Homecoming at Howard University is many things. There’s a football game, yes, but alumni say the annual event is so much more.

It’s a pilgrimage, returning to events year after year and never tiring of watching your classmates get grayer. It’s the memories made snapping pictures at Yardfest while waiting for the concert to start. It’s grabbing a stranger’s shoulders in celebration and swag-surfing.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” said Nwaji Jibunoh, who graduated from Howard in 2001 with a degree in business management, “to be around some of the most beautiful Black people in the world.”

Homecoming typically attracts thousands of Howard parents, students, alumni, friends and professors to the campus in Northwest Washington every year. Students from neighboring schools and nearby historically Black colleges and universities attend, too, eager to get a taste of one of the most popular celebrations in the country.

This year’s event, like the school year and everything else, will be very different. Unable to meet in person because of the pandemic, the university organized a slate of digital events — including a virtual Yardfest and a gospel concert this weekend — to bring the community together through their screens.

It’s a necessary sacrifice, said university President Wayne A.I. Frederick, to protect the community from a potential superspreader event.

But for some people, what’s lost this year feels greater. Homecoming, a massive celebration of Blackness that extends beyond a single campus, is also a salve — to nearly eight months of profound loss and a summer of protests of violence against Black people.

And, in a year when one of Howard’s own, Sen. Kamala D. Harris, became the first HBCU alum to be tapped for a major-party presidential ticket, many were looking forward to the face-to-face fellowship.

“Homecoming is about coming home, as it says, and that means coming back to a place that’s safe and has given you so much,” Frederick said. “This year, we have to recognize that that place is within us and we don’t necessarily need a physical space.”

'One of the greatest events'

The homecoming traditions at Howard started with a sports rivalry. Throngs of students gathered almost every fall, starting in the late 19th century, for the “Original Negro Gridiron Classic” between Howard and Lincoln University, an HBCU in southeast Pennsylvania.

It was one of the most important athletic and social events for Black college students, declared the Hilltop, Howard’s campus newspaper, in 1924. “What the Harvard-Yale game and the Army-Navy struggle are to white Americans, the Howard-Lincoln classic is to Negroes,” the newspaper reported.

From its first official homecoming that year, students and alumni were determined to make the occasion “one of the greatest events of the school year.” Through the years, they have added more events: brunches, fashion shows, concerts, and fraternity and sorority step shows.

Jean C. Tapscott has been attending the alumni brunch for almost 30 years. The event used to include a fashion show. Two years ago, it was replaced by a jazz show, Tapscott said.

“It’s an opportunity for graduates, or even the younger ones, to come back and have fellowship and also talk about what’s been going on in their lives,” said Tapscott, who graduated in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology then stayed for another two years to earn her master’s in social work.

And then there’s Showtime. Howard’s marching band, with its legendary brassy renditions of the latest hits and choreography, is as big a draw as almost any event in the week-long lineup.

Senior Kayla Lennon is the third generation of her family to attend an HBCU. Growing up in Cincinnati, she never attended homecoming at her parents’ alma maters, Spelman College in Atlanta and North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.

The festivities at Howard, where Lennon’s grandmother is an alumna, exceeded her expectations. She was so enamored when she saw the marching band her freshman year that she tried out as a sophomore.

Now in her third year with Showtime, Lennon was looking forward to playing her clarinet one last time at Homecoming. And she will, just not in front of a live audience.

The band is hosting a virtual event Saturday with alumni to raise money for new uniforms.

“People are excited, sad and longing for the experience of getting to be with each other,” said Lennon, who studies political science and sociology.But we’re putting together a series of videos and shout-outs about this homecoming and past homecomings. We’re trying to keep up the tradition.”

Taking the traditions online

Charlie Lewis, president of the university’s alumni association, has returned to “the Mecca” — the name the community has given to Howard — nearly every year since graduating in 1989.

“Every time I go back, I’m always looking for baby bison,” Lewis said, referring to the teenage children of alumni or, in his eyes, future Howard students.

Howard introduced Lewis to life outside his small hometown in Georgia, he said. He joined “everything you can name” when he landed on campus — the yearbook club, student government, finance clubs. “It exposed me to the world, just right there on campus,” he said. “It just felt like home to me.”

Homecoming is a chance to celebrate those experiences, he said.

“Even though we’re not on the Yard this year, we’re going to have a wonderful virtual experience,” Lewis said. “It’s not going to be the same, but we’ll still be able to come together.”

