Inauguration 2021

Kamala Harris’ road to the White House started at ‘The Mecca,’ Howard University

The university’s legacy instills a call to service, leadership and embracing Black excellence

WASHINGTON – Somehow, her classmates and sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. at Howard University could see the future. It wasn’t so much about prophesy, as it was about progeny.

Former U.S. Sen. Kamala Devi Harris, Class of ’86, steps into history on Wednesday as the first woman and woman of color elected vice president of the United States.

“My mother was very intentional about raising my sister, Maya, and me as strong, Black women,” Harris noted on her Instagram account. Her choice to go to Howard reflects those lessons. In choosing Howard, Harris was immersing herself in Black culture and Black life.

So, why Howard? “When it came to college, I wanted to get off on the right foot,” she wrote in her book The Truths We Hold: An American Journey. “And what better place to do that, I thought, than at Thurgood Marshall’s alma mater?”

Harris, 56, has said Howard is where she gained confidence and ran her first race for elected office, and it’s also where she announced her run for president. As a student, she was involved in activism, student government and pledged AKA in the spring of 1986. The name given to her lineup of initiates was 38 Jewels of Iridescent Splendor. Harris is “No. 15 on our line of 38 and our line is very proud of her. We always knew she was destined for greatness,” said attorney Jill Louis, one of those 38 women who are her “line sisters.”

Adds Lorri L. Saddler, associate vice president and dean of undergraduate admissions at Clark Atlanta University, and another line sister of Harris’: “Kamala is the culmination of our founders’ wildest dreams.”

Student life at Howard revolves around “The Yard,” the centerpiece of campus. “Meet me at The Yard,” was a common phrase between Harris and her lifelong friend attorney Karen Gibbs, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. They met their very first week on campus and lived in the same dormitory for part of their time at Howard. They enjoyed homecomings, basketball and football games, daily meals, weekends and epic off-campus events together. “We were joined at the hip,” said Gibbs.

“Kamala and I were liberal arts majors and had classes in Douglass Hall. You can see The Yard from the windows of Douglass – we couldn’t wait to be out of classes so we could be on The Yard and hang out. We were Kappa Sweethearts together and we loved going to The Yard. Hair, fashion — you never knew who you may see and we made certain that we were correct! Our crew was known as the Phly Five.” She laughs as she remembers. “Those times were the best. Meeting at The Yard is what we did every day, and on Friday at noon, everyone began to come out to it,” Gibbs said. “Our time at Howard was a coming of age for us. Kamala was 17, because she had a fall birthday, and I was 18 — it was transformational and there was a real exuberance we all experienced.”

From left to right: Valarie Pippen, Karen Gibbs, Kamala Harris and Melanie Wilcox Miles.

Photo by Karen Gibbs

Student government campaigns are no joke on The Yard — slogans, advertising, speeches … the campaign trail is a very real thing on campus then and now. Feeling inspired, Harris decided to run for freshman class president of the school of liberal arts, against all men and odds, “and she decided I was running, too. ‘You are going to run for president of the school of business’ — so I did and we both were victorious. She was always a leader,” said Melanie Wilcox Miles, who became fast friends with Harris when they both lived in the Quad dormitory and later became sorority sisters. “She used to say Howard and D.C. was like having your finger on the pulse of the world.

“Our friendship just happened. We were both from places where we were minorities in our school. Walking up to Howard we stepped foot on the top of the hill at the top of The Yard and you see beautiful Black faces in every hue,” said Miles, now an attorney. “For the first time, we could see in color. Before, we just saw things in black and white. There’s this feeling of, I am not the exception, here I am the rule! Kamala and I were in awe and for us it was an awakening! I believe that confidence is what led Kamala to run her first campaign on campus.”

As they matriculated, the bond grew and the focus shifted to service and sisterhood. “There was a bond within Greek life that existed in us that some of us hadn’t even experienced at home. Those were the nights that we stayed up overnights and prepared for protests, events, learned Robert’s Rules of Order, and how to organize and get things done,” said Miles.

