The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Howard University controversy was never just about dogs. It was about respect.

A Howard University student walks across the Yard on the way to class. (André Chung/for The Washington Post)

Some D.C. residents may still think it’s okay to walk a dog across Howard University’s central yard.

Let there be no confusion: It is not.

The university’s president said as much in a recent letter he sent to the “Howard University Family,” following weeks of controversy about the tendency of some nearby residents to walk their pets, and allow them to do what pets do, on the greenery that students and faculty members use to hold cherished traditions.

“We recognize that service animals are a necessary aspect of modern-day life and we will accommodate them as needed,” University President Wayne A.I. Frederick wrote. “We appreciate pet owners respecting our campus by not bringing pets onto the private areas.”

It is a carefully worded statement, but the message it sends is clear: Unless your dog is working, keep it off our yard.

It also lends support to the outrage and the pushback students from the historically black university have expressed in defense of a space they consider sacred.

Students say dog walkers on Howard campus are desecrating hallowed ground

In recent weeks, they have not held back.

“The interlopers better recognize that Howard University isn’t going anywhere,” reads the headline of an opinion piece senior Kyra E. Azore wrote for theGrio, a web site geared toward African American readers.

“Black students see Howard as a safe space, where we can seek refuge from trials of the outside world of our campus,” she wrote. “These interlopers, on the other hand, seem to be treating Howard’s campus like a community park, where those new to the area have felt free to lounge, enjoy a Spring day, and ‘deal’ with the inconveniences that come with the patch of land that also happens to double as an institution of higher learning when they are not using it.”

Other students and alumni have used equally potent language. They have called their neighbors, who in recent years have become whiter and wealthier, “colonizers” and “disrespectful gentrifiers.”

After one D.C. resident appeared on television suggesting the university could move if it didn’t like residents walking dogs there, he quickly became a hashtag: #GentrifyingGeorge.

Whether you agree with how students and other Howard supporters have chosen to express their anger — and the intent, no doubt, is to provoke a reaction — it’s important to understand what is behind it. It’s important to understand why so many are saying ‘enough’ and suddenly typing #HowardWontMove.

The truth is this was never just about dogs. It was, and still is, about respect.

It’s about seeing Howard University for what it is — a 152-year-old institution that has been home to many great minds — and honoring that. Or at the very least, not allowing an animal to defecate on it.

“Howard University was created because Black People were not allowed in white spaces,” one person wrote in a tweet that was shared more than 3,400 times. “Dogs would viciously attack us at their white owners call. For a white man to say we should ‘move’ our historic university to accommodate his dog … shows history repeats itself.”

“So Howard’s a private college but the gentrifying locals want to claim the Yard and every other speck of D.C.’s greenery as a part of their community?” another person wrote on Twitter. “This winter, was it a community problem when Howard needed hot water on campus so students could resume classes?”

No, this is not just about dogs. It is about tensions that have long been growing — and will likely show themselves in other neighborhoods in other forms, just as they did recently with go-go music — in a city that has changed so rapidly in the past few decades that it can feel dizzying.

The nation’s capital, according to a recent study, has experienced the highest “intensity of gentrification” of any city in the nation between 2000 and 2013. What that means is neighborhoods that were once predominantly black have become increasingly white and more expensive to live in.

The neighborhood around Howard is no exception.

That piece Azore wrote pointed out some of the conflicts this has caused.

“The Yard is the heartbeat of the University,” she wrote. “To see it now littered with jogging pedestrians and nonchalant dog walkers infuriates me. I am also aware that these are the same people who have driven up the surrounding property value to the point where most students who live off campus have no choice, like myself, but to find apartments in neighboring states because we cannot afford to live adjacent to where we take classes. The frustration that students experience is rooted in the fact that these are the same people who call the police to complain about our house parties and campus events, but then go ahead and picnic under the trees that are dedicated to our historic Greek letter organizations.”

Many of the residents who have used “the Yard” in the past to walk their pets, hold a picnic or spend a few quality moments outside with their children likely did not know they were walking into all of that. They probably went on a whim, maybe even to feel a part of a great institution, not realizing the weight their presence carried.

But now, they know.

Now, there is no confusion.

Administrators and students have made themselves clear by asking politely and not-so-politely for the same thing: Please don’t use our private grounds as a public park.

In his letter, Frederick not only addressed what shouldn’t happen on the Yard, he also spoke of what does.

He spoke of “auspicious occasions” and described one in particular.

“Our Commencement Ceremony is the ultimate long walk that symbolizes a sacred tradition, symbolic of every student’s matriculation,” he wrote.

In a few weeks, on May 11, students will gather on the Yard and together take that long walk, following in the steps of some great leaders who came before them and who made that ground feel hallowed.

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