On a cloudy day in May of 2015, the first student speaker at Howard University’s commencement was a handsome legal communications major named Tyrone Hankerson Jr., whose graduation robe was adorned with a medal, a stole and multiple cords signifying the many honors he’d earned. “As we gather here on the upper quadrangle, I am reminded of the significance of this place,” Hankerson said from the podium. The actor Morgan Freeman, scheduled to receive an honorary degree that day, sat nearby.
Hankerson was known to the student body. He’d been selected as an All-Star for historically black colleges and universities — a White House-bestowed recognition given to only 75 students at HBCUs. He’d also been on Howard’s lauded Mock Trial team, worked in the financial aid office and ran a lifestyle blog, Happenings by Hank, in which he documented a chic, expertly curated life, offered advice on how followers could achieve the same: “I finally fell in love with glasses. And I discovered a great way to have multiple pair for cheap: WARBY PARKER.”
That commencement day, Hankerson finished his speech, adjusted his tassel and exited to applause.
Three years later, he’s become the target of a more malevolent kind of attention, and Howard University is in the news under far less celebratory circumstances. Late last month, the university was pressured to reveal that, over nine years, workers in the financial aid office had misappropriated money, double-dipping by accepting tuition benefits and simultaneously awarding themselves university grants.
As angered students prepared a demonstration — over several issues including tuition hikes and campus safety — they rehashed what they knew about the financial misappropriation, which was first reported in an article on the blogging platform Medium. Using anonymous sources, the now-deleted Medium post provided alleged dollar amounts of the misappropriated money. Alleged images of its dispersal. And alleged names. One in particular. The post claimed that more than $400,000 had been awarded to a current law student who’d also attended Howard for his undergraduate degree: a former student-employee named Tyrone Hankerson.
Suddenly, the expensive-looking clothing on Hankerson’s blog and social media accounts seemed, to some, to take on new meaning: “Another semester down, another bag secured,” he’d captioned one photo of himself carrying a dapper attache case. In another photo, he wore a fur coat.
Readers found the postings and became enraged. “This man stole $429,000 in Financial Aid at Howard y’all,” wrote one person on Twitter, pasting a particularly luxe-looking image. “Everyone say hello to the Finesse God Tyrone,” wrote another.
Hankerson, 24, has said repeatedly that he didn’t award himself any money, only accepting the financial aid that was offered to him. He was not one of the six employees fired in the investigation. He has not been charged with any crimes. He also has not been publicly cleared by Howard.
“I’m a month away from graduating,” Hankerson said in an interview last week, the most wide-ranging one he’s granted. “I’ve been this person at Howard since freshman year. . . . If I knew that this was going to be misconstrued, who would subject themselves to such scrutiny?”
It is sometimes easier to be angry at a person than a sprawling, complex institution — one dedicated to educating underserved communities, but doing so with $22 million in unpaid tuition and running with a yearly operating loss.
Hankerson has gone from symbolizing Howard’s success to being a scapegoat of the university’s struggles, and one of the most vilified students in America.
Howard University. A conglomeration of red brick buildings on a hill in Northwest Washington, an institution so renowned its students refer to it simply as the "Mecca," the place that shaped the minds of Thurgood Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston, Sean Combs. Its reputation as the preeminent institution for young black students was formed in the wake of the Civil War, strengthened in the civil rights era and, today, accepted as its legacy.
The author and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant Ta-Nehisi Coates, another former attendee, once described the Mecca as a “machine crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of all African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.”
To forward its mission, the institution has striven to keep its tuition fees lower than comparable private universities and to provide significant aid, resulting in what credit rating reports have described as “a history of uneven financial performance” exacerbated by federal budget cuts.
In the past year, scrutiny of President Wayne Frederick’s administration has intensified. There were issues of politics: the selection of former FBI director James B. Comey as the 2017 opening convocation speaker, a controversial campus visit from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a White House meeting where Frederick posed with President Trump, whose policy proposals are anathema to many students.
In November, a woman accused the university of mishandling her sexual-assault allegation.
Cold weather during the 2017-2018 winter break was said to have caused power outages and structural damage so severe that three buildings were unusable for the semester. Agitated students and professors argued the deterioration was preventable.
And in March, “unforeseen glitches” in the housing reservation system caused campuswide chaos, which escalated when a student tweeted the response she received from Frederick when she’d emailed concerns. He scolded her on her “tone.” (She has said Frederick later apologized, and the president wrote a letter to the student acknowledging the housing issue had caused “stress and anxiety” for students.)