“Looking back, as a line I remember we were intentional about our presence and image on The Yard. Some days we were talking political worldviews, the next we were passing out our flyers that said, ‘Going to the Go-Go’ for our next party,” said Louis, laughing, “all while wearing our identical black flats and pearls.”

Those relationships have remained. From undergrad, through law school and beyond, Gibbs and Harris have been friends. Harris is the godmother of Gibbs’ two children, who are Howard grads as well. “From decade to decade the only thing that changes on The Yard is the number of people who come — more,” Gibbs said. “The feelings are still the same.”

Kamala Harris (center) with her godchildren, Howard University grads Kristopher Ernst (left) and his sister Micah Ernst (right), the children of Harris’ friend since their days at Howard University, Karen Gibbs.

Photo by Karen Gibbs

“For me, Howard is home,” Harris captioned her Instagram post. “It’s where I ran my first ever race for elected office. It’s where I joined my beloved sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha — and I’m so excited to be celebrating our 113th Founders’ Day today!”

Reminiscing about her undergrad years and her time as an AKA member, Harris said: “And along the way, Howard taught me that while you will often find that you’re the only one in the room who looks like you, or who has had the experiences you’ve had, you must remember: you are not alone. Your entire Bison family will be in that room with you, cheering you on, as you speak up and out. We’re with you every step of the way.”

Once Harris left Howard, her trajectory seemed clear. Born of immigrant parents in Oakland, California, she is the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris. A prominent cancer researcher before her death in 2009, Gopalan was born in India and came to the United States to study for her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. Harris was born in Jamaica and immigrated to the United States to attend school for a graduate degree, eventually becoming an economics professor at Stanford University.

After graduating from Howard, Harris went back to California to attend the University of California, Hastings College of Law. She started her career in the Alameda County district attorney’s office and later the office of city attorney of San Francisco.

In 2003, she was elected district attorney of San Francisco and was elected attorney general of California in 2010 and reelected in 2014. In 2016, she defeated Loretta Sanchez to become the second African American woman and first South Asian American to serve the U.S. Senate. The junior senator from California has advocated for health care reform, federal descheduling the Dream Act, progressive tax reform, a ban on assault weapons and a path to citizenship.

Kamala Harris’ Howard University graduation photo.

Howard University

Harris sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination but dropped out of the race before the primaries. Democratic nominee and former vice president Joe Biden selected Harris as his running mate in August 2020 and the Biden-Harris ticket won the November 2020 election.

She married Douglas Emhoff, a corporate lawyer in Los Angeles, in 2014 at a small and private ceremony officiated by her sister Maya. Emhoff has two children from his previous marriage; they call Harris “Momala.”

Howard University, ‘The Mecca’

Over the last 150-plus years, Howard University has become one of the most prestigious historically Black universities (HBCUs) in the United States. The term HBCU was created by the Higher Education Act of 1965, which expanded federal funding for colleges and universities. HBCUs were established to serve the educational needs of Black Americans. Before their establishment and for many years afterward, Black people were generally denied admission to traditionally white institutions. As a result, HBCUs became the principal means for their postsecondary education.

Howard was chartered by Congress in 1867 as a private research institution composed of 13 schools and colleges in Washington. Students pursue studies in more than 120 areas leading to undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees.

The university has played an important role in the advancement of African Americans, from its prestigious faculty members such as the first African American Rhodes scholar Alain Locke and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche to the students who protested global issues and organized sit-ins and protests during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The university also made headlines for a number of protests that supported students’ quest for change on campus and has served as a blueprint for other student-led campus demonstrations.

As one of the only doctoral research extensive HBCUs in the country, Howard has produced thousands of prominent and accomplished African American scholars, artists, entrepreneurs and politicians. The notable list of alumni includes author Toni Morrison; Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall; U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland; theater director and actress Phylicia Rashad and her sister, director, dancer and actress Debbie Allen; author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston; actor Chadwick Boseman; and now Vice President-elect Harris.

Howard’s illustrious institution nickname “The Mecca” is a definition in and of itself. “I was admitted to Howard University, but formed and shaped by ‘The Mecca.’ These institutions are related but not the same. Howard University is an institution of higher education, concerned with the LSAT, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa …” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates, former Howard student and author of New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me. Coates adapted his book for an HBO series produced with Howard alumnae Susan Kelechi Watson, the actress who plays Beth Pearson in the NBC drama This Is Us, and award-winning director and Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes.

