Education

Convocation Speaker Reflects on Howard U.’s Promise and Protest

While reflecting on her time as a student at Howard University and the power of protest, professor and author Paula Giddings spoke not only about the school’s potential for change, but its promise for the future.

Giddings was the keynote speaker at the D.C.-based institution’s 151st annual Charter Day Convocation on Friday in the school’s Cramton Auditorium.

“Howard, you gave me friendships I’ve endured a half-century, my first serious boyfriend, a sisterhood of my soros and you gave me my first Afro that made my mother cry,” said Giddings in her speech which was crafted as an open letter to her alma mater.

Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor Emerita of Africana Studies at Smith College, shared with the audience not only the good times she experienced at Howard, but also the many challenges she faced as a student.

“There was a college culture that was not student-loving,” she said.

“Tangled registration, year after year, inadequate housing and utilities,” Giddings said as she described the issues that surfaced during her time at Howard between 1965 to 1969.

From left: Howard University students Kenae Damon, Jordan Jean and NaJah Banks attend the university's 2018 Charter Day Convocation at Cramton Auditorium on Howard's northwest D.C. campus on March 2. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)
From left: Howard University students Kenae Damon, Jordan Jean and NaJah Banks attend the university’s 2018 Charter Day Convocation at Cramton Auditorium on Howard’s northwest D.C. campus on March 2. (Shevry Lassiter/The Washington Informer)

Some students in the audience cheered her words at this point.

Historically, students at Howard University have complained about inefficiencies at the university. At the turn of the year, the university had to delay the start of classes for a week due to extreme weather closing several buildings for the semester. While the institution admits challenges, they point to financial obstacles the school faces.

However, it was the promise in Howard that she drew her to the campus.

“We talk about Howard as if it’s a person, because it’s so personal to us,” she said.

As a student at Howard, Giddings saw the issues at her school and became an active protester.

“We protested to change Howard from a Negro university to a Black one,” Giddings said.

Some current-day students had positive reactions to Giddings’ speech and what it meant.

“Her speech was phenomenal because she was real and transparent with everything she said,” said senior and journalism major Kenae Damon. “She never said what Howard could be or should be, but she did give us what Howard is and has been for us. A lot of her experiences mirrored mine and she was very relatable in the truth with the issues at HU-knowing that dealing with these issues come out a beautiful experience in an experience worth wild at Howard.”

Although Giddings shared her trials at Howard, this was her example of inspiring others to focus on change that is possible.

“Charter Day is the amalgamation of past, present and future Howard — everything that Howard has contributed to the world, what Howard is currently offering to the world, and what Howard will continue to provide to the world for generations to come,” said Najah Banks, a senior majoring in psychology.

“She reminded us of the past legends that have graced the university,” Banks said. “These legends have not only paved a way for current students, but have made an impact on a world stage. That humbled me, and also made me immensely proud to attend Howard University and potentially create my own legacy.”

In his remarks, Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick praised the university’s role in the country and boasted about the institution’s four-year graduation rates, which is at an all-time high.

Howard University’s Charter Day celebrates the special charter proposed by Congress and approved by U.S. President Andrew Johnson that established Howard University on March 2, 1867.

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