Back-to-school HBCU preview: Howard University in Washington, D.C.

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  • Published on August 5, 2022
  • Last Updated March 21, 2023
  • In Spotlight

The university thrives in the heart of the nation's capital and once hosted the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King Jr. and more.

As the school year approaches, a new generation of parents and their children are facing decisions about post-secondary education pathways. For some, that may mean college visits become wrapped up in vacation time. Since the end of the Civil War, historically Black colleges and universities have created spaces where Black intellectual life can thrive freely with the support of a campus where students can navigate life surrounded by peers and mentors who share parts of their culture. While anyone who’s been through this process knows that, after a while, the tours can begin to run together, but HBCU campuses stand out, as they are often gems of history, having helped incubate Black intellectual and political thought and activity. Washington D.C.’s Howard University is no exception.

On a quadrangle colloquially known as “The Yard,” three buildings, Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall and Founders Library face one another, all registered on the list of National Historic Landmarks for their role in advancing the civil rights movement. Teams of attorneys who plotted the legal strategy that led to the landmarkBrown v. Board of Education case used Douglass Memorial Hall and Founders Library as their headquarters. In addition, Rankin Chapel became a hub for discussing the impact of the fallout from the case. Each of these buildings boasts not only historical significance but architectural bona fides as well.

Founders Library was designed by Albert Irvin Cassell, a Black architect born in 1895, who designed buildings on numerous college campuses as well as civic buildings for the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia. When it was constructed in 1939, it contained some of the most advanced features of the day, such as mechanical elevators and air conditioning. Headlines at the time sang praises to the building’s opulence, comparing it to Aladdin’s Palace.

Stained glass panels designed by faculty artists James A. Porter and Loïs Mailou Jones bring an Afrocentric color scheme against which the Gothic architectural style is contrasted in Rankin Memorial Chapel. The building has served as an oasis for Black spiritual life and hosted notable speakers like W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, Haile Selassie I, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. and more.

Families in D.C. to tour Howard can extend their Black travel experience by visiting Black-owned restaurants, like Ben’s Chili Bowl or the DC City Smokehouse, perusing the latest Afrocentric fashions at ZAAF Collection or Black Pepper Paperie Co., indulging in wholesome skincare at Nubian Hueman, or browsing bookshelves at Black booksellers like Mahogany Books and Sankofa. No matter what’s in store for the future, a weekend spent in one of the country’s most thriving Black hot spots is sure to create memories that last. Join us this summer as we explore HBCU hot spots around the country to help enhance the family college tour experience with history tidbits and travel tips.

This story was created by Detour, a journalism brand focused on the best stories in Black travel, in partnership with McClatchy’s The Charlotte Observer and Miami Herald. Detour’s approach to travel and storytelling seeks to tell previously under-reported or ignored narratives by shifting away from the customary routes framed in Eurocentrism. The detour team is made up of an A-list of award-winning journalists, writers, historians, photographers, illustrators and filmmakers.

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