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Under Trump, a Hard Test for Howard University

One morning last February, not long after Donald Trump had been inaugurated as President, but long before many people had reconciled themselves to that fact, students at Howard University awoke to find a bold message written on a walkway of the campus’s central plaza, known as the Yard. Spray-painted in blue block letters, it read “Welcome to the Trump Plantation, Overseer: Wayne A. I. Frederick.” The message was aimed at the heart, the character, and the conscience of Howard’s president, a reserved, deliberative oncologist and surgeon whom the board of trustees had unanimously elected to the position in 2014. Frederick is pure Howard: he earned his undergraduate and medical degrees and a master’s in business administration there. At forty-six, he has held a number of titles, but “overseer”—a derisive term for black proxies of white authority—was hardly one he was seeking.

There was an additional layer of shade visible to those familiar with the school’s history. When Howard—one of the largest of the hundred and two historically black colleges and universities, or H.B.C.U.s, in the United States—was founded, in 1867, it was supported by the Freedman’s Bureau, the federal agency charged with helping emancipated black people navigate the world that awaited them after the Civil War. The author of the spray-painted message was clearly suggesting that the school—and, specifically, Frederick—no longer represented a disruption of the nation’s racial hierarchy but was a bulwark of it.