“It’s a machine crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energies of all African people and inject them directly into the student body,” Kelechi Watson said proudly as she walked on The Yard @lastbisonstanding Instagram account in November. “The Mecca” is a noun and a verb.

Activism is at the heart of “The Mecca.” Students protested apartheid in South Africa in the ’80s, marched in Washington, then in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, demonstrated at the Howard administration building against campus policy and tuition changes, and led “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protests in the last several years.

Desire Dubose graduated in the ’90s as a student of the Division of Fine Arts and returned to the university as an adjunct professor a decade later, “The Howard University motto ‘Veritas Et Utilitas’ — translated in English as ‘Truth and Service’ — is a reminder to students and alumni of the high bar of excellence we achieve and uphold class after class. For me as a freshman, I felt like I could hear the sound of African drumming every time I came to The Yard. I felt that every time I came on to that sacred ground. Student protests are a rite of passage — it’s a part of our unspoken curriculum and it’s the invisible line on all our transcripts,” Dubose said.

The Yard

It’s Friday, at high noon. Any current student, alum or staff of Howard University knows the only place to be on campus is The Yard. Sororities and fraternities congregate at their claimed trees and plots ready to celebrate the legacy of their organizations through singing, strolling and fellowship. You can hear the hustle and bustle of students making their way, coming from all areas of the campus to witness this sight, to see and enjoy the sea of Blackness and Black excellence.

Decked out in the latest fashions or draped in their organization’s colors, they come. From the Fine Arts building north of The Yard, from the School of Communications at the southern part of campus on 6th Street, from the valley just below The Yard. They have been coming for decades to this sacred ground.

“Most Howard alums can tell you the exact time and even what they had on the first time they stepped foot on The Yard. It’s a nostalgic feeling of arriving,” said Dr. Anthony Spain, an orthodontist, two-time graduate of Howard (’83, ’90) and a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. “I can barely explain, it’s transformational. When you first step on The Yard, you feel as if the ancestors are with you. It’s a surreal feeling. It’s filled with love, brotherhood and sisterhood and it was global – Africa, Barbados, Jamaica, LA, New York – all in D.C. and all Black excellence. I wish I was on The Yard right now, that’s how much I love it.”

Howard University protests on The Yard during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Howard University

According to The Cultural Landscape Foundation, the campus’ major expansion after World War I happened as a collaboration between landscape architect David Williston and architect Albert Cassell. Williston also created campuses for other HBCUs, including Tuskegee University. Cassell is credited with the campus’ master plan and with the designs of many buildings, including Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall and Founders Library, both National Historic Landmarks.

“The Yard is the central quadrangle on the campus. It’s surrounded by nine academic buildings and is the site of a variety of campus gatherings, including homecoming activities known as ‘Yardfest’ and graduation for all students,” said Howard historian Lopez Matthews Jr. “It’s also been the site for several historically important protests and events stamped for their role in the advancement of desegregation and civil rights in education during the 20th century. Protests against the Vietnam War, and more recently against the killings of unarmed African American citizens, commence on The Yard on campus.”

Howard’s law school was where legal strategies were created leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. This legal work, spearheaded by Charles Hamilton Houston and Marshall, often happened in Founders Library, where the law school and library were located from 1944 to 1955.

Birthplace of Black Greek life

The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) was founded at Howard University and has served as a catalytic organization for African American fraternities and sororities since 1930. The NPHC was founded at Howard to support Black college students who were searching for a voice, community and shared identity. It played a vital role in uniting Black collegians fighting for equal rights and fair treatment. The NPHC currently has nine members and these Greek-letter organizations are commonly referred to as the Divine Nine.

“The sororities and fraternities that make up the Divine Nine were founded on the principle of scholarship and the principle of faith fueling our responsibility in service to all mankind,” Vice President-elect Harris said at the Divine Nine Virtual Rally on Oct. 29, 2020. Five of these nine organizations – Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), Zeta Phi Beta (1920) – were founded at Howard and all their forces are felt on The Yard. Each organization has a tree and plots that students have painted to represent their group after initiation.

