Morris Brown College is surviving, hoping to thrive again
Alumni, friends, administration doing what they can until accreditation can be restored
Shirley Barlow remembers the moment that changed her life like it was yesterday.
A boy next door, a longtime neighbor and friend, introduced her to his cousin Chuck, and the rest has been a journey of love, achievement and loyalty. Chuck and Shirley have been married for more than 40 years and share precious memories of the college they attended together in Atlanta.
There have been many stories written about Morris Brown College that don’t tell the whole story of the college. They tell a lot about the fall but very little about the rise of Morris Brown. Reports from a number of publications and media including, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fox 5 Atlanta, BuzzFeed and Slate have attempted to verbally and visually put an end to an institution that is forever embedded in the story that is the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta University Center.
Black self-determination was the foundation upon which Morris Brown College is founded. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was started in 1816 after discrimination within the Methodist church caused black ministers in Pennsylvania to start their own church. Morris Brown became the second bishop of the AME Church. Morris Brown College was established in 1881, 50 years after Brown’s death, “calling for the establishment in Atlanta of an institution for the moral, spiritual, and intellectual growth of Negro boys and girls.”
It was financial mismanagement that caused Morris Brown to lose accreditation and federal funding. Faculty and staff lost their jobs and hundreds of students left. The school sold many of its buildings to avoid closing altogether, as part of its 2012 bankruptcy filing.
Morris Brown College was for the students without the legacy, without a clear path to where they were going to go to school, a la Morehouse College, Spelman College, Hampton University and Howard University. The school was much more than just a place for students to find access to an education, it was and remains the place where generations have come to find themselves. It cultivated that reputation as the black college that educated and uplifted economically disadvantaged black students.
Joseph Ross found his way back home to Georgia and to Morris Brown College from Tuskegee University. “I came here to go to school instead of Kennesaw State or Georgia State [located less than a mile from Morris Brown] because, to be honest, I feel historically black colleges and universities are the only place I can be myself,” said the Douglasville, Georgia, native who had his choice of colleges and universities in and around Atlanta. “Morris Brown gives me a sense of pride about myself and my heritage as an African-American man.”
Berrell Slaughter has only been on campus for a semester, but the Gainesville, Georgia, native believes he’s made the right move by choosing to attend Morris Brown. “Coming from the schools I have been to,” said the transfer student, “Morris Brown has been a more nurturing experience for me by far.”
A freshman from the Bronx, New York, Kadidiatou Diallo didn’t know much about Morris Brown, and what she read during her initial research wasn’t very positive. “Everything I read online was bad, but after talking to the people in the administration office and taking a tour of the campus, I feel like this is a great school and the place for me,” said Diallo. “I want to be a part of history and this school has a lot of history, it’s all over the campus.”
Keeping the campus alive
The current physical appearance of the campus is in the process of getting some much-needed love from a group of concerned citizens, some Morris Brown alumni and others because they care about what the school stands for.
Noted photographer Andrew Feiler’s book, Without Regard to Sex, Race or Color published in 2015, has photos of the Morris Brown campus in all of its rawness. “I was in Herndon Stadium for the field hockey events during the 1996 Olympics,” said Feiler during an interview as he prepared to display the images at a show at the University of Pennsylvania.
“When you walk into spaces like those, they resonated at a very deep level because we are all familiar with the visual of a school. To see the rooms devoid of students but to see the touch points that showed that there were people there was emotional,” he said.
Images of the empty graffiti-strewn stadium, classrooms with broken desks and the science lab at the Griffin Hightower Center littered with unused beakers and lab equipment tell the tale of a once-busy learning environment.
“It’s not just Morris Brown College that’s affected, but the educational ethos,” said Feiler. “It’s an enormously important story that I feel I needed to tell.” The story thankfully does not end with Feiler’s haunting pictures of decay and destruction. Not by a long shot.
On Sept. 17, more than 50 volunteers from 10 colleges and universities, male, female, young and old, HBCU alums and otherwise, black and white, helped raised more than $1,300 for the cleanup of Fountain Hall on the campus.
The coming together of Atlantans for a good cause barely made a ripple on social media or in the local news. The impact on one of the school’s most important landmarks, such as the school bell that remains in the towers that stand sentinel over the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Library, is immeasurable. It sat abandoned for years, dusty and damaged by time and looters. The thieves showed up to rid the building of copper wiring and other building materials following the decline in students and a reduction in campus security and regular Atlanta Police Department patrol.
The efforts of the volunteers gave the building its dignity back, though it never lost its importance to the school and its historic relevance.
