By Yasha Washington, Staff Reporter
While looking back through 153 years of groundbreaking and world-shifting history, convocation speaker Leslie D. Hale considered Howard University’s founders and their thoughts when signing the charter. Highlighting and emphasizing Howard’s legacy, Hale questioned whether the signers ever anticipated such prominence and greatness from the institution that they helped to establish in 1867.
“Did they just simply think they were helping freed slaves?” Hale asked the audience at the Charter Day convocation on Friday. “Or did they have any idea that they would change the fabric of this nation? In thinking about this question, I reflected on the charter and the legacy that they created. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the charter was more than just the founding document. At its core, it was a revolutionary document.”
As Hale later points out, the historic charter contains no particularly prestigious or lofty phrasing. The opening section reads: “That there be established, and is hereby established, in the District of Columbia, a University for the education of youth in the liberal arts and sciences, under the name, style and title of ‘The Howard University.’”
When juxtaposed with some other university charters, this introduction may appear plain or even perhaps underwhelming. However, the enterprise that derived from that charter proved overwhelmingly successful still.
“The charter didn’t describe or anticipate a grand vision of a revolutionary institution that would become this beacon of black power, black creativity or black brilliance,” Hale said. “But in hindsight, we can clearly see that the university the charter gave birth to seismically shifted the way black Americans contributed to and functioned in American society.”
Revolution was a consistent theme in Hale’s speech, both in reference to Howard’s impact and Hale’s college experiences. A Howard alumna, she briefly detailed her journey, arriving as “a rebel without a cause” and graduating as “a rebel with many” along with a gained sense of belonging and pride. Hale encouraged students to allow their college experiences to lead them down a similar path of self-discovery.
“[Howard] gave me the confidence that only comes from being surrounded by highly intelligent students,” Hale said. “It gave me the pride that only grows out of being connected to a rich history larger than yourself. The more I immersed myself in the Howard experience, the more I was able to override the images and rewrite the low expectations that were etched in my mind growing up in L.A.”
In addition to being an alumna, Hale is a Howard trustee and the CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust, a real estate investment company. She is the first African-American woman CEO of a publicly traded REIT and one of nearly 20 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies worldwide.
She also hails from South Central Los Angeles and likens her own upbringing to John Singleton’s film “Boyz n the Hood.” Hale described herself as being an “average at best” student in high school. She credits Howard as a significant factor in her achievements. Howard allowed Hale to envision herself in high positions and equipped her with the tools necessary to reach them.
Hale’s speech resonated with sophomore broadcast journalism major Megan Western. “I definitely like what she said about how she came here as a rebel without a cause, but she left here as a rebel with many causes, just to show her overall growth in her personality,” Western said. “She kept her same personality, but she definitely attached it to a cause. I think that’s important.”
In the midst of celebrating 153 years of history, Hale reminded students that Howard’s achievements are only obtained through the students it educates and grooms. She advised students to let Howard “nurture” and propel them into whatever reality it might choose. She assured them that the only way to continue the university’s legacy and honor the charter was to make both uniquely their own.
“So look into the lens of possibilities,” Hale said in closing her speech. “Begin to see yourself differently. Feel Howard preparing to propel you. And let this revolutionary place spark within you a revolution.”