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Birth of the Bison

How Howard landed on the Bison as its mascot.

Bison mascots on gym floor

Just as its legacy suggests, Howard University, living up to its reputation of uniqueness, has a Bison as its mascot. The main characteristics of the Bison, according to definition, are highly intelligent, curious, resilient, and powerful.

Legend has it that in 1892, when Howard started its first athletic program,  the students wanted to form a football team for competition but did not have uniforms. Someone at Howard became aware of the situation and reached out to a colleague who she knew at Harvard. It resulted in a donation that uniformed two teams.

For the next few years, the program competed with little or no fanfare. Then in 1920, the football program moved up to the varsity level. It took on the name, “Thundering Herd.”

Bison 1979
A man shows off his Bison basketball shirt, 1979.

Under the direction of head coach and dentist Edward Morrison (DDS 20), Howard went on to become undefeated, untied and unscored upon setting the stage for the future. During the years 1920-22, Howard posted an 18-3-1 mark and won three straight Black National championships.

Stories say that Morrison changed the name to Bulldogs, and then shifted to become the Bison. The date is murky, but the 1923 yearbook, in its debut under the title The Bison, makes the first reference to “Bison” as a mascot in the 1922 football season.

What’s in a Name?

The name came from a combination of factors: After the Civil War, a troop of colored soldiers were admired by the Native Americans for their fighting spirit and resolve, and tabbed them “Buffalo” after this revered symbol. In addition, Morrison, who had served as a sergeant in the Army, aspired to the symbol. Legend has it that he decided to call the Howard team after the American version: the bison.

(Fun facts about bison and buffalo: True buffalo originate from Africa and Asia, but bison are from Europe and North America. Visually they are similar, but biologically, they are not very closely related at all).

The Bison 1923
The scroll at the top of each page in The Bison yearbook. 1923 was the first year under the Bison name.

Over the years, the logo itself evolved, went through some changes in terms of its design, but the name Bison stuck.

Then in 1974, Howard designed a logo that would be permanent, or so the University thought.

“I was a member of the Howard football team and it was my sophomore year,” recalls John Dupree, a retired graphic artist. “I designed the charging Bison as a logo.  It caught on and everyone liked it. A couple of years later, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL came up with a similar logo. Eventually, somehow the Bills notified the then-athletics director, (the late) Leo Miles that Howard would have give up the logo or face a lawsuit. It was interesting because Howard had it first.”

a quilt depicting all Howard logos
A quilt depicts many logos of Howard

The development of the new logo began in 2014, using a process that engaged all stakeholders in the Howard community. In January 2015, the University solicited input from students, faculty, staff and alumni via social media, asking, “What makes you a Bison?” using the #OurNewBison campaign. Chief Brand Strategy, the firm chosen to direct the process, incorporated those ideas in developing a set of draft designs. Then, focus groups were convened to narrow down the options. Students, faculty, staff and alumni were surveyed before a final design was selected.

The unveiling was moderated by then interim director of athletics Shelley Davis, with President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick.

“Getting a new symbol is exciting. It is the visual evidence of our Bison spirit and pride,” said Davis at the time, about the new logo set. “The new logo represents a fresh opportunity for our student-athletes to rally around the values that make Howard University great.”

He added,
“The Bison symbol plays such an important role at the University and its athletic programs — it was critical to make it uniquely Howard. We set out with one objective: To make the Howard University mascot unlike any other out there.”