For more than three weeks, students at Howard University have been protesting for better housing conditions — among other demands — at the Armour J. Blackburn University Center. The demonstration, officially known as the #BlackburnTakeover on social media, has garnered national attention and support from several public figures, including political activist Reverend Jesse Jackson and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Howard University is a private HBCU in Washington DC with a nearly $50,000 estimated cost of attendance for undergraduates. Of that cost, on-campus housing is an estimated $9,300. The university isn’t new to student protests or cases of unsafe on-campus housing conditions. Junior Channing Hill posted a viral tweet of a headline from the university’s newspaper, The Hilltop, in 2001, which read, “Students Puzzled By Mold Growth in Building Walls.” Fast forward 20 years, and the university’s housing conditions have now entered the national news, with students protesting after raising concerns regarding the mold — which some believe became a widespread issue after flooding in the summer — since the start of the fall semester. According to a report from local news station WJLA-TV, mold has been discovered in 34 of the university’s estimated 2,700 on campus rooms since September. The protests collided with this year’s homecoming festivities, leading to some homecoming performers like Gucci Mane pulling out in support of the protests.
Dozens of students first gathered inside the social hub of the campus on Tuesday, Oct. 12, with three main demands that included board representation and an in-person town hall with University President, Dr. Wayne Frederick. Additionally, students have added a fourth demand seeking academic and legal immunity. But at the top of protesters’ concerns is safe housing for current and future students after multiple reports of mold and rodents in on-campus housing, with claims that some students were hospitalized for respiratory infections and coughing up blood from the condition of their dorms.
the list goes on and on and on and on of stuff affected by mold. currently in the hospital rn because howard doesn’t care enough #blackburntakeover
Hill is the President of Howard’s Chapter of the NAACP and the Legislative Director for The Live Movement, a national HBCU coalition. She, along with other members of the NAACP chapter, first got involved with the protests as soon as they could.
“Honestly, we didn’t have any warning, but my heart sank because there was an instant fear that I felt for not only their [protesters] safety but how the university would retaliate against them,” Hill said.
When the protests first started, Hill had pneumonia. She also has a mold allergy which she said was irritated by her first year on campus, believing her dorm had mold in it. Because of her pneumonia she didn’t initially occupy the inside of Blackburn. But in recent weeks she has been one of the students that have slept inside the building.
Nearly 100 students have camped outside of the building at one time, sheltering in tents and sleeping bags. As temperatures drop into the low 50s at night, students have dealt with uncomfortable weather conditions and have found difficulty in maintaining their work as students.
“There’s no heat on in the buildings and we’re sleeping on concrete floors,” Hill said. “They cut the WiFi off initially, which prevented us from getting our homework done and accessing our classes.”
Alfred Marcus, an associate professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department and Chairperson of the HU Faculty Senate, has offered his support to students.
“We voted to recommend that the HU Administration and Board (among other things) address student housing, reinstate affiliate trustees, hold open town halls with students, and neither punish nor retaliate against student protestors,” Alfred said. “Given what we are seeing in some videos posted by our students, some faculty have started to organize with alums and parents, to try to have some of us at Blackburn at all times. We’ll be there to observe and remind the HU Board and Administration that the only viable path forward is one without using force on these peaceful student protestors.”
However, that hasn’t been the case. Shortly after protests began, campus security was dispatched to the area and have remained as a presence since. Many protesters have alleged that security has blocked entrance points to Blackburn, not allowing students to leave to get food, water or other resources for extended periods of time. Several videos online have shown a lieutenant with the campus police shoving students and pulling out his baton threatening a protester in the crowd.
Although the issue has widely impacted undergraduate students in on-campus housing, graduate students have stood in solidarity as protesters since the beginning, too.
Imani Hutchinson, a graduate student in the university’s Social Work program, arrived at the protests on the third night wanting to support students with mold infestations (although her on-campus graduate building has had no reports of damages).
“Don’t randomly lock kids in a building and then say that you care about their overall health and mental wellbeing, because it’s different when you’re deciding to stay in there to protest for rights that you don’t have at the university, versus you being trapped in there,” Hutchinson said. “Psychologically, that’s different, and your body is going to feel that.”
After staying for five nights in a row, Hutchinson and her friends took a break, needing to find an area on campus with reliable WiFi. They offered their tent and air mattresses to other protesters that stayed.
Sean Jackson, a graduate student in the School of Divinity, also showed his support as well, sleeping overnight outside several times alongside other graduate students.
