, on campus. 

“It’s good to see Howard has grown, it’s good to see that Howard is still the Black Mecca and the leader of HBCUs.” Johnson said. 

Brian Watkins, another Beta chapter member and 1990 graduate, called Howard the “best four years of my life.”

During homecoming tailgating festivities, Brian Watkins spoke about how times have changed at Howard since graduating in 1980. He worries that D.C.’s cost of living, and activities that compete for children’s attention have altered the college experience. (Source: Arnold Johnson/AFRO)

“Homecoming is home, it’s reconnecting, it’s reenergizing, it’s just so welcoming to be back, I want everyone to experience this.” He said. 

Watkins says that the biggest difference in the Howard experience today is DC’s cost of living and the definition of fellowship. 

“HBCUs have to compete for the best Black minds now, and I think Howard’s doing pretty well, but I am concerned about the cost of tuition and housing,” Watkins said. “This is all great, but students can’t afford to live here. I talk to parents and they’re talking about paying $1,500 a month for housing. Plus, college is competing with so many other things for these kids’ attention. All we had to do was leave the dorm and that was our whole day right there.” 

Saturday’s biggest draw was the football game against Norfolk State University. This year, football alum Richard McGee, a 71-year-old Washington D.C. native, returned to William H. Greene Stadium 43 years after his last game as a offensive lineman in 1980.

McGee said that there was a “collective understanding” about the importance of education for Black men and general feelings at the time. 

Richard McGee, 71, returned to Howard to celebrate homecoming football traditions including the 30-year anniversary honoring of the 1993 Howard football team. A member of the football team in the 70s, McGee is a member of Howard’s 2005 Football Hall of Fame class. (Source: Arnold Johnson/AFRO)

“We all felt that we were all in a serious time, because the Vietnam War was going on at that time, and the one thing that brought you to reality is to know that you can be sent to the war at any time,” McGee recalled. “You flunked out, you were in the jungle the next year.”

In high school, he integrated the Bladensburg High School football team. While alone in that experience, his fellow Howard teammates also broke the color barrier at their respective schools too. 

McGee is a member of the Howard University Football Hall of Fame 2005 class and said that, with Howard’s long standing traditions still honored at the best Homecoming of all time, it shows the consistent Black excellence that the University produces. 

“This is going to be with you forever, take advantage of your time, even when the world beats you up, you can always come home. This is a safe haven from all the riff raff in the world.” McGee said. 

(From L to R) Deitre Epps, Yolanda Rowell, Felicia Carpenter are members of Howard’s Class of 1987 who enjoyed homecoming festivities by William Greene stadium. After decades of separation, they reunited at this year’s homecoming, reviving their friendships for the first time in nearly 40 years. (Source: Arnold Johnson/AFRO)

While patrons filtered into the stadium for the Howard Bison’s homecoming battle against Norfolk State University, many ignited old flames and friendships with familiar faces. This was the case for a trio of Howard women from the Class of 1987, Yolanda Rowell, Felicia Carpenter and Deitre Epps. They reflected on Howard’s political landscape in the 80s and how daughters of Black revolutions around the world were flocking to the Mecca.

“We were here with Stevie Wonder, and we marched right up to Washington to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a [federal] holiday,“ Rowell said. Epps also mentioned students being arrested for protesting the apartheid at the South African embassy. 

“Jesse Jackson was running for president, and that was one of our first Black men on the ticket,” Rowell said. “Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, they were my favorite groups. At the time, our radicalism was perfect. It spoke volumes to me.” Rowell said. 

Now at homecoming this year, they chatted about the goals they’ve accomplished, the everyday whereabouts and the children they’ve raised. With these new updates, it’s true that with distance, Epps said, the heart does grow fonder.

“Imagine how that felt after 40 years,” Epps said. “It felt like a belonging, home, family, remembered, cherished, all of those things. Some of this stuff doesn’t come back immediately, but what does come back is that feeling.”

“Yesterday, Felicia said that we’re going to meet up with Yolanda, I said I don’t remember her until she started describing her and then I had this “ding!” moment, asking ‘Wait, Yolanda with her hair like that?! Who curled it under with a bump curl? An image of her 40 years ago popped in my head.”

Rowell beamed with pride for another one of their classmates: United States Vice President Kamala Harris.

“We’ve got the vice president from here, and just to see her hold it down, I just see ‘truth and service’ all in it,” Rowell said of Howard’s motto. “I think there was a torch being passed from Thurgood Marshall being the first Black Supreme Court Justice. She’s not sitting in the seat, Kamala is working and that’s the beauty of it.”

In a thriller Homecoming game against the Norfolk State Spartans, Howard University battled for a 27-23 victory in Greene Stadium Saturday afternoon. 

At halftime, the 1993 football team were honored for their 30-year anniversary. Under head coach Steve Wilson, the team went undefeated in that season, winning the 1993 MEAC conference title. Doug Morency was an offensive lineman at that time, and beamed with pride at the stadium-wide recognition. 

“Coming back 30 years later, seeing how Howard has progressed and how the team has progressed, it warms [my] heart because I was part of this foundation,” Morency said. “It’s really beyond football. Football was just a catalyst.”

Morency recalled the love he shared with his teammates, calling them brothers that “never lost touch.” He said that Howard’s homecoming festivities are a testament to the University’s ability to build lifelong friendships throughout the Black community. 

“We bled together, cried together, won together, fought together, and DC was a different time back then, we had to stick together to survive,” Morency said. “Thirty years later, we’re still close. We have lawyers, doctors, vice presidents, Olympians, congress people, you name it. It’s about life after football as a Howard man.”