The first time I stood on the grounds of the Atlanta University Center was 1989. I was visiting my older half brother, Ken, who was finishing his degree at Morehouse College after transferring from Vanderbilt University. Tall, handsome, and 11 years older than me, Ken was my childhood hero, especially during middle school. Back then I was a chubby, nerdy 11-year-old, and being in Atlanta was, by itself, an escape from the endless boredom of my hometown, Huntsville, Alabama.
Ken gave me a walking tour through the campus, ending at “The Yard”—a flat plot of land connecting Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University, with both Spelman College and Morris Brown College just steps away. As he pointed out the different schools, knowing I would likely do whatever he thought was cool, he said the sentence that cemented my decision to attend college at the AUC: “This is where they filmed School Daze.”
In case you’ve never seen the movie, there’s a scene where go-go band E.U. plays its classic song “Da Butt” in front of a jubilant crowd of Black students—all dressed in late-’80s swim attire and dancing their physical, mental, and spiritual freedom into existence. If anything had a vibe, it was that, and I was sold. But without dwelling on my personal undergraduate experience too long (you just had to be there), that cinematic scene—created by proud Morehouse grad Spike Lee—was just a taste of what collegiate life was like at the AUC, the world’s largest and oldest group of associated private institutions specifically existing for the higher education of Black students. Atlanta itself, “The A,” would be nothing like it is today, in the most essential way, without this collective of historically Black colleges and universities.
Most HBCUs in America, including Spelman, Morris Brown, Clark Atlanta, and Morehouse, were founded after the Emancipation Proclamation, during or after Reconstruction. They were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau, the American Missionary Association, the Methodist Church, and philanthropic abolitionists, as a means of upward mobility for formerly enslaved Africans. Almost 90 percent of these schools are in the Southeast, and without them, education for Blacks in the U.S. would look very different.
For context, after the 1831 revolt of enslaved Africans famously led by Nat Turner in Virginia, antiliteracy laws were passed in all but three Southern states. In Georgia, Governor George Gilmer had signed a law in 1829 prohibiting Blacks from reading; violations were punishable by fines and imprisonment. Four years later, Governor Wilson Lumpkin outlawed Blacks not only from learning to read or write, but from working in jobs that required those skills. Had this very essay been published then, I might’ve been whipped for disobedience.
HBCUs, and specifically the AUC, are immensely vital to “Black Excellence.” The consortium has played a major role in the history of this city, and their notable alumni prove their impact.
If you drive along the now heavily gentrified Hosea L. Williams Drive, you can thank its namesake Morris Brown alumnus for helping inspire the city’s “unbought and unbossed” spirit. The only AUC school founded by Black Americans, his alma mater also produced Beverly Harvard, the first Black female police chief of a major American city (ours), and James Alan McPherson, the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. There’s also Dr. Rashad Sanford, a prominent chiropractor and co-owner of one of Atlanta’s hottest restaurants, Breakfast at Barney’s.
Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta, who launched MARTA’s rapid rail system and ensured at least 25 percent of airport contracts went to minority-owned businesses, was a “Morehouse Man.” So was his grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs, who registered more than 20,000 Black voters in the 1940s, transforming city government and forcing the Atlanta Police Department to hire its first Black officers. And, of course, the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in front of Morehouse’s chapel stands as a timeless reminder of the school’s most famous graduate.
Clark Atlanta University began as two separate institutions that merged in 1988. Alums include some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Tony Award–winning director Kenny Leon, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, and various music industry leaders such as DJ Drama and Chaka Zulu. In addition, the Atlanta-University-educated James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem that became “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” widely known as the “Black national anthem.” Pinky Cole of Slutty Vegan is a graduate, and the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy received an MA in sociology from CAU, before becoming one of Dr. King’s mentors and a fellow leader of the civil rights movement.
Next door at Spelman, you’ll find a lineage of brilliant literary stars, from Alice Walker and Pearl Cleage to Tayari Jones and, of course, Stacey Abrams, with whom you might be familiar due to her notable political influence. Other high-profile grads are Ambassador Ruth A. Davis, the first Black American director of the U.S. foreign service, and the late Major General Marcelite J. Harris, the first Black American female general officer of the United States Air Force. Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer (class of ‘84) holds rank in corporate America.
There is an ongoing conversation about the future of HBCUs. Some wonder if they are still necessary, as more Black undergraduates enroll in PWIs (primarily white institutions)—often in search of specialized programs not available at liberal arts schools.
Many HBCUs are private and expensive, which also threatens their long-term viability. For example, undergraduate tuition and fees are now nearly $29,000 at Spelman, though the average is closer to $43,000 at academically comparable schools, according to College Tuition Compare.
In 2021, the Biden administration announced it was providing $5.8 billion to HBCUs through the cumulative effects of the American Rescue Plan, debt relief, and grants. But Black schools, which traditionally serve more students from lower-income families than PWIs, are still not swimming in endowments and scholarship money. Longtime funding inequities mean that HBCUs are catching up rather than keeping up.
In 2022, Morris Brown returned from the brink of permanent closure, after suffering from a corruption scandal and loss of accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2002. With its unique history, Morris Brown is critical to the AUC’s legacy, even though the now-reaccredited school is not currently part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium.
Finally, from states banning books that deal with America’s often-uncomfortable racial truths to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down affirmative action, we are still dealing with the question of who gets to learn what in the greatest nation in the world. Three terrorist bomb threats were aimed at Spelman College in 2022. But without HBCUs, which produce almost 20 percent of all Black American college graduates and 25 percent of Black STEM degree recipients, the situation would be far more dire.
Once again, Atlanta influences everything. The Atlanta University Center continues to excel, producing some of our nation’s and our city’s greatest citizens. I knew it at 11 years old. As Spike Lee said during an on-campus interview in 2019, “I never left Morehouse.” I know there are many Atlanta residents who’ve never visited any of the AUC schools, which is a shame. Even as a freshman at Morehouse, I visited Georgia Tech, Emory, Agnes Scott, Georgia State, UGA, and Kennesaw State (thanks to my dusty red Toyota Tercel, which was against the rules for first-year students to have but made me quite popular back in 1995). I’ll always appreciate my English teacher, Cindy Lutenbacher, who encouraged me to debate literature passionately with some of my bougier Morehouse brethren, who would show up to class in full suits carrying briefcases. I was doing well to have arrived in my PJs. But I knew my stuff, and I could defend my love and comprehension of language, which is partly why you’re reading this right now.
Long live the Atlanta University Center. Long live HBCUs. And long live the spirit of Black brilliance and upward mobility that exists throughout this country, whose light shines especially bright from the West End.
This article appears in our October 2023 issue.