“Our building is one of the newer buildings so one could easily ignore the issue. But we’re one big family so if one of us is affected, we’re all affected,” Jackson said. “Historically, we realize this isn’t a new issue. This has been going on for a while now, so why are we sitting here in 2021 at a university that requires a tuition of 50 grand? You have to ask ‘where is the money going?’ I don’t think it’s fully a financial issue, but I think there’s some bad stewardship somewhere with dormitories in the condition that they are.”
This is even more unfortunate for those undergraduates who just recently started attending Howard, like freshman Emiya Diaz. Diaz, who lived on-campus in the Harriet Tubman Quadrangle. She first joined the protests simply wanting to be a support to students that had unsafe housing conditions. Shortly after, her roommate got COVID-19, and Diaz began coughing believing she had contracted the virus as well. After testing negative for the virus, mold was soon found in her room.
“My friend comes in the room and looks on my roommate’s bed and there’s mold all on the side,” Diaz said. “My first reaction is, ‘What is going on?’ I look in the A/C vent and there’s a bunch of mold in the vent. My next reaction was to do an ‘HU Fix It.’”
“HU Fix It” is the official housing and residential life work order portal powered by Corvias, the property management company that has a 40-year contract with the university that began in 2016. According to Corvias’ website, “The initial scope of the program included the renovation and management of Howard Plaza Towers (East and West), two 11-story apartment-style residence halls designated for upperclassmen and graduate students with a total of 777 units, 1,753 end-state beds, and a basement with 368 parking spaces. The total estimated cost of renovation is $73 million.”
Corvias provides services for 14 other colleges in the nation and has 15 military partnerships for bases throughout the nation. The company is currently battling two lawsuits filed by military families at Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that allege mold, rodent, and water issues in their living facilities.
In August 2020, Warren and U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib wrote to Corvias Founder and CEO, John Picerne, requesting information about reports that Corvias were placing profits above public health, as they pressured two of their partner colleges and universities to have students return to campus during the pandemic. In their letter, they asked the company “if it agrees with CDC risk assessments, if it consulted with local and state officials on the policies it’s pushing, and how the profits Corvias receives from constructing, managing, or operating housing for institutions of higher education are set.”
During a meeting between President Frederick and the Howard University Student Association, he stated information about the university’s partnership with Corvias couldn’t be disclosed, according to an article in The Hilltop.
Diaz, attempting to follow protocol, never received a response through the “HU Fix It” portal. She slept in a tent outside for more than 10 days.
“Now I had a bigger reason for protesting and being at Blackburn Takeover, because now I’m experiencing the same thing other people are experiencing,” she said. “I’m still coughing to this day. It got better because I hadn’t been in the room — I had been in a tent protesting.”
Diaz said she contacted her resident assistant, who advised her to contact Michelle Mondrey, the Residence Hall Director for The Harriet Tubman Quadrangle. Diaz claimed Mondrey tried to convince her and her roommate it was safe to stay in the room, and it wasn’t until after she informed her she’d been sleeping in a tent, that she said she would find them a room for the night and seek to make long-term accommodations.
“They had alumni and news reporters come in just to check the rooms and hallways. They put up nice motivational signs everywhere around the dorms. They tried to make it seem like it was so homey and that they supported us,” Diaz said. “A lady in the hallway looked at how my shoes and my roommates’ luggage and shoes had mold on it. She walks in the room and realizes she can smell it.”
Diaz said Mondrey never made accommodations for her and her roommate. Only after alumni and members of the media were allowed in the building, was Diaz was put in contact with Shelton Higgins, the Senior Operations Specialist at the university. Higgins then placed Diaz and her roommate in a new building. (Okayplayer reached out to Mondrey for comment on Sunday, October 28, but didn’t receive a response before publication.)
Ultimately, what’s happening at Howard is a human rights issue, with students having to fight for basic needs that they don’t just deserve but need.
“Those students are exhausted. You can see it in their faces, constantly having to be on edge. They’ve put so much on the line thus far especially with how it hit a wall when the security guards threatened them,” Hutchinson said. “They’re not asking for anything radical. Institutions don’t create radicals, they just don’t. These are basic human rights especially when we’re living in a pandemic.”
Sierra Lyons is a recent graduate of Florida A&M University and freelance journalist covering race, justice, politics, Christianity and the intersection of all four. She has over six years of experience in the field as a writer, editor and fact-checker. Twitter: @sierra_298
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