Up Next


For Howard students, provocative visit by white students raises major issues of safety and free speech

Given what’s happening across America, HU students didn’t know what their real intentions were

“I think they were deliberate … how do you find the Annex cafe?”

“We were deliberately provoked and they got what they were trying to get … that’s the thing that irks me.”

“It’s all over the right Twitter, articles, and Facebook … ”

These were the statements given across the classroom by my peers at the beginning of my first day of the semester at Howard University on Monday. I sat with seven other students in my announcing and interviewing class on the third floor of Howard’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications. I wasn’t expecting to begin conversing about anything regarding President Donald Trump during my very first class of the school year.

If you’ve searched “HowardU” on Twitter recently, you’d have seen various accounts continuing to discuss their views on the incident that occurred at Howard’s Bethune Annex cafeteria on Aug. 19. According to various reports, two white teenage students from Union City High School in Pennsylvania came to the historically black university wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) apparel, which drew passionate responses from both students and alumni on and off campus.

Multiple reports stated that the two girls were among a group of 30 teenagers who visited the nation’s capital to view different sites across D.C. The group decided to eat lunch at Bethune Annex, one of Howard’s premier cafeterias, when Howard students offended by their Trump apparel interrupted them.

“I walked up to them, introduced myself and tried to warn them that you should probably not wear these hats here, as they were at an HBCU,” said Merdie Nzanga, a junior journalism major from Seattle who witnessed the incident firsthand. “At first they asked what an HBCU was, and I told them. They then reacted and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ ”

Nzanga believes that based on their body language, the girls generally didn’t know about Howard University being a historically black institution and said that one of the girls even turned red from embarrassment. After telling them that there were students on campus who weren’t Trump supporters, another Howard student soon afterward snatched one of the girls’ hats off her head. That’s when a second Howard student came by and yelled obscenities at the girls, which made the group decide to leave the cafeteria and soon prompted a heated Twitter debate about freedom of expression.

Days after the incident, the climate on campus regarding the visit still has many students confused as to why the group came to Howard in the first place. Many were suspicious of the group’s lack of knowledge of Howard, which is deemed by many as one of the flagship historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country.

“It was very interesting to see how bold they were to come to Howard’s campus without knowing where they were going,” said Dominique Hill, a junior sociology major from St. Louis. “I feel like you can’t pretend to not know that Howard is a predominantly black campus. I feel like they came to make a point, their point was made and they got exactly the reactions that they deserved.”

“While people have freedom of speech, freedom of speech doesn’t equate to freedom of consequences,” said Justin Funnye, a junior African studies major from Buffalo Grove, Illinois. “Yes, you can wear the hat, but know where you are at, and if people are upset about it, you have to recognize it.”

While many assumed that only black Howard students didn’t agree with the high school group’s decision, some white Howard students were of the same opinion. Shelby Harrell, a junior history major from Fayetteville, North Carolina, said she didn’t agree with it because she believed the group was infringing on other people’s rights.

“With this example shown last week, if your hate speech infringes upon my nationality, religion, race or me as a person, then I don’t think it should be said,” Harrell said.

“Even if not all Trump supporters are racist, I feel like they put a racist in power, and I personally don’t feel like anybody’s nationality, ethnicity or anything like that should be threatened, especially on this campus.”

Because of the numerous reactions on Twitter from the original tweet made by Allie Vandee, one of the students wearing a MAGA hat and a Trump T-shirt who complained soon after deciding to leave the campus, Howard’s official Twitter account released a statement of its own. But students weren’t satisfied with the administration’s response.

“Today, there were visitors on our campus who were wearing paraphernalia that showcased their political support. This occurrence and the responses on social media that followed emphasize the need for and importance of human interaction. The recent events in Charlottesville are the latest examples of the deep divisions that exist in our country. Though this is an institution where freedom of thought, choice, and expression are ever-present, we will never compromise our values or allow others to convince us to do so. We will remain committed to truth and service and boldly affirm who we are and what we stand for. Our campus is a space for educational engagement to occur between both those who do and do not share our values. Thankfully, when visitors set foot on our campus they are met with some of the brightest and best students in our nation. Howard students are not simply academically advanced, political activists, leaders, and mentors — Howard students represent all that is right about America.” — Howard University statement

“As a university, I don’t think Howard will bring further attention to it. Obviously, the students have, but the university won’t because I don’t think they will call more attention to it than it already has,” said Lisa K. Satchell, a senior film and television major from Laurel, Maryland. “While I do think freedom of speech is great, you can have your freedom of speech, but you shouldn’t be allowed to make people feel uncomfortable in their own safe space.”

“I feel like a press release is not enough. We should take it further because people think that everyone at Howard thinks the same, when that is not the case. The university could do a better job of engaging students more,” said Nzanga.

Instead of waiting for administration to take the conversation further, student leaders on campus are taking matters into their own hands. Tariq Johnson, a senior chemical engineering major from Atlanta and president of the Alpha chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. on campus, believes there is a responsibility for students to try to correct situations on both ends and prevent incidents like the one that took place Aug. 19 from happening in the future.

“Being a member of the community and the president of an organization, we’re looking into having a panel on free speech and the ways to respond to people in their use of free speech more respectfully,” Johnson said.

From witnessing the incident Aug. 19 until Tuesday, Nzanga hopes to inform others that Howard is a very peaceful school, as opposed to the comments posted on social media accusing students of lacking manners and insulting the institution.

“This university is welcoming and very diverse, as there are students who have not agreed with President Barack Obama and students who have voted for Trump,” said Nzanga.

“I wish that we could have an open forum discussion where we would sit with our school president, discuss how students feel about Trump since being elected and all that is going on in the political world.”

Paul Holston journalism major from Summerville, SC. He attends Howard University and served as 2016-17 editor-in-chief of The Hilltop.