Growing up, I memorized Langston Hughes’ poem, “A Dream Deferred”. It’s imagery regarding festering, running, sores burned into my mind. Because of its haunting imagery, I made a promise to myself to always chase my dreams, no matter the cost. This led me to “the mecca”; my dream school, a haven away from my hometown in Kansas.
Like many other students at Howard University, I was eager to live on campus for the first time. I had been working two jobs the previous year to ensure I could afford to attend the illustrious institution. Despite watching numerous YouTube videos about issues at the university, I had high hopes. I was okay with the “Howard run around”, where my calls would go unanswered or long battles with financial aid. Howard was worth all the problems I had heard through the grapevine. However, there weren’t enough warnings or red flags that could prepare me for the problems that have arisen.
The first week I moved into my dorm, I was met with a leaking closet. After waiting a week for maintenance to come I decided to clean up the water myself. That’s when I discovered that mold had been growing. The mold activated my asthma and made me sick for weeks. Luckily, I was one of the first mold cases on campus and I was able to get a second room–but I had to pay the difference. Maintenance took over a month to finish cleaning the mold and vents. It had begun to take a toll on both my roommate and I, physically and emotionally.
At first I thought that things would get better once I received a new room. That is until one Tuesday night.
On October 12, 2021, I remember being overwhelmed by schoolwork. I stayed in the dorm majority of the day working. I heard from some friends that there was a protest at Blackburn–a multipurpose center on campus for food, activities and offices. Intrigued, my roommate and I hopped on the shuttle to see what was going on.
It was around 11 p.m. The students had staged a sit-in after they organized a town hall and invited Howard University President, Dr. Wayne I.A. Fredrick. When he did not show, they took over the first floor of the Blackburn Center. The following day, the university announced the students shut down the building. This not true, the protesters specifically took over an unoccupied floor on the opposite side of the building.
When we arrived, there were campus police everywhere guarding the door like students were criminals. We were told we were trespassing, to go back to our dorms. This infuriated many students. What dorms were we supposed to go back to? At this point, many students had discovered mold in the dorms, like I did two months before. They were getting sick, hospitalized even. I hated how administration and campus police brushed the issue off.
I began chanting with the students. The inside protesters encouraged us to move closer, to come inside. Campus police threatened that we could get expelled for unlawful entry and disobeying authorities. Still, we peacefully moved forward chanting, “We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
That night, I ended up inside of Blackburn. I witnessed Reslife officials deny our claims of mold, homeless students and lack of security. However, the students knew the truth and we refused to be silent.
Since Oct. 12, I have heard horrifying stories from the town halls. Stories that were never meant for me to hear. The only person that these stories were meant for–President Fredrick–was never around. Many students came forward and shared how they were homeless due to the housing crisis here at Howard. A young lady even spoke up about how she was living in a storage unit because she could not afford D.C. rent.
More students joined the protest at Blackburn. We all began sleeping outside on the concrete, guarding our peers. Administration threatened to expel students inside of Blackburn, so we made sure that everyone was watching Howard University. As a journalism major, I felt it was my responsibility to keep the public informed on what was happening at the university. The stories I heard were so powerful, yet so sad. These students–like me–came across the country with high hopes and big dreams. Yet, we were met with disappointment, mold, unpaid professors, and neglect. Our cries and stories were falling on deaf ears. Many students had reached out to professors and counselors begging for help. What can you do when your students are asking for help and the university is not offering support?
Our professors have tried their best to assist and support us during the takeover of Blackburn. Many professors have not been paid for up to six months, yet they show they care more than our President who takes home $1 million annually.
While we have been inviting the President to attend our town hall meetings, he has never shown. He refuses to speak to a large number of students, only two or three students at a time, locked away in the Administration building.
As of Nov.15, the occupation has ended. However, the work has not. I am completely inspired by those who took over Blackburn–mainly freshmen and sophomores. I feel compelled to hug and kiss each and everyone of them on their cheeks. While many have sat back and judged them for speaking out, I have looked up to them for being courageous. They have proven that without the students, there is no Howard University or “the mecca”. The students ARE “the mecca”, the safe haven away from home and we deserve to be treated as such.
As the Blackburn Family once chanted on the yard, “We keep us safe!” By occupying the building and never giving up, the Blackburn Takeover family has done just that.