Kamala Harris on “The Yard” at Howard University on March 28, 1986, with her Alpha Kappa Alpha line sisters.

Howard University

“Greek-letter organizations add to the richness of HBCUs,” said Saddler. “In AKA, our mission states to be of ‘Service to All Mankind’ and we take that seriously. The motto is in my DNA — it’s how I approach my work, my family, and it’s my guiding principle. When you decide to join a sorority or fraternity within the Divine Nine, you vow to a lifetime commitment to service and a bond with your line sisters and to the organization that transcends time and distance.”

Louis, Class of 1987, remembers the work and service that the Divine Nine put in during her time at Howard. “Being Greek and being on The Yard was a training ground for us to build community and make real change. It was us realizing that we were a distinct group of leaders that could influence change within our student body and beyond. My line developed and executed a cultural series that hosted monthly seminars to enlighten fellow students. We protested and raised $10K for South Africa and for So Others Might Eat.” Those cultural programs are still prevalent within Howard’s Alpha Chapter AKAs and the legacy of giving to those organizations and causes has grown over time.

“Sister and brother organizations sometimes collaborated but there were healthy covert rivalries on The Yard. They fueled us to perform and to answer the call of our respective organizations and deliver excellence. The Greeks set the tone and pace of The Yard and ran the campus, we were always raising the bar,” said Spain.

Members of the Divine Nine attended church together with their organizations at Rankin Chapel on Sundays before going to The Yard. “I remember it was a Sunday and we were still initiates — we were seated together at Rankin Chapel for church, doing everything we could to keep our eyes open while trying to remember our AKA greetings and greetings for other organizations. Our time at Howard on The Yard was so unique because at that time every organization that was fully active on campus had an initiation class. When we came out of church that day, everyone did their greetings. We were center stage and it was magical. There were people as far as the eye could see to watch the lines and look at us give our greetings. It was a moment for the campus. That was Howard — that was our Mecca! Everyone, Greek or not, was a part of that feeling we [the Divine Nine] created,” said Saddler.

Kamala Harris (left) with sister and adviser Maya Lakshmi Harris (right) preparing to speak to women of color during the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit at The Mirage in Las Vegas on March 1, 2019.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

That feeling goes beyond the campus and Howard’s alumni and staff. Howard’s homecoming on The Yard has become a national event. It’s been mentioned in lyrics from artists such as The Game, Ludacris and Common. Performances by Jay-Z, Diddy and the Notorious B.I.G., Kanye West, Wale, DMX, Drake and others are just part of what has made homecoming and Yardfest so special. Alumni, students, faculty, Washingtonians and out-of-town guests attend annually.

“Howard students end their journey at graduation on The Yard. They are reminded of our motto of truth and service as they leave the campus and again it is that culmination of all things Black that brings together the spirit of The Yard and Howard one last time. The Divine Nine, international students, Black excellence, activism, scholarship – they all make the Howard experience,” said Matthews.

Several HBCUs have done this for decades and are just now receiving their flowers for being sacred grounds for scholarship and service. The list of famous and notable HBCU grads overflows. Georgia Senator-elect Raphael Warnock is a Morehouse alum. Georgia voting rights activist Stacey Abrams attended Spelman College. Cori Bush, who is the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress, went to Harris-Stowe State University. About 17% of all undergraduate degrees earned by Black students are from HBCUs, and Howard has produced more Black women-led startups than Harvard University, according to Digital Undivided.

“HBCUs pull diamonds in the rough into our student population and transforms students into the superstars they were born to be. These institutions provide guidance and an environment to cultivate their full self — in a safe space. This moment of Kamala fully becoming Madam Vice President of the United States of America is a win for all women, for Black women, and for HBCUs across the country. It shines a light on the fact that HBCUs produce trailblazers and leaders in every industry on every level worldwide,” said Saddler.

Karen James is a Senior Strategic Communication Manager for NASA. She is a proud graduate of Howard and Harvard universities. In her spare time, she authors for various publications and spends time with her daughter Olivia. She is member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and an avid philanthropist.