Homecoming's deep meaning at an HBCU: 'Stand confidently in a crowd where you're the majority'

It is officially homecoming season! For most schools, this simply means that alumni travel back to campus to reconnect and attend the big football game. However, at a historically black college and university, homecoming is a week-long celebration that includes everything from high-energy step performances and fashion shows to exuberant parades and tailgate parties.

Just think of it as New York Fashion Week: College Edition.

Homecoming at an HBCU is more than just a football game; it’s a weeklong celebration full of style, culture, and legacy. (Photo: Getty Images; J. Collier/Curry St. Shots, Samira Rashad)

HBCUs have existed for nearly two centuries, initially founded with the objective of being higher-learning institutions for African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These schools were created by groups such as northern black and white missionaries, the federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau, and famous philanthropists.

Marybeth Gasman, an HBCU historian, higher education professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “There was an incredible thirst for learning, as blacks were kept from formal learning during slavery.” She adds, “Most HBCUs started in small buildings and church basements.”

Students in geography class “studying the cathedral towns” — by looking at artists’ renderings of the famous European cathedrals — at Hampton University in 1899. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Elevated from very humble beginnings, there are now more than 100 HBCUs, such as Florida A&M University, Xavier University of Louisiana and Tuskegee University in Alabama. Well-known figures such as Booker T. Washington (Hampton University), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), Walter Payton (Jackson State University), Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College), and Taraji P. Henson (Howard University) all chose to matriculate at these illustrious schools built on the premise of empowering people of color through education.

The rich history of these institutions is a reason so many prospective HBCU students get excited about the opportunity to be a part of a legacy that keeps getting bigger and better. It’s actually why I personally decided to go to one of the top HBCUs, Hampton University.

Aside from also falling in love with the 2002 film Drumline, which told the story of a young drummer (played by Nick Cannon) at a predominately black Southern university, I had the chance to experience HBCUs firsthand by attending fairs and college tours. Each time I would visit a new school, I was surprised to meet so many intelligent, extremely well-versed, and undeniably stylish students. Coming from a low-income household in an urban neighborhood, it honestly was something I didn’t see often outside of TV shows especially in people of color who looked like me.

By my senior year of high school, my mind was made up. I was going to an HBCU for sure.

After two months as a freshman at Hampton University, I was gearing up for my first homecoming experience, and I think I underestimated just how epic this special occasion would be. In the name of showing my Pirate pride, I wore our school colors from head to toe, with paraphernalia and an overload of blue and white accessories.

Jacqueline Laurean Yates at her first homecoming at Hampton University in 2010 while she was still figuring out her personal style. (Photo: Jacqueline Laurean Yates)

Let’s just say, I think I was still figuring out my personal style. We all go through an awkward stage, right? On game day, usually a Saturday, I quickly noticed homecoming at an HBCU is far more than a rowdy football game. In fact, it feels more like a big family reunion where everyone is high-stepping in their best outfits.

In case you are wondering why everyone is so dressed up for this annual affair, Howard University alum — and founder of the successful luxury lifestyle management agency, The Vanity Group — Karleen Roy explains to Yahoo Lifestyle, “When you come back to Howard for homecoming, you want your style to showcase that you still got it. At Howard, that means to floss a little bit. You want to look and feel your best, and show that you’ve not only graduated on to your next step in life with your career, but also with your appearance.”

Gasman adds, “HBCU homecomings are incredibly special — big, showy, rich, and warm in terms of the way they make alumni feel. Colleges and universities all have homecoming, but at HBCUs, it’s a full show with something for everyone and a deep embracing of the institution and the memories. Students are engulfed by generations of alumni who love the institution and also want the students to succeed and truly understand the importance of the HBCU in their lives.”

