By Ryan Velez
Morris Brown College has a legendary status among the Black community, being the first institution of higher learning in Georgia for Black people, founded by Black people. However, its current state is a far cry from its peak, enrolling only 40 students when it once had 2,500. A recent article from Atlanta Magazine profiles the story of this living piece of Black history, showing how it rose, fell, and is now currently trying to regrow in a very different atmosphere than the one it was created in.
The story of Morris Brown College begins in 1881 when a group of clergy chose to open their own college rather than fund a school for Black students opened by white missionaries. Following a three-year fundraising campaign, it opened to 107 middle, high school, and college students.
“Morris Brown College was there to provide them an opportunity,” says Henry Porter, a longtime math professor at the school. “If you really wanted to go to school, you could get that opportunity at Morris Brown College. It allowed folks just out of slavery to get an education.” Unlike many other HBCUs in the area that were able to use the financial backing of their white founders, Morris Brown had to lean on the AME Church.
In the following decades, the profile and enrollment of the school would grow. Atlanta University would deed its former campus and historic buildings to Morris Brown, and it would build Herndon Stadium on land bequeathed by Atlanta’s first Black billionaire, Alonzo Herndon. Its graduates would include a Rhodes scholar, future Pulitzer winners, civil rights leaders, and NFL stars.
However, this same determination to excel in athletics and academics would end up raising issues for the college as it took on debt. The low for the school would come in 2002 when its accreditation was revoked because of financial mismanagement. This meant that students could no longer get federal financial aid or United Negro College Fund scholarships at a school where 90% of them used some sort of financial assistance. Within six months, enrollment went from 1,800 to 100, and last minute donations and bringing on Stanley Pritchett Sr. as a consultant allowed the school to hang on by a thread.
Down to 40 students and forced to sell its buildings, many faculty members have different ideas on how to get Morris Brown College back on the road to formal accreditation. “The old Morris Brown College, there’s no such thing,” says Sharon J. Willis, a composer, performer, and former Clark Atlanta professor who joined the faculty in 2016 to relaunch the music department. “If you can get some of that, fine. But you shouldn’t want all of that. You should want some new things.”