“In terms of both raising awareness and finishing the task at hand, the event was a success,” said Wes Wooten, one of the volunteers and a community activist. “We all came together and completely cleaned the building in the course of four hours.”
Stanley Pritchett Sr., Morris Brown College president since 2010, believes the mission of getting Morris Brown back to the elite status it once held among historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) will take more efforts like the one on display at Fountain Hall.
“I believe that the hundreds of people that have been passionate and dedicated to the school while also being supportive of the young people who are still matriculating to Morris Brown College have been a significant lifeline for the school,” said Pritchett, who is an alumnus of Albany State University. “The annual gifts have averaged out to almost $1,500 per alumnus.”
That does not include what has been donated from members of The Women of Morris Brown College Inc. and the Morris Brown Band Foundation, two of several interest groups. There is a chance you may not have heard of these organizations, but they too are part of the essential lifeline that continues to keep the doors open at Morris Brown.
Morris Brown is all about family
The Barlows are Morris Brown College and in no way is that an exaggeration. Following graduation, they got married and never really left campus, as they have both served and currently serve as president of the Morris Brown College National Alumni Association.
Chuck Barlow served during what might have been the most prosperous period of both the school and alumni association, 1993-1997. Morris Brown College was the host site for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games field hockey tournament during that time. Shirley Barlow is currently the 23rd and only the fourth female president of the alumni association. Their four children are graduates of Morris Brown and, according to Chuck, that legacy needs to be continued.
“We have to preserve Morris Brown College for my grandchildren,” he said. “We are still in existence after 135 years and we plan on being a new Morris Brown as we emerge through this process.”
Shirley Barlow added, “The accreditation process is looking great and we have the entire alumni association behind it.” There will be raffles and prize giveaways at homecoming this weekend. “It’s a 2016 Chevy Malibu,” she said excitedly.
“We have had a homecoming every year since we lost the accreditation and we’re going to have one this year, too,” she said. Plans for the 2016 homecoming festivities will not include the Fighting Wolverine Band or the Wolverine football team; both are currently nonexistent works in process. “We’re going to have homecoming without a football game,” said Pritchett. “We still have thousands that come back to campus for homecoming despite not having a game to go to. Can you imagine that anywhere else?”
In regards to homecoming weekend, Ross said, “Last year we had a few thousand people here. It was awesome.”
All HBCU homecoming festivities are marked by football games and at halftime by their bands and dance teams. Neither exist at Morris Brown College right now and that reality is something Pritchett and a few others are trying to change.
“One of the things we want to do is to bring back some of those things, like athletics and the band,” said Pritchett. Former Morris Brown College Wolverine offensive tackle and defensive tackle Brian Ashley was at Morris Brown during the athletic department’s transition from Division II to Division I-AA in 2002. That season the Wolverines would finish 1-11.
What college meant to him and did for him as a young man coming to Atlanta from Miami has positively affected his entire life.
“I believe Morris Brown made me a better man, it made me grow up real fast,” said Ashley, who now is a librarian and assistant football coach in the Atlanta public school system. “Everything wasn’t easy at Morris Brown and I had to come up with my own solutions for getting by and that made me a better man and father.”
Ashley’s son, Grant, was born a few months ago. “My coaches taught me a lot about life. They wanted us to be good football players but they also stayed on us about becoming good men too.”
The same year the football team moved up, so did the basketball team. That year the basketball program ventured into Division I play as an independent under then-head coach Derek Thompson. The Wolverines finished the 2002-03 season with an 8-20 record. They were 5-24 under Thompson a year earlier. The last seasons for the football team and band were 2002-03.
During the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 seasons, the Wolverines may have only won 13 games but they were given the opportunity to represent dear old Morris Brown all over the country. The opportunity was only made possible by the whirlwind schedule of an independent Division I program.
“It was a fantastic time for us, those seasons [including 2000-2001 under Morris Brown alumnus, former Harlem Globetrotters coach and future Morris Brown athletic director Russell Ellington] allowed us to be on the national stage and be recognized by some of the schools we were playing against,” said Thompson. That stage was set by Thompson, who was in charge of calling schools and booking dates for the Wolverines. “I was basically scheduling our entire season,” said Thompson, who then was the youngest Division I head coach and who had to schedule the Wolverines’ games without the cushion of a conference schedule.
Being a Division I independent after years as a Division II team playing their basketball and football in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Morris Brown College and its basketball program were in for quite the culture shock. “It was definitely a learning experience for me as a head coach and for all of my players,” said Thompson, who is now an assistant basketball coach at Alcorn State University, an HBCU in Mississippi.