Fellow Howard alum and founder of Experience The Legacy, an annual college fair that brings HBCU awareness to eager high school students, Eleise Richards shares her experience with Yahoo Lifestyle. “When adult life kicks in, you barely get to see these people as much as you did during undergrad, so the homecoming celebrations are like reunions. It’s one big annual family reunion. It’s really magical, so inspiring and motivational — so nostalgic. It’s nothing but love. It’s truly just the HBCU way.”

Students participating in the annual Hampton University Homecoming parade 1976. (Photo: William R. & Norma B. Harvey Library Peabody Collection)
Homecoming parade during football game between Howard University and Shaw College. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Hampton University’s 1957 homecoming parade. (Photo: William R. & Norma B. Harvey Library Peabody Collection)

Over the years, you will also notice how coordinated groups such as sororities and fraternities can be during homecoming. Roy, who also is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., says, “It’s a tradition that at most HBCUs, sororities, and fraternities celebrate their initiation year anniversary by creating a matching, custom paraphernalia piece that the whole line would wear during one of the homecoming festivities. At Howard, that is typically on Saturday, which is the biggest day of homecoming. Each year, everyone looks forward to seeing what lines are going to wear what, because the styles get more creative and unique every homecoming.”

Maya Allen, an assistant beauty editor at Byrdie and member of the prominent Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. posed for a jaw-dropping photo alongside InStyle Magazine’s fashion and beauty editor-at-large, Kahlana Barfield, and other beautiful sorority sisters during Howard University’s 2017 homecoming. The photo has since gone viral because of how insanely united and stylish each sorority sister looks in the vivacious crimson and cream colors.

Maya Allen, far left, and members of the Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. pose for an epic photo during Howard University’s 2017 homecoming. (Photo: Samira Rashad)

Yahoo Lifestyle caught up with Allen to learn more about this #squadgoals photo, and she breaks it all down: “Homecoming is such a reunion for us. Every woman in Alpha Chapter is such a boss, which means most of the time we’re caught up in our careers and jet-setting around the country. It’s very rare when we all have the time to come together and fellowship. So it was only right we documented it with a fly photo to capture the memory.”

Members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. unite at Hampton University homecoming 2017 for their 20th anniversary. (Photo: Jacqueline Laurean Yates)
Members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. wear coordinating outfits for a photo on Hampton University’s campus in 1973. (Photo: William R. & Norma B. Harvey Library Peabody Collection)
Members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. pose in trench coats in 1977. (Photo: William R. & Norma B. Harvey Library Peabody Collection)
Members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. gather for a fun photo during Hampton University homecoming. (Photo: J. Collier/Curry St. Shots)

HBCU homecoming fashions aside, students at Hampton University are taught to dress the part all year long. According to the school’s official website, “The continuous demonstration of appropriate manners and dress ensures that Hampton University students meet the very minimum standards of quality achievement in the social, physical, moral, and educational aspects of their lives essential areas of development necessary for propelling students toward successful careers.”

The dress code also states, “Students will be denied admission to various functions if their manner of dress is inappropriate. On this premise, students at Hampton University are expected to dress neatly at all times.”

While some may argue that Hampton’s dress code is strict, most attendees have abided by these principles during their Hampton tenure; they showcase their personal style without feeling the need to wear “shorts that reveal buttocks“, “clothing with derogatory, offensive and/or lewd messages either in words or pictures, or other specific styles noted in the school’s policy.

Former sophomore class attendant Charlene Smith on Hampton University’s campus in a stylish forest green ensemble. (Photo: William R. & Norma B. Harvey Library Peabody Collection)
Two women strike a pose during Hampton University’s 2017 homecoming tailgate party. (Photo: J. Collier/Curry St. Shots)
A young man strikes a cool pose during Hampton University’s 2017 homecoming tailgate party. (Photo: J. Collier/Curry St. Shots)
Former Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. sweetheart Belinda Garrett shows off an eclectic look at Hampton University in 1975. (Photo:  William R. & Norma B. Harvey Library Peabody Collection

This year’s Hampton University homecoming was a special one, as the school is celebrating its 150th anniversary. “We look forward to celebrating with the global community, residents of the Commonwealth, and anyone who values educational excellence,” says Hampton University president William R. Harvey in a statement. “As we embark upon the university’s 150th anniversary and my 40th anniversary as president of Hampton, we’ll reflect on the stellar achievements and undeniable progress that this university has accomplished.”

