They say it’s bigger than Christmas or Thanksgiving.
Every year, when October rolls around, thousands of Aggies from years past and present descend upon the campus of NC A&T University and beyond to celebrate what they say is the most wonderful time of the year.
“It would take two weeks just to prepare for homecoming,” says Marcus Brandon, a former state lawmaker who attended A&T as a freshman in 1993. “The food, the house. The food you had to cook a week or two weeks out. You would cook chitlins two weeks out and freeze them. Every day there would be something being cooked and frozen.”
Brandon’s family has been celebrating A&T Homecoming, also known as the Greatest Homecoming on Earth, or GHOE, for generations.
Lewis Brandon III, Marcus’ uncle and a veteran of the civil rights movement, remembers attending homecoming celebrations when he came to A&T in 1957.
“When I was in school, things were segregated so the concerts and things took place on campus,” Lewis says. “We couldn’t go anywhere. This was before the sit-ins. We couldn’t go to no clubs or hotels.”
He remembers that despite being contained on campus, the homecoming festivities were as lively as they are now, perhaps even more so.
“When I was in school, there was a bonfire every year,” Lewis says. “We would have a rally and then march over to where the stadium is now. We did that a number of years.”
And while the bonfire may not take place anymore, some of the traditions remain the same decades later.
The parties, the parade, the game, the concerts, the coronation, the tailgating.
“At the football game, it was a fashion show,” Lewis says. “People would dress for the occasion. People would save up for the entire year to parade around the stadium. They would wear things like long fur coats.”
For the Brandon family, homecoming has meant a gathering of more than just family and close friends. Old roommates or college classmates would come through to celebrate once a year. Really, the entire community takes part.
“Compared to other holidays, it’s huge,” Lewis says. “Christmas is a small and religious event for families. Same with Thanksgiving. Homecoming is broader than just family. It has all your friends around you.”
Marcus Brandon remembers celebrating homecoming even as a child.
“After the game, everyone would descend upon [the house],” he says, referring to his childhood home in southwest Greensboro. “There would be cars all around the block.”
According to Kenneth Brandon, Marcus’ father and Lewis’ brother, their family has at least four generations that have taken part in homecoming. The most notable get-together took place after the game when friends, family and more would come to their house for food and entertainment.
“I’ve lived in this house for 44 years,” Kenneth says. “And each year, we would get together. My wife would cook about 150 pounds of chitlins and pigs feet. We would have ham, turkey, ribs, collard greens, everything you can think of. Soul food. Pinto beans, casseroles. We would play games like cards and spades and a lot of people would watch TV.”
One year, Marcus recalls how he and his sister threw a party a week before homecoming. At one point, their kitchen table got broken and the two managed to cobble it back together with glue and tape.
“And then mama made all that food for homecoming and all the food collapsed,” Marcus recalls. “It was quite tragic. It was a bad day for us.”
In 1995, Kenneth, his wife Delores and their two friends Henry and Eleanor Dalton, came up with the idea to move their afternoon gathering to the stadium.
“We would go to the games cause our kids were freshmen,” Kenneth recalls. “Henry would go to Winn-Dixie and I would go to the Chinese place and get wings. We’d sit around and the kids would come after the game. The next year 10 people would come, then 20, and now there are about 200 people out there.”
Since then, the Brandons have been celebrating a majority of homecoming by tailgating next to the stadium. They rent two spaces and haul all kinds of equipment to their designated parking lots. Using grills, a stove and more, they feast like old times, just on paper plates surrounded by cars rather than at a dining table.
“We have to get a U-Haul truck to get everything out there,” Marcus says. “It’s the most unorganized chaos you’ve ever seen.”
“But it always works,” Kenneth says.
These days, Marcus and a few other members of the next generation have taken charge of the tailgate.
“We’re not as good at it,” Marcus admits. “We’ve only done it for two years. They had it down pat for 20. But we are trying to bring in new flavor and spice to it. Our problem is that we are trying to control chaos and we’re learning that that’s impossible.”
“You’ve got to go with the flow,” his dad says.
According to Kenneth, a few years back, because of the long line of hundreds of people that had gathered at their tent for a plate of food — homecoming is a sharing kind of event — they hadn’t noticed a woman who had set up at the end of the line who was charging $10 per plate of food.
“She done made like $50,” chuckles Kenneth. “We had to run her off.”
But that’s kind of the magic of homecoming. You don’t know who you might see or reconnect with.
“People come in from out of town,” Kenneth says. “Family and friends, Aggies and non-Aggies.”
And when asked if he considers it the greatest homecoming on earth he replied with a single word.