This year’s homecoming attendees are gathering over the theme of advocacy, a concept inspired by a summer of social unrest and intended to spark conversations about racial justice, said Frederick, the university’s president.

Officials organized events, including a national conference to amplify social and racial justice work, a reception to celebrate LGBTQ+ activism and a tribute to actor and alum Chadwick Boseman, who died in August after a long battle with colon cancer. The streamed events are open to the public.

Spencer Kelly, a senior studying international business, is most excited about Sunday’s gospel concert. Taking in the harmonies in person would have been ideal, but he suspects the virtual experience will be just as moving.

“I was crushed that we couldn’t experience homecoming in-person, but so much is beyond our control because of the pandemic,” said Kelly, who is originally from New Jersey. “I’m glad my university has figured out a way to keep the excitement and energy going and not decide to cancel homecoming completely.”

The university will also attempt to re-create Yardfest, traditionally a festival and concert on the university’s iconic Yard. With its grassy patches and crisscrossing pathways, the Yard is where the historically Black Greek sororities and fraternities honor their organizations and sing songs during homecoming.

“It’s really the cultural epicenter of the university,” said Taylor Jones, who graduated in May with a history degree.

“When I look at old pictures of students at Howard in the 1930s and 1940s and they’re on the Yard, it looks almost exactly as it does now,” Jones said. “It’s surreal to think I’m walking across the same Yard Toni Morrison walked across.”

The place is also special for former students like Jibunoh, who watched Jay-Z perform at Yardfest in the early 2000s. Maleke Glee, a 2016 graduate and art consultant, remembers running into one of his favorite artists, Trina, in the same spot. Kanye West made a surprise appearance last year.

The school promised to bring “top-tier artists and entertainers who reflect the Howard diaspora” for the Yardfest on Saturday. Actor Omari Hardwick will host the festivities.

“We always have celebrities coming through homecoming,” Glee said. “Everyone comes to Howard homecoming.”

For associate professor Jennifer Thomas, homecoming has always been the can’t-miss event of the school year. And her connection goes deeper than many. As a junior in 1987, Thomas reigned over events as Miss Howard, the equivalent of homecoming queen.

But “we say Miss Howard and Mr. Howard because it represents the institution and why we’re here. And I took that very seriously at the time and I still do now,” said Thomas, who has taught broadcast journalism at her alma mater since 2013.

Homecoming, for Thomas, has always been a chance to reconnect on the Yard with her sisters in Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, eat great food and attend the big-name concerts. The event is also an opportunity to network, look to the future and relish being in a sea of talented cohorts.

“It’s wonderful to come and see this mosaic of different shades of brown that are there and who are all doing amazing things,” she said.

Thomas is inspired by the efforts students and alumni have made to connect with one another in virtual happy hours and panels on topics such as voting and the disparate impact of covid-19 on Black Americans.

And even though this year’s event is virtual, Thomas won’t leave empty-handed: She’s already purchased two 2020 Homecoming T-shirts.

'Being here has changed my life'

Howard’s homecoming is not the only one to go virtual this year. Graduates at nearby HBCUs, including Morgan State University in Baltimore and the University of the District of Columbia are among those that will celebrate online, as well.

“It took a lot to make the decision not to have homecoming,” said David Wilson, president of Morgan State. For current and former students, their HBCU is the place “you never have to wonder, ‘Do I really belong here?’ Everybody just comes and reconnects to the place that they credit for their success. It’s a very special weekend.”

Rachel Howell, president of the Howard University Student Association, says homecoming has always been “a time to reflect on all the greatness that has happened at the university.” Growing up in Alpharetta, Ga., a city Howell describes as very conservative and very White, she never felt like she belonged. Howell said she was always the only Black person in the majority of her classes, so her university became a refuge.

“When it comes to homecoming, I fall in love with my university all over again,” said Howell, a senior studying political science and philosophy. “Being here has changed my life.”

Howell and the student association will use this homecoming to register voters. They are also rallying alumni and students over social media to head to the polls or mail in their ballots.

Meanwhile, Jibunoh will try to keep his own traditions intact, all the way from his home in Lagos, Nigeria. This weekend, he plans to pour himself a drink and reconnect with friends while tuning in to some of the virtual events.

Jibunoh knows this homecoming won’t be the same. But that won’t change its significance.

“I do think it will still evoke some emotions,” he said, connecting with “individuals who have chosen to be part of your life until you die.”