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In Commencement Address, Biden says Howard U. is ‘The Soul of the Nation’ - Some Grads Stage Protest

President Joe Biden speaks to Howard University’s Class of 2023 during the commencement ceremony at Capital One Arena in D.C. on May 13. PHOTO: Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer

In his commencement address to Howard University’s (HU) Class of 2023, President Joe Biden sparked excitement among the graduates and their families when he recognized HU’s legacy of excellence and called the historically Black university “the soul of the nation.”

His charge to graduates on Saturday was to follow in the footsteps of their fellow alumni to advance the cause of racial equity and tackle the issues that, several decades after HU’s founding, continue to affect Black people’s quality of life in the United States.

“What is the soul of the nation? The essence of who we are. The soul makes us us. The soul of America, which makes us unique among all nations. The only nation founded on an idea, not geography, religion or ethnicity,” Biden said in his commencement address on Saturday.

“The single prophecy in the Declaration of Independence that we’re all created equal. We never totally lived up to that promise but never walked away from it,” Biden continued. “America hasn’t been a fairy tale. It’s been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years. It’s a battle that’s never really over. To stand up to white supremacy, the domestic terrorist threat to our homeland.”

Not all students embraced Biden’s message. As Biden spoke, some graduates stood up and turned their back to the president. Some of them held up signs that said “Black people stand up, fight back.”

Students who mentioned the protest on social media expressed skepticism about Biden’s intentions to address white settler colonialism. They also incited calls to challenge what they described as the U.S. government’s collusion with HU to oppress Black people abroad.

For many graduates, the road to HU commencement had its ebbs and flows. Just months into their freshman year, HU’s Class of 2023 counted among those who quickly pivoted to virtual learning amid a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands.

Over the next few years, the class of 2023 would not only navigate COVID, but the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, a protracted student-led protest for improved housing conditions and transparency, contract negotiations between the university and faculty members, and a series of bomb threats that have gone unsolved.

Throughout it all, they also witnessed a renaissance in which, amid a growing racial consciousness, HBCUs experienced record enrollment and increased federal government support.

In 2021, Biden signed an executive order reestablishing the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence and Economic Opportunity through HBCUs. The executive order called for a holistic approach to supporting historically Black higher education institutions via access to federal funding and research and development programs.

The Biden-Harris administration’s budget proposal that year also included more than $1 billion allocated toward HBCU research, STEM workforce development programs, and IT infrastructure, among other projects, via the U.S. Department of Education (DOE)’s Title III initiative.

Other priorities centered on teacher preparation at HBCUs. Those allocations built upon $500 million directly allocated to HBCUs through DOE grants, along with more than $5 million in COVID-related relief that Congress earmarked at the height of the pandemic.

HU has benefitted from federal investments, the most recent of which turned HU into a university-affiliated research center that, through collaboration with the Department of Defense, would aid in development of “tactical autonomy.” In his homecoming address to alumni in October, HU President Wayne A.I. Frederick revealed that the university surpassed its $100 million milestone for research contract and grants.

In his opening remarks at HU commencement, Frederick once again reflected on HU’s financial situation, this time acknowledging the Biden-Harris administration’s investments in HBCUs.

“President Biden has been instrumental in making these lofty goals a reality [with] investments, including for postsecondary education, including historically Black colleges and universities,” Frederick said on Saturday. “This is crucial to our future and Biden and his administration understand and are doing something about it.”

This year’s commencement was scheduled to be the first to take place on the HU Yard since 2019. A last-minute location change however brought the commencement to Capital One Arena in Northwest.

In the hours leading up to the opening processional, legions of graduates, faculty, staff, and family members converged on Capital One Arena. Graduates who marched into the ceremony before the processional waved at family and friends, laughed among one another, wiped tears from their eyes, and at times, belted the oh-so-famous “HU! You Know!” slogan.

Those in attendance at HU commencement included actor Wendell Pierce, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At large), Wendell Felder, chair of the Ward 7 Democrats, and Congressman James E. Clyburn (S.C.), who received an honorary doctorate.

Other honorary doctorate recipients were Biden, Bruce A. Karsh and Marsha L. Karsh, founders of the Karsh Family Foundation, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Christopher Rowley, clinical investigator and health policy scholar Dr. Eugene Washington, and Benaree Pratt Wiley, a corporate director and trustee.

The Rev. Dr. Bernard L. Richarson, dean of Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, gave the invocation while Jordyn Allen, president of HU Student Association, greeted her fellow graduates. Later, the HU Concert Chorale and Symphonic WInds gave a rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In her remarks, Severna Medor, a graduate of HU College of Pharmacy, reflected on her journey as a student, and how the comradery of others laid the foundation for an academically and socially enriching graduate-level experience.

“Once I… saw students with the same desire to excel, I knew I was on the right path,” Medor said. “Coming to Howard University allowed me to find me. I found my voice and passion. At Howard, differences are valued and respected,” she continued. “Our shared desire to succeed prepared us to meet challenges. This journey has tested us literally and figuratively. We doubted ourselves at times [but] got the results we wanted.”


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