It’s one of the most popular rivalries among all historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs): Howard University vs. Hampton University. The Mecca vs. The Home by the Sea. The Bison vs. the Pirates. HU vs. HU.
In football, the rivalry between Howard and Hampton dates to their first matchup in 1908, with the Pirates winning 6-0, and has remained a classic tug-of-war since then. Yet, Black football classics such as Howard vs. Hampton are bigger than just a game.
“I want my players to understand what the game means, but also what this education and history means and the tradition of it all,” said Howard coach Larry Scott.
Saturday’s game was the 96th all-time meeting in the historic rivalry between the two universities. Hampton running back Keyondre White rushed for two touchdowns, and quarterback Jett Duffey and wide receiver Hezekiah Grimsley connected for a pair of scores as Hampton defeated Howard 48-32 in the inaugural Truth and Service Classic at Audi Field, home of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. It was the first meeting of the two HBCUs in the Washington area since 2016, when the matchup was billed as the Nation’s Classic at Washington’s RFK Stadium. Hampton now leads the series 54-41-1.
The game is so important that it brought out Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard alum, who stepped on the field to do the coin toss, receiving a rousing reception from the 14,577 fans in attendance.
The energy for the rivalry began to rise before Saturday’s game even kicked off, as the marching bands and the dance lines from the two schools had a chance meeting.
“Before [Saturday’s] game, we actually got the chance to see [Howard’s] band face-to-face at a news outlet and we had a slight band battle with them then,” fourth-year Hampton University drum major Ravid Frye said. “We were able to get some of our anger and frustration out before the game. Once, we played for a crowd of people in downtown Chicago when we played Howard in 2019 and it was like a mini street battle, if that’s what you want to call it. There were a lot of people standing around. Black, white and even some Native Americans. It was a very diverse crowd. There were a lot of kids there and I’m sure it was their first time seeing an HBCU band. It was fun, uplifting and inspiring all at the same time.”
For the many students, alumni and fans who come out every year from across the country, Howard vs. Hampton has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Before and after the games there are parades, tailgating parties and even line dancing. These monumental events attract impressive crowds across the nation, with thousands of fans coming to cheer on their favorite team.
“Although I did not attend an HBCU, I am an avid supporter of HBCUs,” said tourist Michele Robinson, who was visiting the nation’s capital from Missouri this weekend with friends. “My main purpose for coming to D.C. was to see the museums, but when I found out Howard and Hampton were playing, I wanted to come to the game and support.”
Robinson added, “The icing on the cake was to see my soror, Vice President Kamala D. Harris!”
Hampton coach Robert Prunty splits his college football allegiance between Hampton and his alma mater, Alabama A&M University. For Prunty, the Bison-Pirates rivalry is a chance for players from similar stomping grounds to display what they can do on the field.
“A lot of these guys know each other up in this area,” Prunty said. “There’s a lot of the same recruiting for players that goes on between D.C., the state of Virginia and Maryland, the DMV area. They [the players] understand the different stories that they have been told for years about the battles back-and-forth between the schools, whether it’s dealing with the fans, football games or battle of the bands.”
Howard and Hampton have played nearly 100 football games against one another, with the hype surrounding their HBCU culture and swag even crossing over to popular music, such as when rapper Ludacris named-dropped Howard in his 2004 hit “Pimpin’ All Over The World.”
“Then jump in the car and just ride for hours/ Makin’ sure I don’t miss the homecoming at Howard.”
Still, the battle for the real HU has been a series of ups and downs, and lengthy winning streaks over 113 years, with the Bison dominating play throughout the 1970s before Hampton began to upgrade its recruiting and its play in the late 90s. (The two squads played only three times in the ’80s, with Hampton winning once.)
“It wasn’t a rivalry at that time,” said Hampton alum Calvin Hewitt to reporter J.R. Gamble of The Shadow League in 2016. “Hampton was D-II, Howard was D-I. Different caliber of player at Howard back then when they were winning. And Hampton football wasn’t that good at the time. And definitely not on the level of a Grambling, Southern, or Central State. When I was there [1988-’92], there was little interest in a midlevel D-II team who played a boring brand of football with no pro prospects.”
Then in 1997, the Pirates went on a run of their own, winning 14 straight against the Bison. Then-President Barack Obama once took a jab at Howard’s losing streak. During his commencement address at Hampton in 2010, Obama joked, “I’m excited the Battle of the Real H.U. will be taking place in Washington this year. You know I am not going to pick sides, but my understanding is it’s been 13 years since the Pirates lost. As one Hampton alum on my staff put it, the last time Howard beat Hampton, The Fugees were still together.” With Saturday’s win, Hampton has now won five straight. (Point, Hampton.)
Aside from being rivals, each school is rich in culture, history and academic excellence. Howard is often referred to as the Ivy League of HBCUs. It was founded in Washington in 1867 and named after Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, a Civil War hero and commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The main campus has more than 8,000 students and sits on more than 89 acres, including the six-story, 400-bed Howard University Hospital. Howard is one of the only doctoral research extensive HBCUs in the country, featuring a law school and medical school, as well as a fine arts program that boasts such alumni as actors Chadwick Boseman, Phylicia Rashad, Taraji P. Henson, and singers Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Other notable university alumni include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, author Ta-Nehisi Coates and music mogul Sean Combs.
Hampton can trace its roots to 1861, when the Union Army used government funds to help Mary Peake, a free black woman, teach free Black students and formerly enslaved people who had escaped from slavery. Peake began teaching under an oak tree that is now known as the Emancipation Oak, which is a part of the National Historic Landmark district on Hampton’s campus. More than 150 years since it was made a place of refuge and education, and with alumni such as Booker T. Washington, New York Times bestselling author Mychal Denzel Smith, comedian Wanda Sykes and Real Housewives of the Potomac star Gizelle Bryant, who was at Saturday’s game, Hampton now boasts 118 buildings, 903 degrees offered and more than 4,500 students from 26 countries. “Hampton is the premier Black excellence college and there is no other choice other than Hampton University, baby,” said Bryant. (Both sides even.)
“I think it’s an awesome opportunity,” said Scott. “As a young Black man, when you are finishing up high school and you’re starting to be recruited, these two schools and these types of matchups are the kinds of dreams you lay and bed and have. Win or lose, rivalry or no rivalry, these experiences are the things they dream about.”