Howard University honors VP Kamala Harris with 49 bell tolls and ‘Black national anthem’

Howard University honors VP Kamala Harris with 49 bell tolls and ‘Black national anthem’
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
| ABC News Radio

By DEENA ZARU, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — As Kamala Harris became the 49th vice president of the United States on Wednesday morning, the bells at her alma mater — Howard University in Washington, D.C. — tolled 49 times to honor the historic moment.

Harris, who is of Black and South Asian descent, became the first woman vice president and the first person of color to hold this office after she was sworn in on Inauguration Day by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

She was also escorted to the inauguration ceremony by the university’s renowned marching band, the Showtime Marching Band.

“Throughout her career, the vice president-elect has carried her Howard education with her, ensuring that she adhere to truth and service and inspiring her to achieve unprecedented levels of excellence,” Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick said in a statement released ahead of the ceremony. “It is perfectly fitting that the Showtime Marching Band, the ensemble that captures and reverberates the heartbeat of our institution, should accompany her on this last leg of her journey to the White House.”

Due to safety precautions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a third of the band participated in the event.

After the bells tolled, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has come to be known as the “Black national anthem” echoed across the campus.

The civil rights hymn, which speaks to the faith and resilience of African Americans, was originally a poem, written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson at the height of segregation and lynching in the United States.
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According to the Library of Congress, the poem was set to music in 1900 — more than a century ago — by Johnson and his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and was first performed at a Lincoln Birthday assembly at the Stanton School, a segregated black high school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Rep. James Clyburn, the House Democratic Whip and the highest-ranking Black lawmaker in Congress, has recently introduced a bill to make the song the national hymn of the United States.

Reiland Rabaka, the author of “Civil Rights Music: The Soundtracks of the Civil Rights Movement,” told ABC News last week that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” reflects the “tragedies of the African American experience, but also the triumphs,” and this juxtaposition gives it the “staying power that it has to this day.”

Harris, a former U.S. senator and California attorney general, attended Howard University in the early ’80s, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and economics.

During her time as a student, Harris pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., which is part of the National Pan Hellenic Council, or NPHC, also called the “Divine Nine” — a group of 9 Black sororities and fraternities, five of which were founded at Howard.

Howard University is often referred to as the “mecca” of Historically Black College and Universities, or HBCUs, because of its vital role in the educational advancement of Black Americans throughout history.

Harris’ selection as Biden’s running mate elevated the profile of HBCUs on the national stage and was celebrated widely across the Divine Nine and HBCU community.

During her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 19, 2020, Harris paid tribute to her family, as well as her “extended family,” saying, “Family is my beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha, our divine nine, and my HBCU brothers and sisters.”

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