Around the time of DeVos’s spring 2017 visit, an activist group of about 30 students formed, naming themselves HU Resist. They later delayed the start of Comey’s speech with chants and jeers, in protest of the FBI’s surveillance of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Something has been brewing,” said Jazmin Goodwin, editor in chief of the student newspaper, the Hilltop. “The frustration, for many people, started to feel oppressive. And oppression turns to action.”
For Hankerson, Howard was a childhood dream; he'd visited at age 7 to watch his aunt graduate. His father had gone to Howard. His uncle, to the law school. By the time he finished high school in 2011, it was the top university on his list.
In the suburban Atlanta neighborhood where he grew up, his family had limited financial means but a pride in personal appearance. His mother, separated from Tyrone’s father and raising three children on a restaurant hostess’s salary, was savvy about stretching dollars by shopping at discount stores. “You’re going to the grocery store and T.J. Maxx is there,” Hankerson says, “she’s like, let’s run into T.J. Maxx.”
For Hankerson, clothes were symbols — as they were, he says, for many in the African American community that reared him. High-quality material goods represented “access to resources we [historically] weren’t allowed to participate in,” he said. He’d heard a quote once that spoke to him, from the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher: “Clothes and manners do not make the man, but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.”
At Howard, he was surrounded for the first time by classmates of widely disparate economic backgrounds — some less fortunate than he, some the children of millionaires — and began to see how clothing could be used to glide between different groups and social situations.
He was far from the only Howard student to care about appearances: His freshman year HuffPost named the campus the second most fashionable in America; it wasn’t unusual for young men to attend class in suits. Dressing well was a sign of self-respect, and respect for the university.
“But also, part of this is compensating,” says Jelani Cobb, a historian who attended Howard and has continued to chronicle it. “Believing that people won’t take you seriously unless you look the part.”
A star student in high school (a former teacher, Sheila Glover, recalls him being “dedicated” and “passionate,” the kind of student to turn a paragraph-long assignment into a reasoned dissertation), he received need- and merit-based scholarships at Howard, where tuition and housing fees top $40,000 for fall and spring semesters.
His job in the financial aid office was part of his work-study program, and the funds he was awarded didn’t seem out of line to him: He attended school year-round, including the summer. He studied abroad, resulting in additional stipends, and had wages from work-study.
The $400,000 in scholarships cited seems large, said Hankerson’s attorney, James Walker, but could be accounted for via quick calculations: four years of undergrad and multiple summer terms, plus $60,000 per year for three years of law school tuition and housing.
“We cannot provide any documents as it would hurt his legal case right now,” Walker said, declining to expound on how Hankerson spent the money.
Could he have used some of the financial aid on clothing, travel, or other personal items? “Every student uses money for survival,” Hankerson told the journalist Roland Martin in an interview. “One hundred percent of us have done that.”
Walker, who himself graduated from Howard, describes the Howard financial aid office as having the environment of “a church league” — built as much on relationships as on official policy. “It’s a common practice at Howard that when freshmen arrive, the first thing their parents do is roll up to the administration building,” says Walker, whose children and younger relatives attended the school.
Students who found themselves short, Walker says, could arrange a meeting: “The right official, he or she could push a button and your account was made whole.”
When Howard was asked to comment on this characterization, and other questions regarding Hankerson, a spokesman emailed a statement saying that, in accordance with student privacy laws, the university would not provide more information.
In Walker’s experience, such discretionary scholarships seemed more available for students with high GPAs.
Hankerson’s GPA hovered between 3.9 and 4.0.
And he continued to look the part of a successful student. When friends asked for fashion advice, he started the blog, seeing himself as a guide. He wrote about what to look for in an “investment” coat. About the right shoes to wear to a barbecue. About his frustration when a white onlooker dubbed traditional Ghanaian garb “dressing down.”
He said when he shopped, he looked for sample sales, used friends’ employee discounts and learned to “ball on a budget,” as his mother used to say. One classmate suggested they compile a Lookbook for homecoming. As they roamed the neighborhood taking photos, they passed a Range Rover. Hankerson, who didn’t own a car during his undergraduate years, spotted his dream vehicle and mugged for the camera. The Lookbook became a hit, and the Hilltop reprinted it.
Hankerson stayed at Howard for law school, accruing the paid internships and work experience necessary to prepare for a legal career. He used the income to invest in his wardrobe.
The night of March 27, he’d finished studying when his phone went off with a text. It was a link to the Medium article. “Oh my god, this is crazy,” wrote a friend, who’d pressed send before he’d even finished the story.
