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The Time-Honored Tradition of Howard Commencement

Howard’s graduation exercises are an annual apogee of the University experience for its hundreds of new alumni

President Barack Obama and Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick mingle during the 2016 Commencement Speech

For 154 years, Howard University has commemorated the end of its academic year with an annual Commencement Convocation.

Convened on the Upper Quadrangle of Howard’s main campus, the Commencement Convocation is the culmination of a major chapter for the hundreds of students officially being conferred degrees from one of the world’s most storied and distinguished universities. Per University tradition, today’s graduates assemble on the football field in Greene Stadium for their formal procession to “The Yard” which, for many, is their final opportunity to embark upon “The Long Walk” as Howard students.

Howard University First Anniversary Exercises
Invitation for Howard University's First Anniversary Exercises. Used with permission from Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.

Records from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center indicate that the earliest versions of Howard’s commencement were programmed toward the end of June. However, according to The Chronicle on Higher Education, universities nationwide began reimagining their academic calendars in the late 1800s. By the turn of the twentieth century, Howard’s commencement exercises were being held no later than the first Friday of the month, often serving as the grand finale to a week overflowing with festivities. That framework remains largely intact for today’s contemporary design – with one conspicuous exception.

Since Howard’s academic year began concluding between the end of April and first days of May, the University’s Commencement Convocation has been subsequently rescheduled to the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend. While the rationale behind the rearrangement does not appear to be documented, the idea that Howard’s commencement and Mother’s Day occur in conjunction cannot be mere coincidence, says Andrew Rivers, director of protocol and events at Howard University. Ranging from Charter Day weekend to Howard’s graduation exercises, Rivers has been responsible for coordinating some of the University’s largest annual events for nearly a decade.

“[Commencement] was kind of signaling the point where the children wouldn’t be in their parents’ pocketbooks anymore,” Rivers laughs, “and so Mother’s Day became an even more joyous celebration because of that.”

“But I think some of the tradition has been the fact that it has [become] a way of signaling that special gift to the mothers on that weekend,” Rivers says.

Commencement ought to feel special for those who have shown the tenacity to power through and finish their Howard degree. It is our opportunity to make their final moments on campus the most rewarding.

As students (and their parents) can attest, becoming a Howard alum is no small feat. Correspondingly, the University’s honorary degree recipients undergo a thorough nomination process facilitated by the Office of the Secretary; top nominees are frequently at the vanguard of their profession. At the conclusion of the nomination period, the secretary and University’s president present the candidates to the executive committee. The committee then votes on the names provided, with final approvals made by the Howard University Board of Trustees.

Chadwick Boseman as 2018 Commencement Orator
Chadwick Boseman as 2018 Commencement Orator. Photo by Justin D. Knight

“[The degree recipients] all have to be approved by the Board [of Trustees], because we are actually conferring a degree on them,” Rivers explains. “While it may be an honorary degree, it is a degree that is respected at Howard University, and so it is important that the Board authorizes the presentation.”

Although proposed commencement orators experience a similar nomination process, the schema has commonly been more targeted to secure especially sought-after speakers, such as entertainers, politicians, and even heads of state. To date, six sitting United States presidents have served as Howard’s commencement orator: Calvin Coolidge (1924), Herbert Hoover (1932), Harry Truman (1952), Lyndon Johnson (1965), and Barack Obama (2016). (George H. W. Bush was the commencement orator in 1981 as U.S. vice president, and Bill Clinton served as orator post-presidency in 2013.)

President Joe Biden is scheduled to become the seventh U.S. president to provide the keynote address at Howard’s 155th commencement exercises, where he will also receive the honorary Doctor of Letters. Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA, president of Howard University, called it “an honor and privilege” to welcome President Biden during the University's announcement. “We are excited to receive the president as this year’s distinguished guest and recognize him for his relentless work uplifting our communities that have been historically left behind,” Frederick said.

From the choice of commencement orator to the overall grandeur of the occasion, the University has been intentional to ensure that Howard graduates never forget their final moments as students. “Commencement ought to feel special for those who have shown the tenacity to power through and finish their Howard degree,” Rivers says.

“It is our opportunity to make their final moments on campus the most rewarding.”

Howard graduates at Commencement Convocation
Howard University graduates at Commencement Convocation. Photo by Justin D. Knight