Charter Day – Howard University and Its Disability History

by Patrick Cokley for the Lead On Update

Founders Library on Howard University's Main Campus in Washington, DCThere is a little known story concerning Frances Perkins – the first woman Cabinet member and the longest serving Secretary of Labor. She was appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was responsible for crafting significant portions of his New Deal. One might consider the unique relationship that could exist between the nation’s President with a very obvious disability and the first female Cabinet member, but part of Perkins’s past suggests that her values had been shaped toward inclusion at an early stage.

After the completion of her degree, like many students, Frances Perkins was assessing her goals and determining what her next steps would be in her path. While doing this, she took up a position with a distant cousin who needed some assistance with his office work and correspondence. He had been previously injured in service in the Civil War and needed an accommodation to complete paperwork and the like. Her distant cousin’s name was Oliver Otis Howard. As Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau, General Howard founded the Howard Normal and Theological School for the Education of Teachers and Preachers which became Howard University where he also served as its President and namesake.

The founder of Howard University was a person with a disability.Oliver Otis Howar

Now some would easily dismiss this fact and say “disability was different back then, “or “disability did not mean the same if you were titled or had money as O.O. Howard had.”

To do that however would be giving away the power and the history of civil rights struggle that is associated with Howard University and to throw away the opportunity for communion with those who believe in the values of inclusion.  From its earliest history, a place that would be a beacon – a Mecca if you will — for the values of equality, service and truth not only is a shrine to those values for the Black community, but for the vast number of Americans with disabilities as well. Howard is welcoming to African Americans as a bastion and training ground for race in America, but with the knowledge of this disability connection, individuals with disabilities suddenly have access to a vocabulary and curriculum of freedom from one of  America’s beacons of “faith in the ability of man to respond to opportunity regardless of race or creed or color.”

For the Black community learning of the University’s connection to disability further adds color to the rich tapestry of Howard’s history and its continued influence on the United States as we move into the modern era. It illustrates that the values provided for many of America’s most prominent Black citizens are not just racial values, but values of inclusion and justice.  The very same values that our country was founded upon. In fact, I would hope that my fellow Bison would not bat an eyelash at the idea that the lessons Frances Perkins learned in working for her cousin – that are tied to the core of Howard University — may have also found their way into the American value system.  Preparation, knowledge of self, and success, are words that ring in the ears of every Howard student.

For the disability community, this connection to Howard University confirms that not only is disability part of the “normal” human condition, but that given equal opportunity for success, marginalized individuals can prove their ability beyond whatever “handicap” society places upon them. It also reinforces the idea that those who believe in the values of inclusion, access, and justice may begin their work advocating for one group, but end up crafting a better world for everyone.

Howard’s connection to disability is not just a footnote in history or an interesting coincidence in the path to freedom. It is likely part of a grander design for inclusion , as well as yet another call to service to the Howard University community.

The connection between individuals with disabilities and Howard University does not end with the founding of the school, but exists throughout the history of the University as a key part of its identity.  In 1936, at the dedication of a new chemistry building on campus, Howard’s first Black President, Howard University 1945Mordecai Wyatt Johnson welcomed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As a survivor of polio, much of the American public was still not aware of the President as a person with a disability. Through tacit agreements with the press and White House staff, the President’s use of his heavy braces and canes, or the use of his wheelchair were not commonly seen in photographs or in the public arena. For this visit, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, suggested that President Roosevelt dispense with his usual preparations and instead appear without the shroud over the fact of his disability. That appearance would be one of only three times ever in his life where FDR would be seen in public in the way we see many individuals with disabilities today. He was assisted from his car, and using his cane and braces made the deliberate walk to the podium.

