An image of Zora Neale Hurston smiling hovered above the hundreds of attendees” who filled the National Press Club on Saturday, Feb. 3. Current staffers, alumni and leaders in media gathered to celebrate 100 years of Howard University’s independent publication The Hilltop, but the event was more than a gala; it was a moment to celebrate a long legacy of Black excellence.
Legendary media mogul Cathy Hughes greets the crowd during The Hilltop’s centennial celebration on Feb. 3. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Hurston and anthropologist Louis Eugene King co-founded Howard’s collegiate newspaper on Jan. 22, 1924, making it the oldest Black collegiate newspaper in the country.
Since its inception, The Hilltop has immortalized Howard’s student experience in the print. From Marcus Garvey’s campus visit in 1924 to the 1968 student protest for Black studies on campus, or the aftermath of the Blackburn takeover in 2022, The Hilltop’s staff has faithfully documented the student voice at Howard.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Dr. Isabel Wilkerson, who served as the event’s keynote speaker, is a proud former Hilltopper
Wilkerson, author of the critically acclaimed books “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” was The Hilltop’s editor-in-chief in 1981 and called the publication “a legendary fixture” on Howard’s campus.
“The Hilltop is and always has been much more than a newspaper. It is the legendary beating heart of life at Howard University and has connected every person on campus for generations,” said Wilkerson.
She read excerpts from The Hilltop’s first edition. The paper’s founders sought “to serve as a medium for the expression of student opinion,” “to unify Howard’s spirit,” and “to encourage young men and women to enter the field of journalism.”
The author explained that it was a bold and radical act for Howard students 100 years ago to create a newspaper when their ancestors had been forbidden from the right to learn to read and write.
Wilkerson also recognized Howard’s Moorland Spingarn Research Center for digitizing and archiving all editions of The Hilltop online and invited her fellow Hilltoppers to join the preservation efforts of the beloved newspaper.
The celebrated writer, whose book “Caste” was recently adapted into the Ava DuVernay film “Origin” (2023), also offered gratitude to her parents — who met at Howard — and the newspaper’s founding staff.
A Family Reunion, Celebration of Longtime History
The gala felt much like a family reunion and spoke to the many generations of camaraderie and friendship fostered through Howard and time spent working for The Hilltop.
Dr. Genna Rae McNeil chaired Howard’s history department from 1987 to 1990.
In true historian fashion, McNeil attended the centennial celebration with printed photos of 1936 Hilltop publications, which was the year her mother, Pearl Walker, was editor-in-chief. In the mid-to-late 1930s, McNeil said The Hilltop wanted to represent Howard as a proud Black university that was not hindered by the administration.
Whether they were documenting anti-war sentiments, reporting on the National Negro Congress, or supporting Ethiopia’s war against Italian invasion in 1936, McNeil said the coverage showcased that The Hilltop was “one of those student newspapers that actually was the voice of the students.”
McNeil also came to support her former student, Hilltop writer from 1986 to 1990, Robert Vickers, who was a part of the centennial committee. Vickers, a former Hilltop editor is also considered the paper’s unofficial historian.
“What a privilege to have been able to teach at Howard and be supportive to students who were serious about journalism. And serious about being an independent voice for the students,” McNeil told The Informer.
The Hilltop Hall of Fame, Continuing the Legacy
Vickers took to the stage to introduce the stories of the inaugural class of The Hilltop Hall of Fame. Inductees included Wilkerson, founders Hurston and King, Frederick Bobb, Percy Newbie and Pearl Stewart.
Hurston’s niece, Lucy Anne Hurston, came to represent her aunt for her induction into the Hall of Fame.
“It’s fitting that as a social scientist, Zora, who was concerned with questions, inquiry and resolution of problems, was a journalist, anthropologist, and contributor to understanding the social world around her. The fact that The Hilltop continues to do that in an exemplary journalistic and professional fashion speaks loads to Zora and Howard University,” said the proud niece.
Rae Chesney, director of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, accepted the award on the Hurston family’s behalf. Chesney celebrated Howard and The Hilltop as the place of “Zora’s first jump at the sun,” forming Hurston into the celebrated writer people still laud to this day.
Rae Chesney, of the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, speaks on behalf of the Hurston family at The Hilltop’s centennial gala on Feb. 3. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Stewart, who enrolled at Howard in 1967 at the age of 16, was a freshman covering the Charter Day ceremony in 1968 when university students stormed the stage with a list of grievances. She continued to document the historic student takeover throughout her time at The Hilltop.
As a former editor-in-chief, Stewart was recognized by her editorial predecessor as “perhaps the most controversial and influential sister in the class of 1971.”
Jasper Smith, The Hilltop’s current editor-in-chief, celebrated the newspaper’s expanded readership, touting more than 200,000 readers each semester. Smith added that the staff has explored new ways of storytelling, including the launch of The Hilltalks podcast led by Juan Benn, the paper’s multimedia editor.
She said current Hilltopers are focused on expanding their digital reach through social media and audio and video storytelling. The editor explained that the current staff understands journalism is changing, and in order to remain at the forefront of collegiate journalism, the team must adapt so they can continue for another 100 years.
“Knowing that we are still operating with the same curiosity and dedication to storytelling that Zora Neale Hurston, Eugene King and The Hilltop had in 1924 resonates with me the most. When I think of the first edition of The Hilltop, I see such a resemblance to the stories we cover today,” she told The Informer.
The current editor proudly follows in the footsteps of the paper’s founders and his predecessors.
“The Hilltop has always been and will forever be the student voice of Howard University,” Smith said. “It’s not just a motto for us, it’s a founding mission.”
Source: Washington Informer