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Traditions You’ll Only Find at an HBCU

mia coates wssu cheer

Winston-Salem State University cheer team (Mia Coates)

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Homecoming, halftime performances and Greek life are commonplace in the college scene.

You’ve experienced one, you’ve experienced them all. Right?

Not at all.

At HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), these traditions have their own nuances, their own vibe, steeped in culture and history. Other unique traditions, equally grounded in Black culture and history, can only be found on these campuses. 

Created to meet the educational needs of Black Americans in the 19th century, and now known for their affordability, diversity, supportive educational environments, vibrant campus life, strong STEM programs, and celebration of Black history and culture—HBCUs have some of the most unique and best college traditions.

Here are some of the top traditions you’ll only find at an HBCU.

divine nine logoUnique Greek Life

Although many colleges have some form of Greek life, HBCUs make Greek life their own—and it’s filled with beloved traditions and celebrations.

HBCU Greek life is especially meaningful because the organizations were created when Black students still couldn’t attend many traditional universities. And at the universities they could attend, they weren’t welcome in existing sororities and fraternities.

There are nine historically Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLO), known as the Divine Nine. Each of the nine has their own styles, traditions, calls (words and sounds used to greet one another), and dances known as “stepping” and “strolling.”

During probate season, new BGLO members are introduced to their HBCU campus via creative, high-energy shows involving singing, chanting, stepping, strolling and other rituals unique to each organization.

Because the pledging process is kept secret, it’s truly a big reveal when the new members debut.

Throughout the year, the BGLOs host exciting parties, step and stroll shows and competitions, and plenty of opportunities to give back to the community. 

common performs at howard homecoming 2016

Common performs at Howard’s homecoming in 2016 (Howard University)

Legendary Homecoming Celebrations

Homecoming is huge at HBCUs, with students and alumni alike flocking to campus for a week-long experience. Campus queens and kings are crowned in elaborate coronation ceremonies, and the entire seven days feature concerts, shows, parties and parades. 

Typically, campus is surrounded by music and food vendors throughout the week. There’s a special sense of camaraderie and pride, and you’ll see plenty of school colors and clothing featuring the HBCU’s name or mascot. 

HBCU homecomings are also known for the presence of major celebrities, like when Drake famously made a surprise appearance during 2 Chainz’s show at Howard University’s 2012 homecoming. Of course, Drake was decked out in a bright red Howard University sweatshirt. Common and Kayne West have also made appearances at the annual event.

So, homecoming at an HBCU is much more than a football game and one homecoming performance. Classes are cancelled, campus is even more exciting and vibrant than usual, and there’s a special event or celebration—often celebrity-studded—every day of the week.

Emphasis on Black History

While you can choose to study Black History at most universities today, taking at least one course in Black History is mandated by the majority of HBCUs. 

And that’s not all: You’ll find that lessons on Black history and culture are incorporated into almost every class you take, whether it’s math, science or composition.

Plus, HBCUs themselves are an important and inspiring piece of Black history. Depending on where you go, you might walk the same halls as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or learn in a classroom where current U.S. vice president Kamala Harris once studied. 

Students and graduates of HBCUs say that you can “feel” the history and culture, and attending school where Black history is both studied and celebrated is a deeply meaningful and affirming experience. 

WSSU band

Band members during homecoming (Winston-Salem State University)

Halftime Shows That Rival the Game

HBCUs might be the only schools where the halftime show is cheered just as loudly (if not louder) than the actual football team.

Halftime shows feature both classic and contemporary musical hits with coordinated dance routines. The band, cheerleaders, band dancers and color guards team up to put on an epic show every time.

You may have seen HBCU bands and dancers in viral clips on YouTube and social media, or portrayed in popular movies and TV shows. The halftime battle between HBCU bands is truly legendary and sure to get the crowd on their feet. 

4 Reasons to Add an HBCU to Your College List

Professional and Alumni Organizations

Although professional and alumni networks and organizations aren’t unique to HBCUs, these networks are particularly active and supportive at HBCUs.

You can join an alumni network for your individual school, but you can also join networks for HBCU alumni in general. These networks are often extremely helpful in finding internships and job opportunities during and after college.

HBCU graduates say that meeting any HBCU graduate anywhere is like meeting family. Often, finding a fellow HBCU graduate at an organization you’re interested in can help you get your foot in the door.

The history behind HBCUs and the community-based campus culture create an especially strong sense of loyalty and unity that’s difficult to find at most traditional universities.

Alpha Xi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. put together an amazing performance for their school’s 2019 yard show

Alpha Xi Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta performs (Watch the Yard)

Pageants and Step Shows

Stepping, strolling and an emphasis on fashion are hallmarks of most HBCUs.

Step and stroll shows and competitions are fun events year-round, not just during homecoming or probate season.

You may even see impromptu competitions on “the Yard.” The Yard is a term referring to the central area of campus, a prominent gathering place and social scene for HBCU students.

Fashion shows and pageants are a vital part of HBCU culture too. There are pageants for fraternities and sororities and for other organizations across campus, as well as pageants to crown the university “Mr. and Misses.” Traditional colleges may hold the occasional pageant, but it’s unlike the full pageant season and the pomp and circumstance you’ll witness at an HBCU.

HBCU Pride

School spirit reaches another level at HBCUs, where students are especially proud of their school’s history and culture.

Most HBCUs have a chant unique to their school, exchanged by way of greeting between students and alumni.

HBCU students and alumni also proudly wear school colors, participate in school songs and dances and partake in the traditions listed here (plus many more). It’s this same spirit and pride that prompts HBCU graduates to provide a helping hand to their fellow HBCU graduates, creating a highly advantageous network of alumni connections. 

Final Thoughts: Traditions You’ll Only Find at an HBCU

HBCUs provide a safe and nurturing space for a diverse range of students, but they also offer a sense of home.

HBCU traditions create a bridge between the past and the future, celebrating and uplifting Black culture and history through pride, pageantry, and meaningful rituals.

With week-long homecoming celebrations that feel more like family reunions, the crowning of campus queens and kings, and halftime shows that rival the excitement of the actual game, HBCUs bring students distinct traditions and experiences that foster a sense of connection and belonging.

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Author: Jason Patel

Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance.