Howard University, "The Mecca of Black Education," seeks to make its mark in the world of college chess

by Jamaal Abdul Alim
1/18/2023 – For much of its storied existence, Howard University in Washington D.C. – a historically Black university located in America’s capital city – has been known as "The Mecca of Black Education," or just "The Mecca". This year, at the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championship the Howard University Chess Club achieved the best result it has ever achieved in the Team Championship. A success that is partly due to hard training and the help of Jerald Times, an award-winning chess educator from New York City, and Tani Adewumi, the 12-year old chess talent from Nigeria, who helped the team to prepare. | Photo: (from left to right: Goodness Atanda, Lawrence D. Custis, Samir Acharya, Malcolm Wooten and Malik Castro-DeVarona | Photo: Jerald Times

ChessBase 17 - Mega package ChessBase 17 - Mega package

ChessBase is a personal, stand-alone chess database that has become the standard throughout the world. Everyone uses ChessBase, from the World Champion to the amateur next door. It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it.

More...

When the Howard University Chess Club competed in the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championship back in 2022, things didn’t go so well.

Members of the school’s B Team finished dead last. The A Team didn’t fare much better, having come in 52nd place – just five places behind the B Team.

"It definitely wasn’t a good feeling because we just felt underprepared," Lloyd Davis, 24, a senior political science major and a member of the HU Chess Club, told ChessBase.

Davis noted that some of the club’s players were new to the game at the 2022 Pan-Am. Until recently, Davis only had a provisional rating himself.

"You can’t get upset at beginners for performing like beginners," Davis said. "A couple of players had just learned how to play. We were just unprepared."

Things turned out radically different at the 2023 Pan-American for Howard, a storied university reverently known as "The Mecca of Black Education" and the only HBCU – or historically Black college or university – represented at the event.

While the B Team still struggled, the Howard University A Team finished 8th in the U1800 section, several places ahead of better-known and more well-endowed universities, such as the University of Southern California and George Washington University, two of the priciest colleges in the United States.

Lloyd Davis reading a book about the Scandinavian | Photo: Howard University Facebook page

If you ask leaders and coaches of the Howard chess club what made the biggest difference, they’ll tell you it was a lot of practice and specialized preparation from two of the top Black players in the world of chess.

"I would say the biggest factor was the training our team went through leading up to the Pan Am," says Malik Castro-DeVarona, president of the Howard University Chess Club, who finished with a commendable 4 out of a possible 6 points.

Howard University Chess Club president Malik Castro-DeVarona plays former president Malcom Wooten at the 2022 Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Championship. | Photo: Howard University Facebook page

That training was provided by National Master Jerald Times, a seasoned chess instructor from New York City who was recognized in 2021 as Chess Educator of the Year, and 12-year-old Tani Adewumi – the young chess phenom who took the chess world by storm in 2019 when – as an 8-year-old – he won clear first in the K-3 division of the New York State Scholastic Championships.  Tani is now just one norm shy of achieving the rank of International Master.

Tani Adewumi presents the certificates of his two IM-norms | Photo: Tani Adewumi on Twitter

Jerald Times pointed out that Howard’s A-Team was the lowest rated team in the Top 10 of the U1800 section.

As part of his coaching, Howard players researched their opponents’ games, searching for errors in their opening lines. Times commended the players as being "tech-savvy scholars and passionate enthusiasts of the sport," which he said allowed the HU A team to "punch above their weight."

If the Pan-Am features a reserve section in 2024, Times believes that "due to their recent experience, HU’s A team would be one of the favorites to win the section."

Jerald Times

If that happened, it would make a serious statement on behalf of HBCUs, or historically Black colleges and universities, which haven’t made much of a showing in college chess.

For those who are unaware, historically Black colleges and universities – better known in the United States as HBCUs – are colleges and universities that were founded before 1964 and whose "principal mission" was – and still is – to educate Black Americans, who had largely been shut out of higher education in the United States. Most HBCUs began in the 19th century after the Emancipation Proclamation and during an era of racial segregation known as Jim Crow, although a handful began before the Civil War.

