Fresh off being named the No. 1 Division I HBCU band in the country in this season’s second Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings, North Carolina A&T State University has officially gotten the party started. And you know what an Aggies party during the month of October means: GHOE!
For those who may have been living under a rock, GHOE is short for the “Greatest Homecoming on Earth,” the decades-old nickname for N.C. A&T’s illustrious homecoming extravaganza. We’re talking sold-out concerts, fashion shows, step shows, oversize outdoor game nights, movie viewings, pep rallies, tailgates and a partridge in a pear tree. Every year, alumni gather in Greensboro, North Carolina, to celebrate what pulls at their heartstrings the most, Aggie Pride.
“Being a student from Los Angeles and only experiencing Howard’s homecoming previously, I expected the Aggies tailgate to be a bunch of young people just hanging out,” said Asha Abdul-Mujeeb, who graduated from A&T’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications in May. “Then I realized, no, this is a generational thing. Like our alumni are 70, 80 years old out here grilling and offering us plates. And might I add for free! I can’t get a free plate at Howard. At Howard, it’s just a cookout, but at GHOE it’s a family reunion.”
But while the Greatest Homecoming on Earth has returned to campus after a yearlong hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, health and safety restrictions have limited some of the week-long event’s free spirit and greatness. Last fall, aside from the 2020 homecoming football game, N.C. A&T canceled all of its in-person homecoming festivities, as the state and the nation battled the pandemic. This year, both the university and Greensboro Coliseum are requiring that all homecoming event participants comply with COVID-19 protocols and requirements, including providing proof of vaccination or negative COVID testing at designated check stations.
“This year, the theme of GHOE is ‘Comeback Season,’ ” said Caleyah Gaither, chairwoman of the Student University Media Relations department. “Last year we didn’t really have a full GHOE in person, so this year it is really comeback season. The creative vision behind it this year was that we wanted it to be explosive and fun. We want to unite the Aggie community again because a lot of people have felt disconnected over the past year. The message behind all the graphics for GHOE was kind of like “coming back and reigniting the fire.” We want to bring back the energy. It’s also important for us to show the freshmen and sophomores who didn’t get to experience any of it last year, what GHOE really is. While I don’t think we will be back to the energy we had pre-COVID, the energy is slowly starting to return.”
For some Aggies, however, the scaled-down GHOE experience has taken some getting used to.
“The transition from not having GHOE last year to having one this year has been very different because most of the events are still socially distanced,” said Ciarra Clark, a senior pre-physical therapy major at A&T. “I wouldn’t say the transition has been good or bad, but this just isn’t what I am used to. I know how GHOE was prior to COVID. I want more. I want to get back to that. This is new for us. A lot of students are kind of like at this point, ‘It is what it is. We’ll just wait until we can get the real thing.’ Our expectations are high because we have the greatest homecoming on Earth, but COVID has lowered the standard for this year. This year, GHOE is missing the carefree vibes that we are used to. Everything is so structured now and has tight time frames. I just don’t think as a student community we are bonding like how we usually do, instead we are just showing up to events, standing in line and going home.”
Besides creating the “Comeback Season,” many on campus have also dedicated this year’s homecoming to what they call the “Aggie Heroes,” honoring those serving on the frontlines during the pandemic, including Aggie nurses, educators, members of facilities and the university police department.
And it wasn’t just N.C. A&T that was on the comeback trail. This month, many historically Black universities celebrated homecoming for the first time since 2019, signaling a return to in-person festivities following a year of coronavirus cancellations.
“We’re excited to have the opportunity to get together after coming out of the high period of Covid,” said Ty Couey, president of the National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Alumni Associations Foundation, to NBC News. “For Black colleges, homecoming brings about a sense of nostalgia, or a place to relive fond memories and we missed a lot of that last year. It’s about trading old stories from years past and passing knowledge to the younger generation.”
Popular GHOE events, such as the homecoming parade, the Aggie FanFest and traditional gatherings at the Greek-letter plots, were canceled again this year due to coronavirus restrictions, which did not sit well with many students.
“It’s funny how paid events are allowed, but the free stuff gets canceled,” said junior public relations major Kaelan Motley to Yes! Weekly. “Priorities are out of order.“ The concerts are still being held and it’s probably going to be thousands of people there, so why is it that Aggie FanFest, which is free, is canceled?”
Last month, the Aggies’ former president of the Student University Activities Board, Tre’Tel Ingram, sat down with the The Rhoden Fellows Podcast to weigh in on the issues surrounding GHOE’s cancelled events.
“I look at it from the health perspective,” Ingram said. “But also as coming from someone who planned the entire last homecoming on campus [in 2019] and knows a lot of the protocols. It really does look like that a lot of the events that make money are still happening. It’s questionable, but I definitely think that they are making sure that students are safe on campus. Crowds are larger and harder to control for free events.”
