Two teenagers stirred up controversy at Howard University — a historically black college, or HBCU — on Saturday when they arrived at the campus wearing Make America Great Again paraphernalia, drawing a sharp response from the college's students and prompting a Twitter thread from the university.
The high school students said Howard students approached them and criticized their Trump gear as they waited in line at the cafeteria — with one Howard student grabbing their hats and another saying "Fuck y'all."
The incident, which appears to be the latest example of the culture wars breaking out at campuses sparked, in part, by President Trump's rhetoric, came a week after the violence during white supremacist rallies around and at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The two white students, from Union City High School in Pennsylvania, told BuzzFeed News they were among a group of 30 teenagers on an organized trip to see sites in Washington, DC, where the college is based. They arrived at the campus around lunchtime, and headed for the cafeteria with their school chaperones.
Allie Vandee, 16, was one of the students wearing a MAGA hat and a Trump T-shirt. She complained about the incident on Twitter soon after leaving campus.
"We were not even through the front door to get through the cafeteria, and a man, a black man, walked, had walked through and took my friend Sarah’s hat right off her head," Vandee said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News.
"We were getting dirty looks and were completely harassed by these Howard students," she said.
The incident comes after a week of business leaders, activists, and artists decrying Trump's defense of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville last Saturday. The rally resulted in three deaths, and Trump saying the responsibility was on "both sides" — the white supremacists who planned the rally and the anti-racist protesters who also attended.
"The media wants him to say and point out which group exactly. Immediately. And every single group is guilty. In my opinion," Vandee said.
There are many questions surrounding the high school students' timeline of events: The teenagers said neither they, nor the school, knew Howard was an HBCU before going to campus for lunch. They also say the trip to the historically black school wasn't on the itinerary, and they're not sure why they went. And one of the students appeared to be coached during her telephone interview with BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Union City High School and a chaperone students say was on the trip, but has not received a response.
Merdie Nzanga, a junior at Howard, said she was in the cafeteria eating her lunch when the school group arrived.
"I didn't say anything. To myself I thought, 'This is going to be trouble.' They walked in and one of my friends, she approached them and she said, 'If I was you I wouldn't be wearing these shirts on Howard’s campus.' Another student walked up to them and snatched their hats. Another student told them, 'Fuck y’all.' They walked out, went on Twitter, and started complaining about it," she told BuzzFeed News.
Nzanga said Howard students were upset because, though she feels the teens are entitled to express their views, they should have done their research and been respectful of the community whose space they were in.
"But I did feel bad for them and I don’t condone violence in any form but at the same time I feel like, ‘You should have done your research,'" she said.
Other students were less forgiving. "Who told these lil yt girls they could come to THE HU like it was about to be some joke," wrote one student, Essence Dalton, along with a photo of the high schoolers.
Dalton later told BuzzFeed News that she mainly holds the adult chaperones who were with the high schoolers responsible for the incident.
"My personal concern isn't the young girls, it's the adults who should have better informed the girls of the history of our university and why the Trump paraphernalia might be inappropriate in light of recent racial tensions especially coming from non POCs [people of color]," she said. "Tensions are extremely heavy between POC and non-POCs and Trump is much to blame for that."
She said that because of recent tensions she thinks white people need to be especially aware of the consequences of their actions, and that people of color should call it out when they see unacceptable behavior.
She said it's important to remember that Howard University has a history with the Trump administration. Students protested Trump when college president Wayne A.I. Frederick was among a group of HBCU leaders to meet with the president in March, and in September last year when Trump was reportedly planning to speak at the college during his campaign.
"It's not just political, it's personal. To most Howard students and POC this is a sacred place, a home. it is known as the mecca and while that may not be something of value to people who aren't well informed of it's history, it means a lot to the rest of us."
More broadly, the White House confirmed today that it plans to go ahead with a national conference of HBCUs, despite HBCU leaders' calls for the conference to be postponed so as not to inflame tensions after the president's Charlottesville comments.
Howard University Dining responded to Dalton's post on Twitter, saying, “We will take any action necessary to ensure that HU students feel safe& comfortable in our dining spaces. This group is no longer on campus.”
"You came to an HBCU, one of the few places Black people have historically been relatively safe from racism, and openly supported a racist," another Howard student wrote in response to Vandee's post. "What did you expect?"
The university issued a statement via a Twitter thread, writing that the incident highlights "the need for and importance of human interaction."
"Though this is an institution where freedom of thought, choice, and expression are ever-present, we will never compromise our values or allow others to convince us to do so," university officials wrote. "Our campus is a space for educational engagement to occur between both those who do and do not share our values. Thankfully, when visitors set foot on our campus they are met with some of the brightest and best students in our nation."
“Howard University students have no time for white supremacists and neo-nazi sympathizers on our campus,” Howard's NAACP chapter tweeted in response to her post. “Good riddance.”
Vandee told BuzzFeed News she didn't know that Howard is an HBCU.
“I don’t even think our advisers really knew. We just thought of Howard University, we know it's historic, so we kinda went,” she said.
She said it didn't occur to her that people might be more sensitive about Trump after Charlottesville.
“If it had, I don’t think, it doesn’t change how I feel about our president at all," she said. "And knowing that it was Howard, and knowing it was an all-black school, would help me understand why they were doing the things they did, but it wouldn’t make me remove my hat and shirt, because I am proud to represent our president."
During the interview, Vandee paused for lengthy periods of time before answering questions, sometimes repeating answers being murmured audibly by someone else in the background.
Asked about who she was repeating, she said she was with her grandmother, but denied that anyone was telling her what to say.
Vandee's Twitter feed, going back several months, includes retweets of Trump and right-wing commentators like Tomi Lahren among tweets about track training, friends, and school.
"I’m sad that these people don’t know me — I’m not racist, I’m not homophobic, and just because people support Trump doesn’t mean they are racist or homophobic, and it’s just not fair to us," she said.
Sarah Applequist, the other teenager who was with Vandee and who said her MAGA hat was ripped off while she was standing in line for lunch, also said she didn't know Howard is a historically black university.
However, the 16-year-old told BuzzFeed News that she would not have worn the hat, which she says she bought the day before when the group stopped at the Pentagon City Mall, if she had been aware of that.
“It's funny, because my teacher asked me the same question on the way home. Even though I feel like I shouldn't have to limit where I wear my hat or shirt, I understand why they had a problem with it. They just should have handled it a different way," the high schooler told BuzzFeed News. "But I also feel like it shouldn't matter if it was a black school or not, especially since they were in Washington, DC. I should be able to wear it freely and not feel like I'm gonna be harassed or attacked verbally.”
She said there were black high school students in the group she was traveling with who "didn't say anything" about what they were wearing "bothering them." "But as soon as it started getting retweets on Twitter," she said, "they started saying how they told us to take them off nicely, but they never did."
Vandee said in her Twitter post that one student they were traveling with told them to "remove our hats because we are racist" when they left the campus and got back on the tour bus.
Both teenagers claim neither they nor their chaperones on the trip knew that Howard was an HBCU, and Applequist said the plan was originally for the group to visit a zoo, not the college.
Vandee, though, said she was aware of the Howard trip days before.
"I think they did plan ahead, because on Thursday when we arrived [in DC] I knew about it," Vandee said.
This post has been updated to include Vandee's final quote in order to clarify that she did not say the HBCU visit was listed on a physical itinerary, but did say she believed it was "[planned] ahead."
Nidhi Prakash is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York
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