As the first Black, Asian American and female vice president — a 1986 graduate of Howard University — prepares to take office, some worry the planned demonstrations could overshadow what should be a joyous moment.
“At the same time that there are forces ushering our country forward, there are also forces trying to hold it back,” Wayne A.I. Frederick, the university’s president, said this week during a conversation he moderated among members of the campus.
Despite the challenges, many in the Howard community are finding ways to commemorate the occasion. University leaders will ring the bell in the campus’s chapel 49 times for the 49th vice president of the United States. Frederick this week convened a virtual panel of professors to reflect on the ascent of the community’s “beloved Kamala Harris.”
Howard students and alumni have rallied around Harris, hosting phone banks and virtual fundraisers; now they will watch her take office. To many, the vice president-elect’s journey feels personal.
Harris’s sorority sisters in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., a historically Black organization founded on Howard’s campus, campaigned across the country. And the Divine Nine — a collection of Black Greek-lettered organizations that includes Alpha Kappa Alpha, three other sororities and five fraternities — gained national attention for their fundraising and organizing during the 2020 election.
The groups have long been political powerhouses within the Black community, galvanizing voters for decades and producing scores of leaders in state capitols and the halls of Congress.
“VP-elect Harris has come into this position because of all of the efforts of our sorority, but also the Black community, in general, and specifically the HBCU community and the Black Greek community,” Jennifer Thomas, an associate professor and a member of Harris’s sorority, said during the virtual panel held by the university. “Don’t sleep when it comes to us because we have power and we demonstrated that twice this election season.”
To Nira Headen, a Howard senior and double major in Afro-American studies and sports administration, the tenets of service and uplift of the Black Greek organizations and the mission of historically Black colleges and universities align in ways that nurture leaders such as Harris; Sen.-elect Raphael Warnock, a Morehouse College graduate; and Stacey Abrams, a Spelman College alumna whose organizing efforts are largely responsible for turning Georgia blue.
“It starts with an HBCU education,” Headen, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., said in an interview. “All of those people attended an HBCU for undergrad. You develop a sense of community and understanding of uplift as a Black person and you identify those ideals again in the Divine Nine when we talk about sisterhood, brotherhood, community service and social activism.”
Headen had planned to head to the Mall with her parents for the inauguration. They had traveled from Baltimore as a family to witness both of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations and wanted to bear witness to a Howard graduate’s ascension to the vice presidency.
But the surge in coronavirus cases gave them pause and the attack on the U.S. Capitol made it clear that being downtown would not be safe, Headen said.
Much of the city is locked down or walled off in anticipation of more political unrest. Even though the campus is mostly empty — the semester starts Tuesday and the majority of classes will be conducted virtually — there will be extra security in place to monitor any threats.
“I’m worried about it,” Keneshia Grant, an associate professor of political science, said during the virtual panel. “I just want Howard University to be a safe space, where we can say what we want to say, where we can walk around freely and not feel worried because there’s so few places in America where we can just be, where Black people can just be themselves.”
The challenges underscore a year of loss.
The coronavirus, which is killing Black people at a higher rate than other racial groups, has disrupted several months of school. The virus canceled an on-campus homecoming, and celebrations for the first HBCU graduate to be elected vice president will now also be relegated to cyberspace.
Russell Edmonds, a senior at Howard and member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., said that he will watch the festivities on TV with roommates who are also his fraternity brothers.
“I had planned to be there in person, sent a request to my congressman to get tickets, but they sent out communications a few days ago that it wasn’t going to be an option because of covid,” Edmonds said. “I wasn’t surprised. I always knew it was wishful thinking, but at the very least I’d hoped to walk onto the National Mall, which won’t be an option anymore.”
Headen will cheer Harris on from the comfort of her home. Nothing, she said, can diminish the significance of this moment for Black women, for HBCU students and for members of the Divine Nine.
Those in the Howard community also hope Harris’s leadership — and the new Democratic-controlled Senate — comes with policy changes, particularly in the realm of student-loan debt.
“We have to now have to think about debt and student learning,” Gregory Carr, chair of Howard’s Afro-American studies department, said during the panel. “This is a window, a very small window — not two years, not a year, maybe not even six months — when this administration is going to have to become very serious about whether they’re going to get things accomplished or use excuses.”
But to some, seeing Harris get sworn into office will be enough.
“Kamala Harris being the first Black woman to be vice president is crucial, but her being a Bison means so much more to us,” Peter Lubembela, a senior studying political science and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., said during the panel. “As a Howard student, my charge is so much bigger because of Kamala Harris’s accomplishment.”