Still, despite a few rumblings, Aggie Pride remains alive and well all throughout campus for GHOE. “I think it is smart for A&T to be implementing guidelines and to have restrictions on a lot of things on campus for the protection of not just the students, but the alumni too,” said Kala Washington, a marketing and finance major and member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. “But at the same time this is my senior year and it is disappointing that it will be different. I was looking forward to being with my [sorority] sisters at our plot. Still, it’s GHOE! Nothing is going to stop that vibe.”
When it comes to GHOE, it’s only natural that the biggest HBCU in the country would have the biggest HBCU homecoming in the country. Founded as a small agricultural and mechanical school for African Americans in 1891, the first recorded N.C. A&T homecoming game was a 20-0 victory over Lincoln University in October 1927, according to James R. Stewart Jr., the archives and special collections librarian at A&T’s F. D. Bluford Library. Now, A&T has more than 13,000 students, more than 100 majors and 58 master’s degree and doctoral programs. The Aggies’ weeklong GHOE celebration brings in an influx of 20,000 to 40,000 alumni and guests, and more than $10 million to Greensboro, something that was missed in 2020.
GHOE 2021 kicked off its celebration on Oct. 24 with the coronation of Mr. and Miss A&T, Joshua Suiter and Zaria Woodford. “Coronation was a dream come true honestly,” said Suiter, a senior professional theater major from Durham, North Carolina. “Leading up to it, there was so much planning, but once the tux came on the magic set in! The love and support that night really touched my heart.”
According to the Bluford Library Archives, the Aggies royal court celebration dates back to 1932 with what is thought to be the crowning of the first Miss A&T, Hattie Diffay. Eighty-nine years later, the coronation ceremony remains one of the biggest highlights of GHOE.
“My favorite GHOE memory is my coronation in 2019,” said Diamond Mangrum, a former Miss A&T and a 2020 graduate of the university’s biological engineering and applied mathematics programs. “Not only did I have the most amazing day, the entire ceremony had me in awe. I loved hearing the gospel choir do the Disney melody and they just sounded so good. I remember waiting backstage for them to announce me and I was just so blown away. That’s the moment I still go back to and reference. I’m so proud that we’re back to some normalcy now and this year’s court can experience that.”
Added Mangrum, “The week of GHOE for Miss A&T is the equivalent of [working for] Amazon right before Christmas. Don’t expect any breaks. Don’t expect to sleep. Just go ahead and block out that entire week. A lot of people forget that as Miss A&T, you have to serve on the executive board for SGA [student government association] and we’re working every day to set up, work, and break down. We also do crowd control and ticketing. We [used to] wake up superearly for the parade Saturday morning at 4 a.m. But with all the work, GHOE is the week you look forward to the most as Miss A&T. You’re meeting so many great people and previous royal courts, which makes it all worth it.”
After the royal court celebration, scheduled events throughout the week included the Through the Decades Fashion Show, the Aggies Homecoming Concert featuring Roddy Ricch, Moneybagg Yo and Ty Dolla $ign, a step show hosted by actor and 2004 N.C. A&T alum Terrence J, and the Alumni Concert featuring Stephanie Mills and special guest Con Funk Shun.
“The hardest part about planning homecoming was the concert, especially coming off a pandemic,” said Taylor Moore, A&T’s Student University Activities Board president. “Due to the Rolling Loud [concert in New York] taking place on the same Saturday as homecoming, many artists were already booked. Many artists are also going back on tour or not booking shows as much, so it did not leave us with many options. We also had to move the homecoming concert [from Saturday] to a Wednesday, and even then it was hard enough for us to find artists. But, I am still pleased to say that I was happy with the final lineup and the way things turned out.”
Still to come, the Aggies vs. Monmouth Hawks homecoming game on Saturday and Sunday’s Festival of Praise gospel concert featuring Fred Hammond, Hezekiah Walker, Anthony Brown and Koryn Hawthorne. And let’s not forget the No. 1 HBCU band in the land, the Blue and Gold Marching Machine, which is arguably the homecoming game’s main event.
While a lot of students are hyped for the this weekend’s game and concerts, star-studded lineups at GHOE are nothing new. Past acts have included James Brown, The Dynamics, MC Lyte, Outkast, Dipset, Rick Ross, Kelly Rowland, Lil Wayne, T.I., Nicki Minaj and Drake, to name a few.
“I was privileged to see Public Enemy in Corbett Sports Center,” said Dion Golatt, a 1991 graduate of N.C. A&T’s architectural engineering program. “I got to see Queen Latifah. I also got to see Tupac [at GHOE] and some of these other artists that were on their rise in the music industry. We were able to see them up close and personal. I got to see some of the local artists from back at my home of D.C. Being away from home you always crave to hear some go-go music. I was able to see Chuck Brown and Rare Essence. During my time at N.C. A&T, I was also introduced to some music I wouldn’t have normally listened to, like Con Funk Shun.”
It seems that when you are the greatest, you attract the greatest, even on the heels of a pandemic. Such is the case with N.C. A&T and GHOE every October.