The Trouble and Triumph of HBCU Halls

My academic home at Florida A&M University (FAMU) was Tucker Hall. The building is situated near the center of FAMU. It is prime real estate, really. It is the closest academic building to The Quad and the main undergraduate library. Far enough away from our social center—The Set—that you can ignore the music if you have the misfortune of a Friday afternoon class, but close enough that you can make a run for it if a celebrity shows up.

When I was in school, Tucker Hall had all the character in the world. A lime green mural of life-sized, purple people walking up and down the staircase spanned its four floors. Classrooms had desks with names of students and love notes carved into them from decades prior. It was imperfect in many ways, but it was ours and we loved it.

On the campus of Howard University (HU-you know), Douglass Hall is my current academic home. It reminds me a lot of Tucker Hall. Located directly on The Yard, Douglass Hall is front row to the action at HU. One does not have to sneak out of class to catch a probate show or celebrity on The Yard, they can see everything from Douglas Hall’s large and stately windows. The walls on each floor are adorned with murals, pictures of accomplished people, and an Adinkra symbol here or there. When you open older desks, you can find sketches of research ideas left by students and professors who have long gone. Douglass Hall is imperfect in many ways as well, but it belongs to us and we love it.

Along with two other buildings, Douglass Hall experienced tremendous damage following the recent bomb cyclone. HU’s boilers failed to keep pace with the demands of heating the campus. While the University prioritized getting heat to its hospital, fractures in our aging pipe system became exacerbated when pipes froze during the single-digit temperatures. As temperatures rose, ice in the pipes melted and caused significant water damage in Douglass Hall and other buildings.

The immediate results of the facilities problems have been inconvenient, to say the least. The academic calendar shifted, faculty were unsure about where their courses would meet, and some have been getting reacquainted with best practices in distance learning. Students have felt this burden too. Many of them had to change travel plans and delay their return to campus. The tangible inconveniences are easy to describe. Harder to acknowledge and articulate is the pain we feel about the loss of our academic home.

Buildings like Douglass and Tucker Halls are not just classrooms and offices. On a HBCU campus, The Halls are where the magic happens: where we destroy generational curses of abuse and poverty; where we talk politics and fight about the best plan to save the African diaspora. The Halls are where I get to see the lights of learning explode in the eyes of my students; where they come to share the joy of successfully navigating social situations for the first time in their burgeoning adulthoods.

We hug and cry through the agony of losing student government elections and boyfriends in The Halls. On some occasions, we sit together and mourn the death of grandparents and parents. These buildings are not just office and classroom space, they are home. Because this sense of home extends to thousands of people—in different ways for each person—The Halls are not just home, they are an institution.

Like all institutions, we have long-lasting expectations for The Halls and the people therein. In our minds, these spaces will last forever. Students tell me, “When I come back for homecoming in ten or twenty years—married with a family—you better be in Douglass so they can meet you.” We are motivated by the day when our success will warrant that our name, photo, and accolades demand that we join the luminaries who came before us on the building’s walls. When a place like Douglass Hall is destroyed, we are wounded. Our reactions vary and oscillate between fury at who or whatever caused the destruction and a desire to go out of our way to help.

People around Howard have questioned why the university administration puts off the costs of fixing its infrastructure, without realizing how deferred maintenance issues plague most university budgets or acknowledging HU’s unique circumstances. We fail to consider how HU suffers from the same financial challenges as most middle-class Black families; an emergency can present a significant financial threat in most of our lives.

Howard’s endowment is respectable but pales in comparison to reserves at schools like Princeton or neighboring Georgetown, which were built on the backs of enslaved people.

As an outsider, I admit that I cannot directly relate to the feelings HU students and alumni have about Douglass Hall. However, I can imagine how I would feel if FAMU lost Tucker Hall. I would want outside supporters—especially other HBCU grads—who understand how special these places are, to send help. I would want to know that university administrators were working hard to  to come up with innovative funding sources for a new building. Ultimately, no matter where they ended up on the campus, I would want the people of Tucker Hall to continue the chain-breaking work that defines historically Black colleges.

Like many people in the HU extended family, I am deeply honored by my responsibility to serve this generation of Howard University students. As a member of the faculty, I intend to treat Douglass Hall and Howard University the way that I would want people to treat my home. As we embark on this semester, let us all—students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni, and supporters—band together to embrace Howard University. Let us channel the fortitude of our ancestors, who fought for the right to teach and learn in environments that presented far greater challenges than the one we face today. Let us commit that, in spite of the difficulties we face, the life-changing work of The Mecca will continue.

Keneshia Grant is an assistant professor of political science at Howard University. She is also a two-time graduate of Florida A&M University.

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