In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week, guest columnist ANDREW FEILER, a photographer, discusses the decline and resurrection of Morris Brown College.
By Andrew Feiler
A large bell hangs in the clock tower overlooking the now-quiet campus of Morris Brown College. Its inscription reads, in part, “Dedicated to the Education of Youth, Without Regard to Sex, Race or Color.”
Predominantly in the decades after the Civil War, about 120 colleges were established nationally to educate African Americans. Over time these schools became known as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Six of these colleges are collocated in the area known as Atlanta University Center. One of these colleges is Morris Brown.
Founded in 1881, Morris Brown was one of the rare HBCUs founded by African Americans; most were founded by white philanthropists from outside the South. Over time, Morris Brown came to be known for providing college access to the children of families with lesser means. In an America where educational access for African Americans was constrained by segregation and discrimination, Morris Brown welcomed students from families that were the most challenged.
Eventually, the college’s finances became increasingly precarious, and in 2003 the school lost its accreditation. The federal government cut off student loan money, and the student body almost entirely evaporated. Today, its largely empty campus stands as a testament to a proud past, a challenging present, and an uncertain future, not only for this one institution but for all HBCUs.
I was granted unique access to the hauntingly silent campus of Morris Brown and spent a year shooting a 60-image photo-documentary. A book of this work, Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color, has just been published by the University of Georgia Press in association with Georgia Humanities. Its title is inspired by the inscription on the school bell.
During my time on campus, I sought visual moments and emotional touch points that illuminate the stories in these stilled classrooms and hallways. In the resulting photographs, the proud past remains in the extraordinary quality of the facilities, in the school desks arrayed ready for class, in the faces of students in photographs from happier days. The challenging present resides starkly in the broken stained glass, the havoc wreaked by scrappers, and the hints of homeless humanity. And the uncertain future weighs heavily in the headlines: negotiations over the disposition of particular properties, recycled pronouncements of plans to revitalize the surrounding neighborhood. Mixed with all of these are layers of timeless emotion…. wistfulness, pride, angst, determination, hope.
In part this saga is a Morris Brown story, but it also an HBCU story. Each HBCU has a proud past. Each faces significant challenges. Each has uncertainties in its future. But in the research that I did as part of my work, one statistic is glaring: The roughly 100 HBCUs that remain are a mere 3% of colleges in America, but they represent more than 10% of African Americans who go to college and more than 25% who graduate with degrees. These facts plant this story firmly in the midst of one of the core debates raging in our society: how do we create opportunity in America? How do we create on-ramps to the middle class?
To me, the key is choice. Faced with a choice, some students choose HBCUs. It is choice that makes these schools an essential element in building a healthy American middle class.
And yet consider the very notion of a silent college campus … empty classrooms, darkened hallways, dusty sports facilities. Consider how familiar such spaces are to each of us and how we feel when we view them devoid of people and ravaged by time. There is a broader narrative at play here. Education has been the backbone of the American Dream since before there was a United States of America.
The concept of free public education in America dates to 1644, when the first taxpayer-funded school was created in Massachusetts. The Land-Grant College Act, which spurred the creation of educational institutions across America, was passed in 1862. The educational provisions of the G.I. Bill transformed America from relatively poor to relatively prosperous. Brown v. Board of Education was one of the high-water marks of the Civil Rights Movement. But today this tradition and legacy are at risk. Too many Americans cannot afford to go to college. Too many Americans are being crushed by college debt. Too many of these American dreams cannot be fully realized.
In 2010 Dr. Stanley Pritchett Sr. became the 18th president of Morris Brown. He came aboard with an elegantly simply plan: to sell property on the periphery of the campus, pay off the college’s debts, and reconstitute the institution in the heart of the old campus. But he faced the worst real-estate depression in over 75 years.
And yet, improbably and impressively, Pritchett made it happen. Earlier this year, Morris Brown sold off land on the periphery to Invest Atlanta (Atlanta Development Authority) and Friendship Baptist Church (displaced by the new Falcons stadium), paid off its debts, and emerged from bankruptcy. The college has applied for reaccreditation, is raising funds to refurbish its remaining buildings, and is engaged in strategic planning to define a sustainable path forward.
The photographs illuminate a history, a present, and a struggle forward. As Pritchett himself has said, these “photographs put into perspective Morris Brown College’s great legacy and history; they give a glimpse of what once was and, more importantly, offer a vision of what can be. The photographs convey a sense of rough edges, of incompleteness, reminding me of an unpolished stone. They inspire me to want to make a difference, and I hope they will motivate others to be a part of our transformation.”
Andrew Feiler is an Atlanta-based photographer. His book, Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color, has just been published by the University of Georgia Press in association with Georgia Humanities. More about the book can be found at http://www.andrewfeiler.com/books.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.