Every year, colleges and universities across the country unite their current students, faculty, and alumni to celebrate the existence and achievements of their illustrious institutions. It’s a weeklong spree of mingling with those you know (and those you don’t), engaging in rituals that will never be forgotten, and the ultimate chance to network with the schools’ OGs. But when it comes to Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs], homecoming is more than a string of events. It’s a literal family reunion. And any HBCU graduate knows it.
If you’ve never had the privilege of indulging in such an experience, let us paint the picture. There are pop-up barbecues on the yard, must-see fraternity and sorority step shows in the gym, buy-it-while-you-can paraphernalia in the bookstores, and dorm wars that will keep you up all night. But when it’s all said and done, it’s the tailgate before the football game, the surrounding parties, pop-up celebrity appearances and performances, and the undeniable camaraderie that forge the fondest memories.
Unfortunately, the social settings associated with homecoming amongst the majority of HBCUs are cancelled this year. (We all know why.) But that doesn’t mean the celebrations have to end. In honor of every HBCU homecoming that has historically marked another year, Complex tapped a trio of notable HBCU graduates—DJ Heat of Morgan State University, actor Lance Gross of Howard University, and professional baller Robert Covington of Tennessee State University—to relive their most memorable homecoming experiences and explain what incoming classes have to look forward to when the festivities resume.
Lance Gross, Howard University, Class of 2004: My first homecoming weekend as a freshman was probably the best week of my life in all facets. It was 2000 and Jay-Z had just released his album, The Dynasty. We tried to get him for our Yardfest, but legend has it, we couldn’t afford him. But he ended up coming anyway, and performing for free. It was him, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and they just rocked it. It was my first time seeing Jay-Z in concert, and it was absolutely amazing. Nothing can touch that year of homecoming for me.
DJ Heat, Morgan State University, Class of 2002: My most memorable homecoming moment is probably the second homecoming I attended while I was a student. Because one of the biggest talks on campus during the time was how our football team was on this 18-year homecoming losing streak. But that homecoming, which I think was ‘98, was already huge because it was being played at the new Ravens stadium in Baltimore, when the stadium first opened. We’re like, “Oh man, we’re about to have homecoming in a brand new professional [football] stadium!” I think that was my first time in a professional [football] stadium, period. And that was the year where that 18-year streak finally got broken. Imagine the excitement! We’re playing in a [professional football] stadium and we finally broke the streak. We poured into the field...like, “We don’t got to win another game, because we broke the streak, y’all!”
Robert Covington, Tennessee State University, Class of 2013: The step shows and the networking were always one of the main events for me. Seeing how big all of the fraternities and sororities [were] and how many people joined, it’s like, Wow! You see 250 Deltas or 250 AKAs or larger. And [all the guys] got their frat colors on. It’s like, Damn!
Lance Gross: For me, it’s the tailgate during the game. At Howard, of course you have the football game, you have the yard, and you have the tailgate. A lot of people they’ll try to do all three, but it’s very hard to do all three. I’ve had the most fun at tailgate just because everybody wants to go see their friends and have fun. That’s the best place to interact with your people. It’s the best food; all the Greeks are there; all your former classmates… That’s the party where you can mix and mingle, and just bounce from spot to spot.
Robert Covington: We [were] all in the gym [during basketball practice], we hear the band, [and] we hear the people running to go to the football field for the event that was going on. We [were] like, “Man, sh-t. We missing everything.” Coach [was] like, “All right. If y’all can get through this drill in this amount of time…[I’ll end practice].” As soon as he blew that whistle, [we] shot out like a cannon. Coach was like, “Excuse my language, we kicked y’all asses, but it’s time for y’all to go have fun, man. We’ve been there. We understand what y’all are missing out on. So go and have fun.” [As] soon as coach broke the huddle, we all was out like a light.
DJ Heat: The second most memorable homecoming is probably the last one I went to in 2015. That’s where I brought my homegirl with me, and introduced her to a Chicken Box. In Baltimore, that’s their thing. Baltimore is known for seafood, but you got to get a Chicken Box. We went to Sonny’s, which is a staple across from Morgan State. It was packed up in there because everybody that’s back in town was like, “Yo, we got to go get this Chicken Box.” I remember when I got my first Chicken Box and how I got introduced to it, so I’m like, “Oh, man. I got to re-share this experience with people.”
Lance Gross: If you’re in high school, you look forward to your proms, or you look forward to your homecomings. But in college, it’s that time when you get to let loose and unwind. You work so hard in your courses and your matriculation, but homecoming is that moment that you get to just enjoy the fruits of your labor and have fun. I’m hurt that people are missing out on their homecoming [this year].
