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Howard University’s History of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps

Howard’s military training and ROTC programming spans more than 100 years

Army ROTC Cadets in Founders Library at Howard University, circa 1955

As Howard University celebrates 75 years of desegregation in the military, the University’s own contribution to supporting the U.S. armed forces dates back more than 100 years.  

Through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), students receive a college education paid for by the U.S. Military. The students, called cadets, serve in the military after graduation.

Howard began organized military training of Black officers in 1917 and created an official ROTC detachment in 1918.  The goal was to ensure Black military members were more than just infantrymen. Howard Army ROTC has commissioned more than 1,000 officers since its inception, many of whom went on to become generals. Howard is one of the largest producers of Black candidates for the Army and the Air Force. 

“The idea to bring military education to Howard started with at the urging of Howard trustee Joel Spingarn. He spoke with students at a rally in Rankin Chapel and he said that they should really lead the effort to get African Americans involved in World War I and they took that charge and formed the Committee of Concerned College Men,” said Lopez Matthews, PhD, author of “Howard University in the World Wars” in an episode of “@Howard” produced by WHUT. 

In 1947, the Air Force was split from the Army as its own branch, and Howard also created a separate Air Force ROTC program. The Howard Air Force program ensured  it produced qualified soldiers.  In 1948, the program won the award for Air Supply – only a year into the new program, beating out traditional military schools like the Citadel. In the same year, President Truman issued the executive orders to desegregate the federal government workforce and the military. 

“Being in the ROTC at Howard is a pretty unique experience because it represents the future of our military, but not necessarily what it looks like today.”

Initially, ROTC was mandatory for all male students at Howard who were deemed physically fit. In 1967-1968, students began protesting the mandatory status of ROTC with sit-ins. Secretary Lewis Blaine Hershey, head of the selective service board, was keynote speaker for graduation in 1968 where graduates protested the compulsory ROTC program and burned an effigy of him from the tree in front of Douglass Hall. “They said…. we don’t want to be forced to fight for a nation that does not support Black people,” Matthews said. The students’ protests succeeded, and the requirement was removed. 

In the 1950’s and ’60s, the ROTC program wanted to include women, and Miss Coed Cadet became a representative voted in by the Howard student body. She donned a uniform and took photos, but it wasn’t until 1970 that women were allowed into the ROTC program.  

In the late 1980’s, the ROTC program became a consortium program where all ROTC students in the District of Columbia receive their training at Howard even if they were students of other universities.  

Fifty years since the ROTC’s gender inclusion, Kendall Franklin, a rising senior psychology student from Atlanta is part of a panel discussion celebrating the 75th anniversary of desegregation. She was awarded the HBCU high school scholarship which provided her with a full ride scholarship to Howard University within the ROTC program.

Ahead of her final year the Howard, Franklin is part of the University ROTC Air Force class and is the number one cadet in Howard’s Air Force 400 Class.    

Kendall Franklin, the no. 1 cadet of Howard University's ROTC AF 400 class, poses for a photo in uniform behind Founder's Library

Kendall Franklin, the number one cadet of Howard University's ROTC AF 400 class, poses for a photo in uniform behind Founder's Library

“I feel honored because I am part of that history [of desegregation] and the lineage that we have at Howard,” Franklin says. “Those are some big names and big footsteps to walk through, so I’m pretty honored to be part of that and this legacy.” 

Franklin has experienced the direct aftermath of the armed forces’ diversity today. She has been led by all-female officers; Lieutenant Colonel Redahlia Person and, in Franklin’s final year, Lieutenant Colonel Abigail Ono. 

“Being in the ROTC at Howard is a pretty unique experience because it represents the future of our military, but not necessarily what it looks like today,” Franklin says. “We’ve always had a female commander for the past four years, and our new commander is currently female. We’re about 60% African American and about 50% female. So, the demographics of that, particularly in D.C. has been amazing for me.” 

Franklin recalls her time in the ROTC “priceless.” She cherishes the moments she had with her fellow ROTC Bison, from the military balls to PT training two times a week, preparing for her military career in Howard’s historic ROTC program to come to an end. After college, she plans to become a security forces officer in the Air Force as a second lieutenant.  

“I’ve gotten to shake hands and be in rooms with people that I never would imagine,” Franklin says. “Speaking on this panel [today] is a big opportunity for me that I don’t think I would’ve gotten if I didn’t attend Howard and be in this ROTC program. I truly appreciate that.” 

Military proceedings at Howard University begin on campus by the A building, circa 2016

Howard University's ROTC Army class gathers ahead of PT class and other military ROTC procedure trainings Source: U.S. Army, 2016