H.B.C.U. Homecomings Are Canceled, but Students and Alumni Will Feast Anyway

Brunch, a major part of homecoming at historically Black colleges and universities, is still on for this year, even if it has to be virtual.

Matriculation at historically Black colleges and universities is more than late-night study sessions: It’s a balancing act between academics and discovering merriment, and learning how to be. It’s routine to walk the same grassy quadrant as ancestors who believed education was a weapon, while making plans to let off steam.

At homecoming, the uniqueness of the Black college experience is on full display for everyone to take in.

“Homecoming is a lifestyle,” said Michiel Perry, the creator of Black Southern Belle, a website focused on Black American women in the South, and a graduate of Howard University. (Ms. Perry’s site has featured one tailgater at the Magic City Classic — the nation’s largest H.B.C.U. game, between Alabama A&M and Alabama State — smoking a bacon-wrapped alligator clenching a whole pineapple in its mouth.)

ImageMichiel Perry, of Black Southern Belle, calls homecoming “a lifestyle.”
Michiel Perry, of Black Southern Belle, calls homecoming “a lifestyle.”Credit...Leslie Ryann McKellar for The New York Times
Food and fellowship have long been the main attractions at H.B.C.U. homecomings, many of which are held in October and November. At the nation’s about 100 H.B.C.U.s, ordinary and extraordinary people have long raised a glass and broken bread to honor their alma maters, on campus (affectionately referred to as “on the yard”) or hundreds of miles away.

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This year, many homecoming festivities have been canceled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the energy of game day never dissipates. Memories of tailgating sustain many graduates of H.B.C.U.s, and brunch, which has become the new cornerstone of homecoming celebrations, will be a virtual affair for 2020.

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And there are many alumni who will have no problem cooking at home. Pinky Cole (a graduate of Clark Atlanta) founded the fast-casual chain Slutty Vegan; Keisha Lance Bottoms (Florida A&M, or FAMU), the 60th mayor of Atlanta, has posted pictures of sweet potato pies and macaroni and cheese that have gone viral. The chef Carla Hall (Howard), the award-winning cookbook author Bryant Terry (Xavier) and Senator Kamala Harris (Howard), who has said she loves to cook — the list goes on.

The H.B.C.U. homecoming experience, like Yardfest at Howard, shown here in 2019, is both a family reunion and a time to let off steam.
The H.B.C.U. homecoming experience, like Yardfest at Howard, shown here in 2019, is both a family reunion and a time to let off steam.Credit...Andre D. Wagner for The New York Times
The University of Mississippi’s tree-lined tailgating area — where one will find monogrammed beer koozies, pimento cheese tubs and elaborate table centerpieces — and luxury tailgating facilities with five-figure price tags, like Tailgate Station near the University of Georgia in Athens, are radically different from the H.B.C.U. pregame parties in the Deep South.

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Homecoming and tailgating at H.B.C.U.s are part sporting spectacle and part family-reunion buffet. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, you might find jovial alumni tending to “junk pots” — silver caldrons bubbling with corn, turkey necks, potatoes, pig feet and neckbones, while women scoop red sauce and spaghetti pasta with fried fish, a Mississippi Delta combination, onto Styrofoam plates, as Byron Hurt captured in his documentary “Soul Food Junkies.”

On autumn Saturdays in Orangeburg, S.C., home to Claflin and South Carolina State University, families serve Gullah and Lowcountry staples, while R&B classics like “Before I Let Go” provide the beat. “You’ll see crab boils, rice purloo, sometimes you might see an okra soup,” said Ms. Perry, who lives outside of Charleston, S.C.

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