DJ Heat: With college, that’s where you do your most networking, period—to be able to build bridges with the alumni that come on campus and people that you may meet. Visiting on campus, being in touch with different organizations, and being able to meet in person. That’s one thing that I think they’re missing out on: just being out.
Robert Covington: They’re missing out on the full, true HBCU experience. Homecoming is basically a movie, honestly. And the last two years of kids haven’t gotten [that]. That’s something that people thrive off of and they miss it.
DJ Heat: I hope the students are making the best of it that they can. Like I said, still doing their best to network virtually and build those relationships with classmates. We all know that’s definitely going to go a long way, when you build college friendships. Even though I’ve been out of college almost 20 years now, there are still people that I can call on. [Homecoming is about] the social part and the fun of being outdoors and being lit and the parties and turning up, but continue to build those foundations you have around you because it’s going to go so far for you in your life, for decades and even generations. Especially if you’re going to build a legacy family that’s going to go to HBCUs.
Lance Gross: When it is back, every single homecoming is going to be absolutely amazing, just because [we] missed it so much. And I feel like the universities are going to go that extra mile to make it as memorable as possible.
Robert Covington: [When freshmen return], they’re going to see what Tennessee State is all about: a different culture. It’s unique. It’s amazing. It’s completely different. The way they have fun, the way they party, the music and everything.
DJ Heat: I know people think about the party aspect of it, and tailgating and stuff, but it’s just that natural human connection that the pandemic has made a lot of us realize we just need. We’ve been Zooming for two years.
DJ Heat: We know that when you go to an HBCU, you’re going to get bands like no other. The full performance, the dances, everybody. I get hype just thinking about the band hitting it. Of course, the Greek life. I’m not a member of an organization, but I’ve done so many different events with different organizations. It’s been a beautiful thing to witness—when [organizations] come together from all different HBCUs, and the love that other HBCUs have for each other. We come together, we form together. They say we form like Voltron.
Lance Gross: I don’t often hear about PWI’s homecomings to be honest with you. I just don’t, but HBCUs, it’s a part of what they are. With HBCUs, we go all out, we know how to party, and that’s our time to unwind. We take it seriously.
DJ Heat: That unity, you’re not going to get that type of unity anywhere else. And for me, that was very important. Every college I applied to was an HBCU. I like that camaraderie, I like that unity, I like that feeling—I know what I’m going to get and what I’m going to build. I made the right decision.
Lance Gross: Oh, man, [Howard University] is one of the greatest loves of my life. I feel Howard really shaped me as a man and got me ready for success. It’s where I fell in love with acting. They went the extra mile: my professors, the faculty. I think it’s very different from a PWI because it’s kind of like your aunties and uncles looking out for you. I owe so much to Howard University, it’s not even funny. I feel if I can do it all over again, I would pick Howard in a heartbeat, because they nurtured my drive for success.
Robert Covington: Historically Black Colleges, the way they do things, they like to go big and leave a mark—leave an imprint on everything, from beginning to end. And that’s the difference. [HBCUs] be like, “How can we make it bigger? How can we make it better? How can we top last year?” [There’s] so much planning that goes into it.
DJ Heat: I was at Morgan [State] last [month], and seeing how much everything has grown and developed is like, Wow. Oh my gosh! This is so beautiful. Oh, the new library! I remember when we demanded a new library; y’all finally got a new library.
Lance Gross: Howard University is legendary. Artists talk about it in their music and it’s kind of like the who’s who of homecomings. If you go once, you’re hooked. You’re going to keep going back—it’s that amazing. I can’t stay away.
Robert Covington: I’ve only been able to go back twice [because of basketball season], but I went back for the day before the homecoming game because my younger brother plays at my alma mater and I wanted to support him. I wanted to at least see him one time during homecoming since I can’t see them during the season. Me and my family are very tight knit, and that support is real. Just as much as they supported me, I want to still continue to be that [for them].
Lance Gross: I’ve probably missed three homecomings since I graduated. Homecoming is like a family reunion. [When] you graduate, you start your career, you start your family, you’re spread out across the states, and [homecoming] is that one opportunity to come back and see your people. I make a point not to miss it, unless I’m working.
DJ Heat: Homecoming is that time where we’re going to come together. I know people that still haven’t seen their friends since the pandemic started. We’re entering two seasons, two different years since we haven’t reunited with our friends. Just imagine that first hug!