Earlier this month someone who lives near Howard University wrote to a prominent District website with a concern:
Dear PoPville, I had a bad experience with my (well-behaved, chill) dog on Howard University Sunday around noon. We were walking through campus when a group of students started screaming at us that dogs weren’t welcome on campus. One girl yelled, “This a closed campus, I’m going to call the cops on you.” The students continued to scream at us and follow us for around five minutes. Is there a policy against dogs at Howard?
The unnamed letter writer said he or she had lived in the neighborhood for five years, regularly walked the dog on campus, and had never had “any issues.”
A university representative said Howard has no rule banning dogs from campus. But the historically black institution is in the center of a city that has rapidly been growing wealthier and whiter, and whether the letter writer realized it or not, walking a dog through the campus meant entering a complicated debate about race, gentrification and cultural norms.
Such dramas have played out recently on large and small stages, including in the city’s Shaw neighborhood this month when a controversy erupted after a resident of a luxury apartment complained about an electronics shop playing loud go-go music on outdoor speakers.
To some, the crux of the problem is race: Howard is largely black, and the dog walkers are largely white, part of a recent wave of newcomers in historically black neighborhoods.
In the Yard, an open campus area surrounded by academic buildings, students relaxed this week on benches or strolled along the walkways that crisscrossed the lawns. But, as several pointed out, there were unspoken rules.
Although no signs or fences forbid it, no one walked on the grass. And no one was touching the towering old trees whose painted bark denoted affiliation with the 152-year-old university’s sororities and fraternities — symbols that command deference in the student community — or particular trees that are hangout spots for Caribbean students or those interested in Africana.
It was no place to walk a dog, students said — especially one that might stop along the way to relieve itself.
“It’s disrespectful,” said David Edgerton III, 18, a freshman, adding that white local residents seem to have no idea about the history and traditions of a university with ties to Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Frederick Douglass, and no interest in learning about them.
Several students said they chose to attend Howard because of its prestige and because students, faculty and administration looked like them — giving them a chance to escape racism elsewhere.
“It’s okay if you walk around [but] when you bring your dog and desecrate our sacred lands, it would be the same thing as if you were to pee on the White House lawn,” Edgerton said. “Not only are you taking our homes, but you are also changing our rules, so that we cannot be free to do what we’ve been doing since 1867. The purpose of this institution was to give people who did not have an opportunity before an opportunity. When people come onto campus and disrespect that ideology, of course students are going to be angry.”
Charmaine Stegall, 19, a sophomore, pointed out that there are many other places to walk dogs in the city. “Why do they want to invade a black space, like white people do, just like they did all over D. C.?”she said. “I pay 40K a year to be here, to be very comfortable. Most black students grew up surrounded by white people, by racism.”
The letter posted on the PoPville website garnered nearly 200 comments in two days, and more people weighed in elsewhere as word spread. Some blasted local residents for using the campus as a “dog park” and wondered whether nonaffiliated people should be allowed onto the grounds at all. Some noted that many universities welcome neighbors and their dogs in outdoor areas, and asked why Howard shouldn’t do the same (one man interviewed on local TV suggested that Howard campus be moved “if they don’t want to be within D.C.”)
Who are these kids to tell us where we can and can’t walk, one wrote. Nice that teenagers who’ve lived in DC all of a year and a half are telling decades long residents what quasi-public spaces they’re allowed in.
Several students said the issue wasn’t about skin color or length of residency but about understanding what is culturally appropriate. White people might be used to dogs showing up at the post office, the hair salon or the college quad; black people might not. A few noted that black people living in the neighborhood do not walk their dogs on the campus.
The issue was also about understanding history, they said. In a world where black people are usually the minority and are often targets of subtle and overt racism, several Howard students said, the campus is one of the increasingly few places in the fast-gentrifying city where they can relax and not worry about being watched.
“This is supposed to be like a safe haven, like a space for us,” said Kenzell Munroe, 20, a sophomore. “You see what’s happening all around the Shaw area, white people, it’s like they’re infiltrating the space . . . and now they’re coming here and bringing picnics with their kids. Like, bro, why would you come here? Like, bro, come on, can we just have something?”
Keneshia Grant, a political science professor at Howard, said the conflict over who uses the campus and how it is used is not new, and is not limited to dogs. It has also come in the form of joggers from adjacent neighborhoods who barrel down the walkways, calling out “On your left!” and expecting students to move out of the way.
“We don’t even really run through the campus, unless you’re playing sports, and there’s space for that,” she said. Noting the fraught history of black people having to step off sidewalks when white people used them, she added, “Don’t expect that we’re going to get off our sidewalk to accommodate you.”
Dogs, too, can have negative connotations for black people because of the country’s troubled racial past, said Grant, who tweeted about the issue last fall.
“It’s not that we don’t like dogs; many of us have dogs and love them,” she told The Washington Post on Friday. But when seeing an unfamiliar dog, she said, “We’re remembering images of protests when people were attacked by dogs, we’re remembering images of dogs accompanying the Klan.”
This was news to Beth White, president of the Shaw Dog Park board, who lives in Logan Circle. “I was not aware that it was something that would be a concern on a historically black campus,” she said. “It wouldn’t have dawned on me, as someone who is white. . . . In my world on college campuses, everyone had dogs on campus. It’s not in our cultural wheelhouse, so maybe we’ve got to be more aware of it.”
Although she does not walk dogs at Howard, White said she recently read about the issue on social media. “It sounds like people are really upset, and when people are really upset, you think maybe it’s time to take a pause. . . . You don’t want to be unintentionally insensitive.”
But Gary Yehl, a Bloomingdale resident who walks his Welsh terrier, Giorgio, on the Howard campus most Saturdays, said he has never heard any objections. “It seems like society is becoming more dog-friendly, so it seems like taking a step backward” to protest them, he said.
Yehl said he goes to Howard because it is visually appealing and removed from busy streets. “Anytime I have had contact with students, they’ve always been like, ‘Can I pet your dog,’ or ‘What kind of dog is he?’ It’s always been positive.”
Alexander Padro, executive director of Shaw Main Streets, a civic organization, and a longtime ANC commissioner, said he first heard of the issue this week and hoped both sides could work together on resolving it.
“We’ve got many new residents in the Shaw area, and we’ve got very little green space,” he said. “Certainly the spirit of sharing and interacting is what we all would like to encourage and see more of. . . . If people are going to take dramatic positions that everyone who doesn’t look like them and is walking a dog is a gentrifier, then obviously, heads will be butting.”
But students said the onus should be on outsiders to learn the unspoken rules of the campus before using it.
“You shouldn’t have to put up a sign saying, ‘Don’t let your dog use the bathroom here,’ ” said Arianna Bard, a freshman.
Opoku Boateng, 19, a freshman, nodded. “That almost feels like you can feel the gentrification creeping up to you.”