Other HBCUs have also hit tremendous milestones, and the pure tenacity of these schools is part of why they are still relevant today.

One of the most fabricated rumors is that HBCUs do not promote diversity and encourage separation. However, students from all ethnic backgrounds have always been welcomed at HBCUs. Gasman explains, “HBCUs are some of the most diverse institutions in the nation. They are diverse in terms of race (13 percent white, 1 percent Asian, nearly 3 percent Latino, and many international students). There is also race diversity within — African-American, Caribbean, African — in addition to diversity with regard to religion, sexuality, and socio-economic income.”

She continues, “In addition, the faculties are some of the most diverse — 60 percent black but 40 percent non-black.”

In 2017, Hampton University is celebrating its 150th year. (Photo: J. Collier/Curry St. Shots)

Another common misconception, which XO Jane pointed out in 2015, is that HBCUs offer an inadequate education due to their focus on black history. Critics have gone as far as to say, “A 4.0 at an HBCU is not equivalent to a 4.0 at a PWI (predominantly white institution).”

However, incorporating black history into the schools’ curricula is a priority, and also contributes to student morale, as a Huffington Post article suggests: “For the first time in many of these students’ lives, they see a reflection of themselves in textbooks that goes beyond just civil rights. To mistake a curriculum that focuses on black history and culture as inadequate is a notion rooted in white supremacy.”

HBCUs also produce some of today’s most elite black professionals. NBC News reported, “While HBCUs represent only three percent of all U.S. colleges, they produce 17 percent of African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees and 24 percent of all black scientists and engineers. And, by and large, at a time of stratospheric tuition rates, HBCUs have continued to serve academically and financially disadvantaged students — known as ‘at risk’ students in financial aid parlance.”

Echoing those sentiments, Gasman says, “HBCUs built the African-American middle class. They were the birthplace of various Civil Rights movements throughout the nation. They produced the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance and many important scientists and scholars. They educated many of our nation’s judges, legislators, and more. They are also crucial to our nation’s force of African-American doctors. HBCUs are vital and have been throughout their history.”

Eleise Richards celebrating Howard Homecoming 2017 with friends. (Photo: Eleise Richards)

Richards adds, “HBCUs help strengthen and teach self-worth. HBCUs teach you how to stand out and stand confidently in a crowd where you’re the majority in order to excel in a world where you’re typically the minority. You’re a name and not a number, teachers actually say, ‘Hello [insert name]’ when they see you walking across the yard. HBCUs are just a nurturing and encouraging environment.”

Yahoo Beauty Editor, Jacqueline Lauren Yates, at Hampton University’s 2017 homecoming tailgate. (GIF: Jacqueline Laurean Yates)

Stepping back on campus for homecoming this year with the knowledge that my alma mater has been around for 150 years was truly humbling and reassuring experience — I made the right choice seven years ago to attend this historic HBCU.

For starters, coming back as reporter to the very grounds where I originally learned all about journalism was a complete full circle moment. Showing up in high heels, high-waist navy blue silk trousers, and a full face of makeup exemplified how much my personal style has changed since my first homecoming.

Getting a chance to be front and center, smell the aroma of soul food in the air, see current and former cheerleaders, as well as band members come together as one vivacious sound was truly profound. This all made me proud to be connected to something so precious, something bigger than me, something that helped me become who I am today, and something that can never be taken away from me.

Keep the conversation going! Show your HBCU looks by tagging #HBCUStyle on social media for a chance to be featured in Yahoo Lifestyle’s Instagram stories. 

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