Some of America’s most well-known Black public figures and luminaries were educated at HBCUs. They include Oprah Winfrey, who graduated from Tennessee State University, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1948 at the age of 19.

Howard University boasts of a long list of graduates who led distinguished careers in science, government, literature and the law: Charles Drew, Toni Morrison, Thurgood Marshall, David Dinkins and Kwame Ture, to name a few.

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019), novelist, essayist, children's writer, professor and winner of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1993 | Photo: John Mathew Smith (celebrity-photos.com), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The current U.S. Vice President – Kamala Harris – is also a proud graduate of Howard.

People and the media constantly question if HBCUs are still relevant or necessary.

"HBCUs are puzzling to many, especially those outside of the U.S.," concedes Daaim Shabazz, associate professor of global business at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an HBCU founded in 1887 in Tallahassee, Florida. Shabazz is also creator of The Chess Drum, a website devoted to coverage of chess players of African descent.

"Many who have heard of them ask why they are needed," Shabazz says. "However, HBCUs still provide a nurturing environment that allows Black students to focus on academic and social development as opposed to feeling excluded or isolated," which he says is the case in many environments where Black students constitute a very small percentage of the student body.

Jerald Times

"Everything at an HBCU is focused on the success of the student and provides a self-affirming and culturally relevant environment," Shabazz says.

Although Shabazz says various HBCUs, such as Morehouse, FAMU, Tuskegee, Hampton and Norfolk State have had clubs in the past, maintaining consistency has been a problem.

Naomie Baptiste | Photo: Jerald Times

"It is actually the same challenge at other universities, but HBCUs also lack the tradition," Shabazz says. "For example, schools like Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago are not among the elite chess programs, but they have a long tradition that helps them to get support for their activities."

Chess clubs at HBCUs are mostly organized by students who come from cities where chess traditions are more widespread, Shabazz says.

Indeed, after more than a decade of dormancy, the Howard University Chess Club was revived in 2019 by the late Sultan-Diego LeBlond – also known as Sultan-Diego Abdullah Sulayman – a chess activist and Howard student at the time.

"The problem I have seen at HBCU is the lack of a pipeline for chess," Shabazz says. "It is hard to maintain when chess has to compete with other interesting social activities and clubs."

Miles Matterson | Photo: Jerald Times

Nisa Muhammad, assistant dean for religious life at Howard University and the chess club’s formal advisor, says there are plans to change that.

Among other things, the club plans to hold an HBCU chess tournament.

Lawrence Custis | Photo: Jerald Times

Cassidy Sparks | Photo: Jerald Times

Malik Castro-DeVarona, president of the Howard University Chess Club, has a vision to make the club more competitive in events such as the Pan-Am.

"One of our really big goals before we graduated is we want to have a chess scholarship instituted," Castro-DeVarona says. "The people who win the Pan-Am are all on chess scholarships. They’re all grandmasters and international masters."

He speaks of potentially recruiting top players from Nigeria – Tani’s native country – and "other parts of Africa that push chess."

What about recruiting Black students in the United States?

"For African Americans in the United States, there’s not a lot of incentive to devote yourself to chess because it’s not profitable unless you’re a top 100 player," Castro-DeVarona says. "So a lot of Black youth do other things in life. If there were scholarships, there would be more incentive to commit to chess when you’re younger."

Castro-DeVarona has come to terms with the fact his calling transcends becoming a better chess player.

"Being the best isn’t necessarily my place in chess," Castro-DeVarona says. "But I think I have other roles. Being in the position I am as president, being in the climate we are in where chess had a very big boom due to Covid, I think it's a good period of time when we can set a precedent that can last past my time here (at Howard University)."

Links


Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Education Week, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and US News & World Report. He studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. He has won several awards from NABJ and was named 2013 Chess Journalist of the Year. He resides in Washington, DC, and can occasionally be found playing chess at the tables in DuPont Circle. Jamaal has a home page and he can be followed on Twitter (@dcwriter360).
Discussion and Feedback Submit your feedback to the editors