“We had guys on the team that not only had never been on a flight before, but had never even been to the airport,” he said.
“Those years playing Division I were a great experience basketballwise,” said former player Anthony Adams, now an assistant basketball coach at Therrell High School in Atlanta. “It also showed us that basketball was a business.”
The business was both good and bad for Morris Brown as schools such as West Virginia University, University of Southern California, Boston College, Iowa State, Ole Miss and Marquette would pay thousands of dollars for the Wolverines to pad their early season schedules and holiday tournament rosters.
Adams told a story about how the Wolverines were leading late in the game at West Virginia’s WVU Coliseum but were seemingly getting called for every foul and violation possible after not being called for any fouls during the first half. “I remember a referee pulling me to the side and telling me to keep playing my game, but this was how it had to be,” said Adams with a snicker. “ ‘If you guys beat the Mountaineers on their home court, they are going to blame us, and they’re cutting Morris Brown a nice check to win, not lose,’ ” Adams said the referee told him.
No band, no football but, yes, a homecoming
The statue titled “The Horn Section” stands sentinel at the park named after the man who inspired it. Cleopas R. Johnson Park sits between Fair Street and Northside Drive on Atlanta’s southwest side. Created by artist Zachary Coffin, the 35-foot statue depicts three arms with horns in hand. If you stare at it long enough, you can almost hear the sweet sound of the Marching Wolverines.
For 35 years, the Morris Brown College band was directed by Johnson, until the day of his death in July 1996, a month before he got the chance to see Morris Brown College and Herndon Stadium become a satellite site for the Olympic Games. Johnson is buried at Lincoln Cemetery, four miles from campus down Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. Like the Wolverine football program, the band is no longer active after decades of being arguably Atlanta’s best collegiate band.
The band was so good that director Charles Stone III and producers of the movie Drumline made treks to Alonzo F. Herndon Stadium to not only film footage for the Nick Cannon-driven film but to get members of the Marching Wolverines to act in the film. The difference between the Wolverines who graced the film and Cannon and his co-stars: the Marching Wolverines weren’t acting.
“The band is extremely important to the fabric of this school like it is for any school,” said Kelly Fanning, who is the current president of the Morris Brown Band Foundation, a former member of the Marching Wolverines and a Morris Brown alum (class of 2009). “The priority of the foundation and its main objective is to support the school and band financially,” said Fanning. “There are a number of students that being a member of the band gives them the discipline and interpersonal skills necessary to have a complete college experience.”
No band, no football game, but there will be a homecoming. There always has been and always will be. It too is a part of the complete college experience, especially at an HBCU.
The Morris Brown College graduation class of 2015 had 22 students and the 2016 graduating class was 22 students. Since the 2003 loss of accreditation, Morris Brown has had a graduating class no matter how many students make it to graduation day.
“We want to grow the enrollment so it can once again become an investment to supporting the community,” said Pritchett. There are plans to start an adult degree program and online classes. A focus group that has met every Tuesday since April 2015 has developed a plan to raise $100 million over the next 10 years. According to members of that group, $100,000 has already been raised for building refurbishment and improvement.
As reported by various media, the leadership at Morris Brown College has sold property to Arthur Blank, the Atlanta Falcons owner, in order to get debts paid. A new trustee board led by chairman Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, the former chairman of the board at Essex College in New Jersey, has been busy gathering investors and nonalumni together for future projects.
“These stakeholders help bring friends that have become very supportive of Morris Brown College despite not being alumni,” said Pritchett. “There are several members of the board that are not alumni, including Bishop Jackson and myself.”
The future of Morris Brown College lies less in the words of local newspapers and magazines and more in the people who love and revere the school, be they alumni who received an education there, have gone to other schools or no school at all but still feel the importance of Morris Brown in their everyday lives in Atlanta.
“I’m proud of the history and legacy Morris Brown has,” said Ashley. “I don’t think a lot of people know that former slaves built the school in the basement of an AME church.” Started from the bottom and still here, Morris Brown remains standing and the rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
“We will be a new Morris Brown as we emerge through this process,” said Chuck Barlow. “We have alumni that are enthusiastic about Morris Brown again,” said his wife.
“We invite anyone and everyone that loves Morris Brown to come help us,” Feiler said. “When people talk about the future of historically black colleges and universities and as long as people are choosing these colleges, they remain an essential on-ramp to the American middle class.”
Currently there are 105 public, private, community and four-year HBCUs in the United States and as it has for over 135 years, Morris Brown College remains one of them.