SpelHouse down: COVID alters homecoming plans for HBCU alumni

Robert Eason has been to almost every Morehouse College homecoming since he enrolled as a freshman in 1969.

The thing is, he just hasn’t actually attended the game in 20 years.

Homecomings at historically Black colleges and universities are a bit different. Eason would spend all fall preparing for the homecoming then spend the whole weekend outside of the stadium helping to man his fraternity’s legendary tailgate tent.

“I am invested every year because of my involvement with Phi Beta Sigma,” Eason said. “At the end of the weekend, I am beaten down, but heartened and encouraged by what we were able to do.”

Normally, Eason would be preparing for this weekend’s homecoming activities. But this is COVID-19 season.

For the second year in a row, SpelHouse, the combined homecoming blowout co-hosted by Morehouse and Spelman colleges, has been compromised. In 2020, football was completely canceled.

Morehouse will still play Fort Valley State University on Saturday for “homecoming,” but in September, Morehouse and Spelman announced that they were canceling most of its homecoming activities due to the surge in coronavirus infections, essentially limiting all activities to students.

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

Credit: Jason Getz / AJC

While hundreds of thousands of football fans are flocking to stadiums all across the country, many HBCUs, risking their biggest money-making game of the season, have curtailed homecoming activities.

Notable HBCUs like Fisk University, Howard University and football powerhouse North Carolina A&T State University have announced similar plans to basically limit homecoming activities to just the game.

Clark Atlanta University, which has scheduled homecoming for Oct. 24, will also limit activities to the direct campus community.

Credit: Clark Atlanta University Facebook

Credit: Clark Atlanta University Facebook

And for good reason. My colleague Scott Trubey, who has been covering the pandemic for us, told me that through Wednesday, Georgia has reported 23,575 confirmed COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Another 3,852 deaths are considered “probable” for COVID-19.

The seven-day rolling average of new infections during the delta variant wave peaked at the end of August — a couple weeks after thousands of students began their fall semester at Atlanta’s HBCUs — and has declined by about 71% since that time.

But daily reported infections remain about six times higher than they were at the end of June before the delta wave battered Georgia.

On Wednesday, the seven-day rolling average of new infections was 2,711 and the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 63 confirmed deaths. State data showed 2,153 people were hospitalized in Georgia for COVID-19. Also, as of Wednesday, 49% of Georgians were fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the country.

Morehouse, Spelman and CAU have each required students, faculty, and employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine to be on campus this fall, unless they received an exemption.

Andrea Carter agrees, although she is missing out on the Sigma tent which she used to hit every year, before going to the Ohio tent, which always has the best D.J.

Credit: Andrea Carter

Credit: Andrea Carter

“I completely agree with what the presidents have decided,” said Carter, a 1990 graduate of Spelman and the vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility for the Atlanta Hawks. “We want to get back to normalcy, so it is best to stay at home and let the students have their fun.”

But she can still reminisce. Because she lives in Atlanta, SpelHouse is always part of Carter’s annual calendar.

That involves weeks of planning and phone calls to see which of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sorors are flying into town, which parties to attend and even what outfits to wear.

“Then you leave homecoming ready to tackle the world because you saw your loved ones and reconnected with friendships that you have had for 30-something years,” said Carter, who missed her 30th-anniversary of pledging Delta because of the 2020 cancellation.

On Saturday, some of her sorority sisters who live in the area are planning a small get-together in one of their backyards.

“I am extremely sad about missing out on connecting with my classmates. I miss those rituals,” Carter said. “But honestly, with the delta variant, I probably would not have gone anyway.”

David Mitchell, the CFO of Dry Powder, a collective of Black creatives, is pushing forward – kind of.

It is not a sanctioned event, but in the wake of two years of cancellations, he and an Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, George Bandy, and Spelman sister Abeni Bloodworth, are gathering at Washington Park to host a COVID-19 vaccination clinic with the Morehouse School of Medicine all day Saturday.

Mitchell, a 1991 Morehouse graduate, is expecting 300-400 people to come by to get vaccines and booster shots.

“We want to spread the word about the importance of the vaccine, so we can all go back to normal soon,” Mitchell said. “We are intentional about being outside and coming together and intentional about being responsible.”

Eason, who is approaching 70, said if the homecoming activities had not been altered, he would have had to make a tough decision about attending.

“The way we do it at Morehouse, I am a little bit relieved that we are not having it,” Eason said. “I am glad the school made the decision for us.”