TikTokers break into Howard University’s former School of Divinity building
“The University is taking the necessary steps to ensure the School of Divinity’s most precious archival materials are in safekeeping,” said Dean Rev. Kenyatta Gilbert.
Howard University officials are investigating after a group of individuals recorded themselves breaking into an “abandoned” building for social media.
The building, known as Benjamin E. Mays Hall, was once the home of the historically Black university’s School of Divinity. In the video, the individuals can be seen forcing their way into the building through a mechanical room. From there, they recorded themselves running through the library’s bookshelves, sifting through its archives, handling books and files, and spraying a fire extinguisher inside the building.
“These books date back to the 1860s,” one caption in the video read. They were also seen handling what appeared to be original editions of The Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The individuals in the video referred to the newspaper as a “Washington D.C. newspaper,” but it is actually the oldest continually published African-American newspaper in the United States, with its founding in 1852.
Rev. Melech E. M. Thomas, an alumnus of Howard and a former chapel assistant at the university’s historic Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, brought attention to the incident on social media.
“A group of White Tiktokers broke into the old Howard University School of Divinity building and found tons of important archival information pertinent to history of the Black Church and our own institution,” he wrote in a post. “Howard University, as an alum and the son of an alum, our history deserves better.”
The Howard University Department of Public Safety is investigating the incident.
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This style of trespass is not a new phenomenon. There are several social media accounts that showcase content creators breaking into abandoned buildings and recording what they find inside. These individuals break into old hotels, theaters, factories and more, and upload their exploits for their followers to watch. The “Decaying Midwest” TikTok, for example, has garnered millions of views for breaking into abandoned buildings.
However, it can be dangerous to explore vacant buildings due to potential hazards inside — structural issues, electrocution, exposure to mold or asbestos.
Sometimes, these content creators can stumble upon historic treasures, like the books and files found at Mays Hall — and potentially damage irreplaceable records and materials. Black archives are already in danger due to chronic underfunding and a lack of resources. These institutions are not always able to make archival work a priority, as it can be quite expensive to move or digitize thousands of volumes.
The break-in has raised concerns about the security of critical archival materials, and people are asking why decades-old books and files would be seemingly left to rot. If books aren’t stored in climate-controlled environments, mold and mildew will wear them down.
“It unfortunately does not look like Howard has done a good job of archiving. Why were those materials left in a building to deteriorate?,” wrote public historian and YouTuber Jouelzy.
“So much going on here from the gleeful trespassing to the repeated characterization of the space as ‘creepy’ to the incredible artifacts and records abandoned and deteriorating,” wrote religious scholar and chair of the Department of Religion at Princeton University Judith Weisenfeld. “I hope the exposure leads to a preservation plan asap.”
According to university officials, in 2015, the School of Divinity was moved from Mays Hall to its new location in the School of Law Library Building as the school prepared to redevelop the original space. High-value art, administrative files and other archival materials were moved as well. However, officials said in a statement that there was not enough room at the new site to move everything from Mays Hall.
“Despite the University’s efforts to remove historically relevant materials from the site in 2015, the actions of those who trespassed and broke into Mays Hall remind us how some are willing to violate the sacred boundaries of our beloved HBCU campuses and threaten to embolden others with similar actions,” said Rev. Kenyatta Gilbert, the dean of the School of Divinity.
The university began its redevelopment of its East Campus in 2017 and recently started working with the DC Preservation League to designate the area as a historic landmark district, the statement continued.
The academic unit for theological education was established at Howard University in 1870, only a few years after the school’s founding. Later, in 1938, the School of Divinity was fully accredited by the Association of Theological Schools and it stands today as one of only six Historically Black Theological Institutions.
Mays Hall was named after Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, an iconic minister, civil rights pioneer and former dean of the School of Religion at Howard University. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leaned on Mays as a “spiritual mentor,” who had a significant influence on King’s life and views. Mays played a major role in the School of Divinity’s first accreditation after making a vital acquisition that helped broaden the school’s reference and resource collections.
Authorities aim to protect this history by adding extra patrols of Mays Hall and the surrounding area, while the school inspects the materials inside the building and works to secure it from future trespassers.
“The University is taking the necessary steps to ensure the School of Divinity’s most precious archival materials are in safekeeping,” Dean Gilbert said.