To show such an intimate part of his day to day existence would obviously have an effect on those spectators. It is usually suggested by historians that FDR did this in order to show a sense of equal footing – to communicate that he, the President, may not understand what it is to be Black, but that he did have an understanding of what it meant to live in a society where your needs and desires were marginalized and you were thought of as less. Imagine what Roosevelt and Johnson were suggesting with that appearance. President Roosevelt communicated that he understood the dual nature that individuals with disabilities, African Americans, or any marginalized group have to face as second class citizens – allowing him a connection with a much needed constituency. What is interesting is what Johnson gains from the presentation. Remember that it was his idea that FDR appear in this manner. By convincing FDR to appear as he did, he indicates that the plight of any marginalized group and the injustice they face is the same. Additionally by that being presented in front of that body, in that place, at that time, it indicates a responsibility and expectation of Howard.  As a lead entity in freedom for African-Americans, there is also an unbreakable link between the Black community and any community seeking freedom and equality.  And, in this case, it very specifically connects Howard to the disability community.

It is interesting, with the image of FDR on the Hilltop, to consider the words of Howard’s first black President twelve years earlier. In a speech at Harvard University entitled, “The faith of the American Negro,” Johnson said,

“With one voice, therefore, from pulpit and from press, and from the humblest walks of life, they are sending up a cry of pain and petition such as is heard today among the citizens of no other civilized nation in the world. They are asking for the protection of life, for the security of property, for the liberation of their peons, for the freedom to sell their labor on the open market, for a human being’s chance in the courts, for a better system of public education, and for the boon of the ballot. They ask, in short, for public equality under the protection of the Federal Government.”

Of course, Johnson was speaking of the persecution felt by African Americans as they trod the weary road of slavery to emancipation, then segregation. (By 1932 Johnson would have been intimately associated with the Harlem Renaissance, but we were still quite far from the modern civil rights movement.) Though his words were not specifically aimed at individuals with disabilities of the day, it is hard to ignore the idea that this request – this petition for freedom was something demanded and delivered to all citizens of the world. Considering these words and the events with FDR, Johnson insinuates an understanding that the struggle for equality would not just be about the Black community, but a standard for the equality of all Americans.

Johnson’s words are even more significant when you consider that the petition of the American Negro in 1922 is the same petition for individuals with disabilities today:

  • Protection of life and the security of property – the ability of individuals with disabilities to determine their own outcomes and future, and live in a community that is inclusive of them.
  • The liberation of their peons, for the freedom to sell their labor on the open market – The opportunity to work and have the accommodation necessary to maintain employment and compete on an equal economic level with their peers
  • For a human being’s chance in the courts, for a better system of public education, and for the boon of the ballot. – For equal access to the court and educational systems and the opportunity to participate and achieve.

Both groups, in short, ask for “…public equality under the protection of the Federal Government.”

Before continuing any further, I would be remiss if I did not mention the presence of another school founded around the same time as Howard. This prestigious institution not only shares a color scheme and similar founding date, but also marks itself as a Mecca for a historically marginalized community. I am not speaking of Howard’s much discussed rival – the Hampton Institute – rather our sister school in the District of Columbia, Gallaudet University. In addition to sharing the same mascot, Gallaudet and Howard illustrate many similarities in the attitude of their students, the historical perception of the institutions by their core communities, as well as their perceptions by the mainstream public.  Both Universities boast a proud history forged in a time where the majority of their students had few other choices for educational excellence. That history has created a cadre of students with the attitude of institutional pride as well as a mantle of service which each student and alum carries with them. That mantle is recognized equally by members of their own community as well as outsiders who come to those institutions to find the best and the brightest from the Deaf and Black communities. Interestingly, both Universities support a culture that has a history of protest and advocacy, so it is also not a surprise that each school bears witness to student protest on a fairly regular basis. The two communities remain linked in experience and action.  It is just as likely that the experiences and values and history that are imbued upon students at Rochester Institute of Technology, Hofstra, and Berkeley are similar to those at Tuskegee, FAMU and Cheney.

