The president of Howard University said yesterday that all undergraduates will be required to pass a course in Afro-American studies because many students at the predominantly black university are "abysmally ignorant of the role" of blacks in the United States.

President James E. Cheek said the new graduation requirement, approved late last month by the university Board of Trustees, was recommended by a faculty-student committee he set up last year after about 2,500 students signed a petition seeking a required Afro-American studies course.

Cheek announced the new requirement during a breakfast news conference. The requirement, which will go into effect for the freshman class entering in the fall of 1987, marks a major change in Howard policy, which traditionally has rejected requiring specific Afro-American courses on the assumption that the entire curriculum emphasized a black perspective.

But Cheek said he changed his mind when the committee reported that a test given to undergraduates showed that an "absolutely alarming" number of students were "not even familiar with black personalities in American history (such as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and singer-actor Paul Robeson) that we are all familiar with."

"In a number of ways the so-called integration of the public school system has brought about an erasure of blacks from the American scene historically and contemporaneously," Cheek continued. "We have an obligation as an institution to ensure that no undergraduate can receive a diploma without understanding what black people represent in the history of this country."

Cheek said a new committee will draw up the syllabus for several interdisciplinary Afro-American studies courses. Students will have to take at least one semester-long course on this list.

At present Howard offers about 90 "Afro-American related courses" to undergraduates that were taken as electives last fall by 1,242 of its 8,200 undergraduate students, according to the task force report.

"I took it for granted that most students elected to take Afro-American studies courses," Cheek continued. But he said he found out that relatively few did. Many students at Howard, Cheek said, know less about black history than he learned as "standard information" in sixth grade attending segregated all-black schools 40 years ago in North Carolina.

In many integrated schools, Cheek said, "I think we are miseducating black youngsters who do not even understand where black people are in this culture." He said Howard, whose enrollment is more than 90 percent black, is "in the business of educating black leaders. But you can't be a leader of an ethnic group when you don't know anything about its heritage and history."

Leaders of the Howard University Student Association, who had followed their petition drive by picketing the trustees last winter, expressed satisfaction yesterday, but association president Ona Alston said, "I think it's high time . . . . Howard University should have had that requirement a long time ago."

She said the student group has launched a new petition drive to preserve Howard's graduate program in African studies, which she said administrators were seeking to divide among other university departments. Several students and faculty members in the program said an evaluation panel had criticized the program and recommended that it be stripped of its degree-granting authority. Cheek and other top university officials could not be reached for comment.

Cheek also said that Howard is negotiating to acquire the Wonder Bread plant adjacent to the university on Georgia Avenue NW. He said the company was considering moving to Maryland. Bakery officials could not be reached for comment.