The HBCU Homecoming Experience
Published on September 30, 2021 · Updated on November 18, 2021
While many university homecomings come and go without much notice, homecomings at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are annual events that everyone circles on their calendars. These weeklong festivals often include alumni reunions, appearances by major celebrities, late-night parties, and great food. (If you haven't gone on a tour of the food tents at an HBCU homecoming yet, you've missed out).
The History of HBCU Homecoming
HBCU homecomings share some similarities with religious homecoming events held in churches. Those events are a time for church members — old and new — to engage in fellowship and enjoy each other's company.
HBCU homecomings also provide space and time to connect or reconnect with friends, the community, and, more broadly, Black culture. While it is difficult to pinpoint a precise beginning to HBCU homecomings, the modern alumni-centered event surrounding a fall football game dates to at least Morehouse College's celebration in 1924.
HBCUs undoubtedly had alumni events before this. But around this time, homecoming at HBCUs began to develop into what it is today. Over the years, homecoming has grown beyond the football game itself and alumni reunions. It's become a series of multi-day events that occur off and on campus. These events have become central to the HBCU experience and culture.
Indeed, homecoming is now a broader festival of Black culture and Black excellence — with the influence extending well beyond alumni and students.
Why Homecoming Is Important to HBCU Culture
Homecoming at HBCUs is an annual highlight for the campus and the community, celebrating Black joy and culture. A highly anticipated and important event, homecoming allows HBCUs to connect with their communities and to forge relationships between different generations of students and alumni.
"My first HBCU homecoming was in 2016, my freshman year of college," said Aaron Johnson, a Morehouse College alum. "I had never seen that many Black people enjoying themselves in one place. Every corner of our campus was packed with alumni, celebrities, politicians, and current students — all celebrating a shared experience of going to an HBCU, which was awesome."
Homecoming, as many have described, is a kind of family reunion, where alumni come back to give back and reconnect to their alma mater. Meanwhile, students celebrate Black excellence — past and present — and build deeper connections to their campus community and the broader alumni network.
Homecoming is largely an alumni event. For alumni, homecoming is a time to return to campus to see old friends and professors and revisit important places on campus.
This pilgrimage is planned by alumni, coordinated between friends, and prepared for — particularly monetarily — throughout the year. HBCU alumni make this trek to enjoy themselves and recharge from the day-to-day grind of postgraduate life.
Alumni involvement in homecoming is vital to HBCU culture. However, it also is beneficial for students and the university. Especially successful alumni often come back to speak at events and to classrooms as role models and mentors.
For alumni, it's a chance to give back to the university.
For students, it is an opportunity to connect with successful Black people in their chosen field.
For the university, homecoming is an important fundraising time. In fact, it may be the most important fundraising period for a school. Major donations are often made to the university. These donations are celebrated at halftime of the homecoming football game.
Alumni from the "Divine Nine" — the original Black fraternities and sororities — often donate large sums of money for scholarships. These donations can be vital to the financial standing and success of the university.
HBCU students have the chance to showcase their talents and connect to Black culture — past and present — at weeklong festivities. Students can learn firsthand about the history of their university and the surrounding communities.
For example, Florida A&M University starts its homecoming parade in Frenchtown — a predominantly Black neighborhood in Tallahassee — across the city from the school's campus.
This start allows alumni to reconnect with Frenchtown residents. Students also have the chance to get to know this historically important community for Black culture. It also allows community members to feel a part of the festivities — despite being geographically separated from campus.
However, an HBCU homecoming experience is more than just donations and alumni reliving their glory days. It's also a celebration of Black excellence and Black culture. And a way to build community across generations and geographies.
Components of the HBCU Homecoming Experience
There are numerous traditions and exciting experiences to participate in during homecoming.
Each HBCU has its own unique traditions — the Lighting of the Sign at North Carolina's Winston-Salem State University, for example. However, there are a number of elements of an HBCU homecoming that should be familiar to all HBCU alumni, students, and fans.
The first signs of homecoming, visibly at least, are often the decorations that begin to go up the weekend before homecoming week. This marks the start of festivities and fills the community and campus with anticipation for the events ahead.
This is followed by activities, classroom alumni visits, and intense practice sessions held by organizations performing during homecoming week. As the week progresses, the campus becomes more packed as alumni and fans begin to arrive.
The campus is alive with "strolling" fraternity members, block parties, and tons of food. There are many popular events to experience and enjoy. These include the homecoming parade, the coronation (the ceremony for the homecoming king and queen — and their court), fashion shows, step shows, and often a music festival with high-profile celebrity performers.
By the time the football game — with its highly anticipated halftime show — starts on Saturday, the campus is packed with alumni, students, and fans. When not at the game, many can be found standing in lines at the food tents. Music, the aroma of soul food, and school pride fill the campus space as people tailgate and file into the stadium.
“I can still remember attending the game following the parade and pep rally,’ said Tonika Dew Evans, an alum of Tennessee State University (TSU). ‘I remember where I sat in our on-campus stadium. I can feel the cool, brisk air of that fall afternoon as we watched the band march into the stadium greeted by applause and shouts from the stands. I can't recall if we won since that was over 30 years ago. However, I was victorious because, for me, homecoming became the final event to usher me into the TSU family.”
If there is anything that merits the buildup of homecoming week, it is the joyous atmosphere of homecoming day.
How to Get Involved in HBCU Homecoming
Looking to get involved in an HBCU homecoming celebration? The best way to be part of the festivities is to join an on-campus organization.
Most organizations on HBCU campuses participate in homecoming. They may serve as sponsors for events like the fashion show or participate in the homecoming parade. HBCU homecoming is a weeklong, community event, with many activities to participate in — from block and house parties to annual car shows. Events take place on campus and in the surrounding community.
If you love to strut your stuff, consider auditioning to model for the fashion show. Join the student government association, and you could be on a student homecoming committee. Or, if you are already thinking about or part of a fraternity or sorority, then join your organization's homecoming steering committee. Depending on your talents and interests, there are many ways to get involved with homecoming.
Homecoming is at the center of HBCU culture and the HBCU experience. This event creates important cultural spaces. Homecoming celebrates Black joy and connects the past, present, and future of the HBCU, Black culture, and Black excellence.
It's hard to find a space that celebrates Black culture more than an HBCU homecoming.
Meet the Alumni
Aaron Johnson is a 2020 graduate from Morehouse College, where he majored in marketing and minored in journalism. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in data analytics at Columbia University in New York City. His personal interests include listening to and playing music, film, photography, and television. His professional background includes experience with music tech and ad agencies. With his degree, he hopes to develop a more data-driven approach to content marketing in entertainment spaces. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaron-johnson-3517862a/
Tonika Dew Evans
Tonika Dew Evans is a licensed professional counselor and certified professional counselor supervisor. She identifies as a social service advocate with an aim to positively impact the lives of individuals and families. This passion has proven to be an asset in her work as an administrator, in program management and development, and while serving on the boards of social service organizations. Currently, she provides counseling and consulting services through her company, All In Dew Time, LLC. Tonika attended Tennessee State University.
Feature Image: PeopleImages / E+ / Getty Images