A few minutes later, the friend texted again. “I just kept reading,” it said. “Your name is in it.”
In the hours after the Medium post went up, students say, the entire 10,000-person campus seemed to be reading it, sharing it in group chats and "generally freaking out," according to one student.
Tyrone’s undergraduate classmates told each other they’d always known something was up, said one. They wryly recalled times Tyrone called them “broke.”
The students of HU Resist were already planning a rally for later in the week. The revelations about the financial aid office were “icing on the cake” for their cause, said Maya McCollum, a freshman organizer in the group. “Students who didn’t mess with us were coming out like, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ ”
The group decided to stage a sit-in, patterned after historic demonstrations that had occurred at Howard during similar moments of campus tension. McCollum and her friends went to their dorm rooms and packed pajamas and toothpaste. By Thursday evening, March 29, they were camped in the administration building. By Friday, there were nearly 300 students beside them, blocking anyone without a student ID from entering.
They said they wouldn’t leave until their demands were met: guaranteed housing for students younger than 21, no tuition hikes, the disarming of campus police and changes in university leadership.
Howard’s Board of Trustees met with students for negotiation sessions while the group inside the administration building only grew, to an estimated 450 students.
Few had associated themselves with HU Resist before — but many could relate to the stress of needing the aid employees allegedly siphoned. It wasn’t Hankerson they were protesting, but what he represented.
“He’s a meme. He’s a joke,” McCollum said. “If we see him on campus . . . well, I think he has booked a flight to as far away as he can get.”
Hankerson hadn't booked a flight. After his friend sent him the Medium article, he'd sat in his room, heart racing. He knew the current campus climate. He knew the Internet's voracious appetite, and how quickly images could be turned into memes.
“I got caught in a storm,” he says. “And the best thing that anyone can do in that situation is go to shelter.” Hankerson went online and quickly started to delete himself: His Instagram account. His Facebook. Tumblr. Twitter. SoundCloud.
And Happenings by Hank, the blog that represented everything he’d learned about presenting well and moving well through the world — he deleted that, too.
But his photos were already spread, divorced of the context he’d given them. He was mocked for “flossing” (flashing his wealth), “fronting” (pretending to be something he wasn’t) and for, conveniently, bearing the name of an Erykah Badu song about men who are mooches.
One of the most retweeted pictures was of Hankerson with the Range Rover; people were outraged, not realizing the luxury vehicle had never belonged to him.
The next morning he went to class, afraid: “You’re honestly always worried about what could be coming through the door,” he says. But the boy who had wanted a degree from Howard since age 7 had wanted a law degree since a career day at age 9. Now, a month from gaining both, quitting didn’t seem like the answer. “My ambition,” he says, “is that this situation would not get in the way of me achieving that goal.”
He tried the interview with Martin, who has a popular online show — but the thousand-plus comments below it were filled with derision. He gave an interview to People magazine. By the time he finished an interview with CBS, he appeared close to tears.
After each round of the same questions, Hankerson returned to class, or to his room, or to his phone, where he received message after message from the payment apps Venmo and Cash App: Students and strangers were requesting thousands of dollars at a time. Payback, for what they viewed as theft.
Hankerson says he has not been contacted by the university since the Medium article posted. His attorney says he and Hankerson have requested a formal apology from Howard. They have plans to file a lawsuit against the school for the leak of Tyrone's personal financial information. "The last thing we wanna do is sue Howard University, but if he did it charge him," Walker said in an email Saturday. "If he didn't — as it appears — then clear his name and exonerate him and make him whole for his records leaking."
The students remained in the administration building for nine days, sleeping on donated air mattresses, eating pizza sent by supporters, taking turns charging their phones. They transformed the building into a student-run center, complete with art sessions, self-care classes and homework help. Encouragement came from alumni, local businesses and Rihanna, who retweeted a video of them singing her lyrics: “Better have my money! Pay me what you owe me.”
To some, Tyrone Hankerson will always be seen as an embezzler. To others, a symbol or a scapegoat. To himself, a hard-working young man who knew success could come via grades, but also from presenting himself in just the right way.
In the end, he was a catalyst to protesters whose negotiations ultimately centered on demands they had before Tyrone became a meme. On Friday, they ended the sit-in, retracted their call for a change in university leadership and declared they had come to an agreement. The Board of Trustees announced 11 changes it would make to address the students’ demands.
“I didn’t expect us to be here as long as we have,” said freshman Jewell Humphrey. But as messages of support for their cause poured in, the pressure to make the sit-in a success kept growing. The Howard students knew the world was watching them.