Howard University and the Disability community are not strangers. Howard has its share of students with disabilities who have made proud contributions to the Howard legacy. Though I recognize my university has participated in the disability community and in disability advocacy, it is not easily said that Howard or any of the major African-American Institutions have been allies in the movement.  Make no mistake, my own experience with Howard has one of openness and welcome.  And I am proud to say students of ANY race, religion, ethnicity or background can find a place at a historically black college or university (HBCU). The experience and acceptance is not denied. That being said, we have not been proactive. We have heralded ourselves as experts on disenfranchisement, colonialism, advocacy, political engagement, protest, and even crab in a barrel syndrome. We have shared the sacred nature of Howard University and HBCU s with Our People, but have we extended that Grace to all of our brothers in need? If the disability community wants the same things that I wanted for my community in 1922 – and still want, should they not also benefit from my training? If the disability community was with us at the beginning of one of our best institutions at the birth of one of our most sacred of places should they not also have access to its glories and mysteries?Mordecai Wyatt Johnson

In that same speech to Harvard University, speaking of the Negro plight in America, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson also said that

They have come to the place where their faith can no longer feed on the bread of repression and violence. They ask for the bread of liberty, of public equality, and public responsibility. It must not be denied them.”

At the time his words were aimed at the intelligencia of the country – the men of Harvard who had the political and monetary sway to change the country. The men who would ultimately hold the doors open for the community and had the tools and words to sway the public. These were men who were trained to change their world. After my time at Howard however, and listening to Johnson’s words, and considering the 150 years of preparation and training offered at the Mecca, the Capstone, the Hilltop – I cannot help but think that Johnson’s words are meant for me.

In March of every year Howard celebrates Charter Day in remembrance of our founding, and on that day, Howard students, faculty, staff and alum will tromp to Cramton Auditorium and hear tell of our proud history and the necessary work to maintain our legacy. We will implore students not to take the time as a day off, but as an opportunity to come reflect and plan  for our future, and we will remind all alumni to continue to strive for Howard each day that we are away from her. We will invite political leaders, movers and shakers, and celebrities to come back to the Mecca and remember.

 Is it not high time that we welcomed all of our brothers and sisters back home?

As graduates of an HBCU we are charged with the mission of uplifting and changing the world for the Black community for the better. After learning of the history of disability at Howard, members of the Howard family have an even greater responsibility to that end and it must include fully embracing the goals and values of the disability community as our own. The disability community is us.  We are on the same mission, with the same setbacks, misunderstandings, and problems of definition that we have faced as Negro, Colored, Black crippled, challenged, disabled, gimpy, and African-American. As Johnson and Roosevelt and history have illustrated, the questions of access, education, employment, and health care have connected us for a very long time, and yet we have approached these issues separately — content to hang separately rather than hang together. Let us join fully with the disability community to support inclusion in the United States. As Black people, let us cast away the concerns of double indemnity and the idea that we will have more difficult lives by identifying as Black and disabled and instead focus on the supports, knowledge and skills that we have already gained.

This is also time for the disability community to seek alliance from all types of people that support the values of inclusion, access and dignity. For the disability movement to continue to be a success in this country, it must be perceived as a movement of America’s people and to do that it must look like our growing America: Black, Latino, Asian, disabled, gay, obese – America. Connecting with HBCUs (and ultimately HSIs and Tribal Institutions) you will gain fresh knowledge and insight that are absent from the status quo of disability-related institutions. Though there are institutions focused on disability, very few of them represent the long years of experience, research, and dedication seen by the Black college system. That is not to say that you must abandon Berkeley, Kansas State, and the University of Illinois, but come to the places that have an equal experience and gain a fullness of knowledge that will help to change the world to the place it should be.

“If the fires of this faith are kept burning around that crucible, what comes out of it is able to place these United States in the spiritual leadership of all humanity.” – MWJ

Patrick Cokley is alum of Howard University who often writes as the Angry Negro. For more opportunities to see him champ at the bit or to accuse him of missing the point, visit his blog at


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