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After a year of cancellations, some HBCUs welcome homecoming

Some Black colleges are welcoming back this major annual event, even in limited forms. “Homecoming represents a family reunion," said a Delaware State administrator.
Image: A dancer performs during Howard University Homecoming on Oct.11, 2019 in Washington.
A dancer performs during Howard University Homecoming in Washington on Oct. 11, 2019.Jemal Countess / Getty Images for Pepsi file

This month, many historically Black colleges and universities are celebrating their biggest week of the year — homecoming — while signaling a return to in-person festivities following a year of coronavirus cancellations.

Many Black colleges say they’re more than ready to host alumni and watch the fun unfold with graduates and current students taking in the college experience.

“Through Covid, we learned the importance of social interactions, friendships and simple things that we took for granted,” said Marcia Taylor, executive director for alumni relations at Delaware State University.

But the coronavirus isn’t yet in the rearview mirror.

NBC News reported there have been more than 726,000 Covid-19 deaths nationwide and confirmed cases are increasing, which left HBCUs in a dilemma: Do they host homecoming this year, make it virtual for a second consecutive year or cancel?

For Black colleges, homecoming brings about a sense of nostalgia, or a place to relive fond memories, said Ty Couey, president of the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Alumni Associations Foundation.

“It’s about trading old stories from years past and passing knowledge to the younger generation,” he said.

The Duke Ellington Radical Elite Show Band gives an impromptu performance on campus after the Howard University Homecoming Parade in Washington on Oct. 12, 2019. Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Many historically Black colleges opted to welcome back homecoming, in many cases with alumni, albeit in limited forms.

At Delaware State University, homecoming on Saturday will also coincide with the university’s 130th anniversary.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to get together after coming out of the high period of Covid,” Taylor said. “Homecoming represents a family reunion. It’s a tight-knit community.”

She added that if someone hasn’t seen an old classmate all year, chances are that person would be there.

Florida A&M University will return to in-person homecoming festivities on Oct. 30 after missing out on in-person events last year.

Themed “An Epic Return,” the university has scheduled a campus concert featuring rapper Lil Baby. In addition, alumnus and film producer Will Packer will be on hand, and ESPN will broadcast “First Take” with Stephen A. Smith from campus.

And movie star Kevin Hart will conduct a live taping of his SiriusXM show, “Straight From the Hart” there.

“A lot of people are really more than anxious to get back to as close to normal as possible,” said Tanya Tatum, director of student health services at Florida A&M University.

While the enthusiasm to kick off homecoming week is already underway, several HBCU officials said the safety of students and faculty comes first. 

Depending on the university, some Covid restrictions are stricter than others.

For example, Florida A&M encourages everyone to wear a mask during events. Attendees at Delaware State must show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test within five days of homecoming.

“Safety and precautions were at the forefront of our planning. We’ve taken great steps to make sure we’re being secure and dealing with the health concerns,” Taylor said.

Howard University President Wayne Frederick said his school is encouraging masks and has discouraged alumni from attending campus functions during homecoming week.

The one exception is for Howard's homecoming football game on Saturday, which is open to the public but will largely be blocked off for students.

“We’re trying to keep our alum away from campus for safety reasons,” said Frederick, adding that the overwhelming majority of his students are vaccinated.

Some HBCU administrators said the potential spread of the coronavirus was not worth the risk of hosting homecoming.

Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta cancelled homecoming this year due to the pandemic.

“Given the rise in Covid and the different variants that have been surfacing across Georgia, we had to make the decision for our campus community,” said Morehouse College spokeswoman Jasmine Gurley. “No one is thrilled to not have homecoming, because homecoming is such a fantastic and memorable time, but I think our community and what we’ve heard from alumni and students is that they pretty much expected this knowing that we operated in their best interest.”

Howard officials have described events this year as a hybrid, where planned campus events such as the Greek step show and a fashion show will be for students only. Graduates will be allowed to attend different virtual events and livestreams, school officials said.

Meanwhile, a few HBCUs that have already had their homecoming said the biggest week of the year came and went without a hitch.

Texas Southern University officials said they were deliberate in their planning for homecoming, which took place earlier this month.

The school encouraged people to wear masks, Covid testing was available on-site and the homecoming game featured some spaced-out seating, university officials said.

“People were happy to have an outdoor experience where they could fellowship with each other in a safe way,” Texas Southern spokeswoman Melinda Spaulding said, adding that thousands of people attended.

In Virginia earlier this month, Hampton University limited its homecoming game to 50 percent capacity, or 4,500 people. Ticket-holders had to show proof of vaccination or present a negative Covid test within 72 hours of the game.

Despite the pandemic affecting homecoming, Taylor, of Delaware State, said Covid likely put some aspects of life into perspective and will probably make homecoming 2021 more memorable.

“Homecoming is a time to celebrate all that our college means to us,” she said. “We can hug our friends and laugh and have a conversation.”

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