Main Hall (right) and Miner Hall in 1868.
Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, members of The First Congregational Society of Washington considered establishing a theological seminary for the education of African-American clergymen. Within a few weeks, the project expanded to include a provision for establishing a university. Within two years, the University consisted of the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Medicine. The new institution was named for General Oliver Otis Howard, a Civil War hero, who was both the founder of the University and, at the time, Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. Howard later served as President of the University from 1869–74.
U.S. Congress chartered Howard on March 2, 1867, and much of its early funding came from endowment, private benefaction, and tuition. (In the 20th and 21st centuries an annual congressional appropriation, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, funds Howard University and Howard University Hospital.)
Many improvements were made on campus. Howard Hall was renovated and made a dormitory for women. J. Stanley Durkee, Howard's last white president, was appointed in 1918.
The Great Depression years of the 1930s brought hardship to campus. Despite appeals from Eleanor Roosevelt, Howard saw its budget cut below Hoover administration levels during the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Howard University has played an important role in American history and the Civil Rights Movement on a number of occasions. Alain Locke, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and first African American Rhodes Scholar, authored The New Negro, which helped to usher in the Harlem Renaissance. Ralph Bunche, the first Nobel Peace Prize winner of African descent, served as chair of the Department of Political Science. Beginning in 1942, Howard University students pioneered the "stool-sitting" technique of occupying stools at a local cafeteria which denied service to African Americans blocking other customers waiting for service. This tactic was to play a prominent role in the later Civil Rights Movement. By January 1943, students had begun to organize regular sit-ins and pickets at cigar stores and cafeterias around Washington, D.C. which refused to serve them because of their race. These protests continued until the fall of 1944. Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Toure, a student in the Department of Philosophy and the Howard University School of Divinity, coined the term "Black Power" and worked in Lowndes County, Alabama as a voting rights activist. Historian Rayford Logan served as chair of the Department of History. E. Franklin Frazier served as chair of the Department of Sociology. Sterling Allen Brown served as chair of the Department of English.
The first sitting president to speak at Howard was Calvin Coolidge in 1924. His graduation speech was entitled, "The Progress of a People," and highlighted the accomplishments to date of the blacks in America since the Civil War. His concluding thought was, "We can not go out from this place and occasion without refreshment of faith and renewal of confidence that in every exigency our Negro fellow citizens will render the best and fullest measure of service whereof they are capable."
The Lower Quadrangle behind Founders Library; also known as "The Valley."
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech to the graduating class at Howard, where he outlined his plans for civil rights legislation and endorsed aggressive affirmative action to combat the effects of years of segregation of blacks from the nation's economic opportunities. At the time, the Voting Rights bill was still pending in the House of Representatives.
In 1975 the historic Freedman's Hospital closed after 112 years of use as Howard University College of Medicine's primary teaching hospital. Howard University Hospital opened that same year and continues to be used as Howard University College of Medicine's primary teaching hospital with service to the surrounding community.
In 1989, Howard gained national attention when students rose up in protest against the appointment of then-Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater as a new member of the university's board of trustees. Student activists disrupted Howard's 122nd anniversary celebrations, and eventually occupied the university's Administration building. Within days, both Atwater and Howard's President, James E. Cheek, resigned.
In April 2007, the head of the faculty senate called for the ouster of Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert, saying the school was in a state of crisis and it was time to end "an intolerable condition of incompetence and dysfunction at the highest level." This came on the heels of several criticisms of Howard University and its management. The following month, Swygert announced he would retire in June 2008. The university announced in May 2008 that Sidney Ribeau of Bowling Green State University would succeed Swygert as president. Ribeau appointed a Presidential Commission on Academic Renewal to conduct a year-long self-evaluation that resulted in reducing or closing 20 out of 171 academic programs. For example, they proposed closing the undergraduate philosophy major and African studies major.
Six years later, in 2013, university insiders again alleged the university was in crisis. In April, the vice chairwoman of the university's board of trustees wrote a letter to her colleagues harshly criticizing the university's president and calling for a vote of no confidence; her letter was subsequently obtained by the media where it drew national headline. Two months later, the university's Council of Deans alleged "fiscal mismanagement is doing irreparable harm," blaming the university's senior vice president for administration, chief financial officer and treasurer and asking for his dismissal. In October, the faculty voted no confidence in the university's board of trustees executive committee, two weeks after university president Sidney A. Ribeau announced he would retire at the end of the year. On October 1, the Board of Trustees named Wayne A.I. Frederick Interim President. In July 2014 Howard's Board of Trustees named Frederick as the school's 17th president.
In 2018, nearly 1,000 students held a sit-in demanding injunction over the administration's use of funding. After the student protest ended, faculty voted "no confidence" in the university president, chief operating officer, provost, and board of trustees.