Long before the pumpkin spice hype, the turn of fall meant crisp air, vibrantly colored leaves and homecoming season at historically Black colleges and universities. The communal gatherings, the warm welcomes back and bands’ renditions of “Neck” all make for an experience like no other. It’s almost like going to the most perfect family reunion with all of your favorite relatives.
This year, however, COVID-19 put that tradition on pause. It wasn’t a surprise when schools like North Carolina A&T, Lincoln University and Florida A&M University began announcing homecoming cancellations, but it was a blow to HBCU students, alumni and homecoming regulars nonetheless.
Still, schools and alumni across the country have managed to find ways to safely celebrate their beloved alma maters’ homecoming celebrations amid the pandemic.
Nicolette McClendon, a Howard University alum, told HuffPost that she was disappointed when she learned homecoming wouldn’t be happening this year, since 2020 marks 10 years since her graduation. McClendon’s first thought was, “I wish I could still get dressed for homecoming.”
The fashion is just as vital as tailgates, music and familial energy for HBCU homecomings. The yard transforms into a runway as students and alums come dressed to more-than-impress.
McClendon, who’s a stylist, decided that she would still get dressed and bring homecoming to life through her photo project “Homecoming At Home,” which launched on Instagram on Thursday. She said she wanted to replicate the feeling of getting ready for tailgates with fellow Howardites while also highlighting small Black businesses.
“I really just wanted the opportunity to do something that made me feel good about homecoming,” she told HuffPost.
As long as Howardites “have an actual, tangible project product, whether it be decor or beauty or apparel, it can be implanted in the shoot, and even though it’s small subliminals, it’s still a way to get their products out there,” McClendon explained. “I’m absolutely interested in helping that avenue for other Howardites as well as other small Black businesses and Black creatives.”
Different schools and alumni organizations have organized various virtual homecoming events throughout October to bring students and alumni together safely. SpelHouse — Spelman and Morehouse’s joint homecoming — North Carolina A&T and Howard University have all hosted virtual events commemorating their events this year.
In addition to Florida A&M University’s virtual lineup, Robyn Mowatt, a FAMU alum and writer at OkayPlayer, worked with a committee of former classmates to organize a week replicating annual events, including Top Flight Wednesday and Set Friday with DJ Loosekid. The committee also hosted a virtual workout class and an entrepreneurship panel.
“Even though we’re all real busy, we still wanted to come together to just do something in light of what this year has turned into,” Mowatt said. She said that the group also paid out of pocket for DJ sets and put together Amazon Wish Lists for Teacher Appreciation Day.
“I think that’s really what the Rattler spirit is,” she added. “It’s just really just coming together, giving people shine.”
For Mowatt, McClendon and so many others, the spirit of HBCU homecomings is about more than just the events and parties. It’s about leaning on and uplifting a community that continuously pours into its members.
“Homecoming is my everything. It’s my Super Bowl, my birthday, my Thanksgiving, everything wrapped in one. So it’s really to me, it is a spirit,” Chubb E. Swagg, an official DJ of Howard Homecoming, told HuffPost. “It is definitely the spirit that rejuvenates me. It’s the battery in my back. Physical, virtual, spiritual, whatever. Whatever we got to do to get some people together to celebrate coming from this particular place.”
The weekend was filled with several other events for HBCU students including YouTube’s “HBCU Homecoming: Meet Me On The Yard” global live stream, hosted by rapper 2 Chainz and TV personality La La Anthony.
Chubb E. Swagg DJ’d for The Gifted Life’s virtual Thousand Bottles event for Howard Homecoming, and also participated in a special all-HBCU music set on Clubhouse, organized by DJ and writer Cory Townes and featuring DJs representing several schools on Friday. Essence and Pepsi also collaborated on a two-day virtual celebration, hosted by TV personality Terrence J, titled “She Got Now,” and MACRO hosted its second annual HBCU Entertainment Summit featuring actors John David Washington and Kenya Barris, among others.
iHeartRadio also announced a month-long celebration to recognize notable alumni and students, with a day of musical performances and panels on Nov. 12.
Despite attempts to salvage homecoming events, Zoom fatigue is real. Howard alum Damilola Laguda said she appreciated the efforts to keep homecoming events alive in 2020, but is sitting them out until next year. Laguda, who helped organize Howard homecoming efforts for 2019, told HuffPost that she’d be game to do an HBCU homecoming tour with her friends in the future and hit up the most popping homecomings she has yet to experience.
“I think, especially after a year of Zoom calls and a year of turning your camera on and off, it’s a little bit daunting, and so I respect the effort that all these HBCUs are making to try to make sure that we can gather because essentially what HBCUs specialize in is just gathering us,” she explained. “But I can’t stand another Zoom anything. You know what I mean? I need to see something live.”
One homecoming that she’s especially looking forward to is NC A&T’s “Greatest Homecoming On Earth,” also known as GHOE.
This year, students and alums took a shot at midnight to kick off virtual events. Folks will also be able to watch a documentary about the historical and cultural importance of GHOE. Filmmakers Ashley Shante Deese and Brandon Deese, who didn’t attend NC A&T but spent plenty of time at its homecomings, had been working on a documentary about the school and filmed significant footage prior to the pandemic. When they found out GHOE was canceled, the A2B Studio founders decided to use their footage to create a documentary, “Stay At Homecoming,” which will premiere for free on YouTube and Vimeo on Oct. 30.
Though homecoming looks a lot different this year, finding a way to safely celebrate was necessary, Laguda said.
“Some of the beauty about the physical homecomings, which is really the default homecoming, is that it’s allowing the communities to be part of it. A lot of people I know grew up at homecoming and they didn’t even go to HBCUs,” she said. “So, in a year like this, where we’re so separated and we’re at odds — this election is super divisive; there’s social issues, racial issues — everything just seems very intense and high-energy. I think now, more than ever, we need to try to find alternative ways to gather.”