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I remember making a solemn oath to never return to Howard University once I graduated in 1995. The seemingly oblivious and attitudinal administration, shabby buildings, and completely wack registration process had me ready to jet. For me, the worst was standing in line for six or seven hours waiting to register only to find that half the staff had run out to lunch. Or to be informed that it was 4:30 p.m. and I needed to come back tomorrow. At times like that I really wondered if there were any brains at all in charge of the place.
Although I felt a strong sense of pride at being a young African-American woman at this historically black university, and must admit to having had some incredible professors, I swore that as an alumna I would never give the school a red cent in support. It may sound sad, but many of my days as a student left me wondering where all the tuition money my parents were forking over was actually going. The trifling, disgusting bathrooms, old, smelly science buildings, and rickety sidewalks really had me feeling as if I was being cheated by my own people. I didn’t want to wait around for a solution; I wanted to get my diploma and get out.
Harry G. Robinson III and Hazel Ruth Edwards have changed much of that attitude for meat least momentarily. The two have compiled a handsome, coffee table-style book, The Long Walk: The Placemaking Legacy of Howard University, whose title symbolizes the university’s growth and the journeys that students, faculty, and others have made at Howard. In literal terms, the Long Walk was originally the walkway that cut across the Main Quadrangle between Main Building and Clark Hall. Today, the name belongs to a path that joins the Fine Arts Building and Founders Library.
Founded in 1867 by Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, a white Civil War hero and anti-slavery activist, the university was dedicated to educating newly freed slaves. Now one of the nation’s pre-eminent schools for blacks, Howard has come a long way since its inception; starting with four principal buildings on 150 acres of land, the school now comprises nearly 100 buildings on 260 acres.
The Long Walk places heavy emphasis on the school’s 129-year structural development but also examines some of the social changes that shaped the institution. The book is a gift to the university, Robinson and Edwards say, its purpose to instill pride in Howard’s students and alumni and to return the love the school has shown them. “What other great challenge and gift, than being able to contribute what you have to Howard University, and to influence for generations what people think about themselves?” asks Robinson.
Robinson, 55, a fourth-generation Howard graduate, is the interim vice president for academic affairs while on leave as dean and professor of urban design in the School of Architecture and Planning. Receiving his degree in Architecture and Urban Planning in 1966 and a master’s in Urban Design from Harvard, Robinson has gone on to become a prominent member of numerous architectural associations. Edwards, 33, a 1986 Howard architecture grad (and Harvard grad as well), is now special assistant for planning and development under Robinson. Her Howard history reaches back to 1974, when her mother was a founding dean of the now-defunct School of Human Ecology.
The love the pair have for the university seems unshakable. Robinson played on the campus as a young boy, riding his bike over its hills, while his buddies hung out at Banneker High School across the street. Born at Freedman’s Hospital, now Howard University Hospital, he spent the majority of his youth growing up around the school.
“It was a great time in my life,” says Robinson of his student days. “[Dr. Edwards] can’t speak, because I was her dean,” he laughs. “When I finished high school and came here, I wasn’t at Howard walking around like a freshman, looking for buildings. I knew exactly where everything was. I’ve been able to spend a majority of my productive career here at Howard. It’s sort of a magical thing. I get up every morning, and I’m never not really happy to come to Howard University. It is the most unique thing in my life.”
The Long Walk’s 264 pages are illustrated with photos that date back to 1880, some of which, Robinson points out proudly, come from his father’s old photo albums. The pictures are grand storytellers in themselves when it comes to documenting how far the school has actually come.
“The book isn’t just about planning and building,” Robinson explains. “It’s about how this place, as a vessel for activity and social interaction, evolved as a place. It’s really about what it has meant to people.
“I had the idea for the book years ago,” he says. “They say everybody has one book in them, and I always thought mine would be about Howard University. I never had the resources to do it [before], but when I came to the interim vice presidency in August of ’95, I needed to do research about what the university had done with planning since it started.”
Edwards, a soft-spoken woman, joined Robinson in October 1995 to work on the development of the book. She explains that she had her own reasons for documenting the history of her alma mater: “After going off to school, eventually I felt a need to come back home, to Howard University. To give back to the university all that I had learned. When my mother came to work here, I was 7 years old. So this place has been a big part of my life.”
“The research of the book was difficult, because the story wasn’t there,” says Edwards. “The first and second histories of the unversity [Howard University: The First 100 Years, 1867-1967 and Howard University: The Capstone of Negro Education: A History, 1867-1940] had covered the campus development, but not to the detail that we wanted for this book. We had to piece together a story.”
Research for The Long Walk was painstaking. The pair, with the help of various researchers and colleagues, scoured yearbook after yearbook to find many of the images used. They examined 20,000 of the 55,000 images at Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, one of the country’s largest archives of African-American historical materials; of those, 500 made it into the book. As a token of appreciation, Robinson says all of the book’s proceeds will be donated to Moorland-Spingarn.
“It was a tortuous process. Dr. Edwards and I didn’t speak for days and weeks at a time,” Robinson says, remembering days when things were so stressful there was no time to socialize. “We were under pressure, because we wanted to have it done during president Patrick Swygert’s first year here. It was our welcoming gift to him.”
With the overwhelming pressure a memory, Robinson and Edwards give the impression that they kind of miss the chaos. “Once you do a book, and it’s your first book, it’s sort of ‘Where do you go from here?’” Robinson muses. “I mean, there was a period when we were both flat after the book came out. After the jubilation and partying calmed down, the question is, ‘Now what do you do with your life?’”
Plenty. In addition to holding positions at Howard, Robinson is, among numerous other things, president of two national architectural organizations. He heads the National Architectural Accrediting Board and the National Council
of Architectural Registration Boards, and is in
fact the first African-American to be elected to these positions.
The two are also going to be busy preparing for Howard’s future. “The book provides a historical foundation for the current master plan,” a document that charts Howard’s structural development over the next 10 years, Edwards explains. “Part of that is going to be talking to students, faculty, as well as people from the outside community. We want the surrounding community to share their visions,” she says.
“We want it to be a totally participatory process,” says Robinson. “We want to hear everybody’s voice about where things should go.”
Robinson beams as he discusses some of the new developments that will be taking place on the campus. Cramton Auditorium is getting revamped with new carpeting, new seats, lower-level handicapped access, and a new basement. “Cramton is going to become a major venue in this town. It has the second largest stage in the city, aside from the Kennedy Center,” he continues. The theater seats over 1,500, and Robinson boasts that it has some of the best acoustics in town. The university has its sights set on Cramton becoming as popular a venue as George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. “It’s a gemstone,” Robinson gushes.
Also in progress is the demolition of two small buildings on Howard’s main campus, which are being cleared to give the university more space. The Howard Hotel will become Howard University Center, and Founders Library will also undergo a major renovation.
Joyfully anticipating the university’s future, Robinson and Edwards embrace an attitude that many Howard students are currently unable tohope, positivity, and the belief that Howard will again rise to become the mecca it once was.
Understanding much of my past negativity about the university, Robinson firmly asserts, “It is a major initiative of president Swygert’s administration to restore this campus as a place everybody can be proud of. The key [to restoring the university] is understanding the core values of Howard University. [Swygert] understands those values. People from around the world have come here to get their education, and it in fact has indeed formed who they are. If you can come to a special place that has meaning, power, and magic, then you leave with meaning, power, and magic.”
I’m feeling some of that powerand that magic. All I wanna know is, can someone please renovate the registration process?
I’ll gladly write the book.CP