Morris Brown College’s hard reset

Morris Brown College has made many comebacks in its nearly 140-year history. This may be the biggest one yet.

Morris Brown's hard reset
Morris Brown College alumni class photo, circa 1960

Photograph courtesy of AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library

In August, as Morris Brown College welcomed its largest class in 20 years, the school experienced a viral moment on social media. With #TheHardReset and #Weareback! hashtags, a video reel showed the annual Olive Branch Ceremony, a jubilant pep rally for all of the Atlanta University Center institutions. On this day, students wear unity merchandise rather than their own school gear. This was Morris Brown’s first time back at the ceremony in two decades.

Although no longer a member of the Atlanta University Center, Morris Brown is integral to the consortium’s history. It has the distinction of being the first completely Black-conceived, Black-founded, and Black-funded center of learning in the state. Considering its existence came roughly 20 years after slavery ended and mere years before Reconstruction’s collapse, that distinction is quite profound. Even today, faith in Black self-determination remains a critical part of the school’s DNA.

The Morris Brown odyssey began in 1881. Trustees from Clark College, a school for Black students founded by white Methodist missionaries, visited Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church seeking financial support. Big Bethel—founded in 1847, not long after Marthasville was renamed Atlanta—was a sanctuary, both sacred and secular, for Black people after the Civil War. It was the inaugural site of Atlanta’s first Black public school, the Gate City Colored School. Instead of granting the request from Clark College’s predominantly white trustees, Big Bethel leadership embraced the logic of church member Steward Wiley, who asked, “If we can furnish a room at Clark College, why can’t we build a school of our own?”

And so began the A.M.E. church’s push for Morris Brown. Big Bethel’s Bishop Wesley John Gaines—a Georgia native who was born enslaved in 1840 and is today buried at Oakland Cemetery—presented a resolution to establish the school at the A.M.E.’s annual conference in Savannah, and Morris Brown has been inextricably intertwined with the church and its Black-founded and Black-governed demonination ever since. The school, named after the denomination’s second bishop, opened in Old Fourth Ward in 1885, with some 105 primary and secondary school students. It expanded in 1894 and graduated its first true college class in 1898. By the early 20th century, the school had 12 divisions of study, including the Collegiate Department, Department of Law, Department of Art, and Industrial Department, with an enrollment of nearly 1,000 students.

Rapid expansion and poor business practices forced the school into bankruptcy in 1928, when William Alfred Fountain Jr. took over as president. Assisted by his father, Bishop William Alfred Fountain Sr., who had served as president from 1911 to 1920, William kept the institution alive by incorporating it as the Fountain, Harris (Dr. W.H.), and Fountain Company for two years, receiving no salary. During what became known as “the Fountain years,” Morris Brown moved to the former campus of Atlanta University in the West End, physically joining the Atlanta University Center Consortium (the school officially joined the consortium in 1941). During this era, Morris Brown amassed an endowment of just under $480,000. Many new buildings, including classrooms, dormitories, and a gymnasium, were erected. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools even awarded the school an A rating.

There would be more ups and downs, but mostly the school prospered. It produced a Rhodes Scholar and a Pulitzer Prize winner, championship football teams, and countless civic leaders. Herndon Stadium hosted field hockey competition during the 1996 Olympics. The campus starred in iconic films like School Daze and Drumline.

Its lowest point came in 2002, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked its accreditation after it was revealed that the president and financial aid director had misappropriated funds from the U.S. Department of Education to keep the school afloat. Losing accreditation meant losing federal financial aid, relied on by an estimated 80 percent of the school’s students. By 2007, the college received 1,200 applications for admission, some 800 were accepted, and only around 100 matriculated. There were only seven staff and faculty members and two academic programs. Enrollment dwindled as low as 35 students.

But the school never closed.

“The students who have come to Morris Brown and who continue to come are connected to the institution and its legacy,” said Alix Pierre, interim dean of academic affairs in 2007. When Morris Brown’s 18th president, alumnus Stanley Pritchett, took the reins—first as acting president in 2007, then president in 2010—he negotiated bankruptcy terms, restructured the board of trustees, and launched an aggressive capital campaign. The Department of Education forgave $9.5 million in debt after the school paid $500,000. And the school sold property, as it had almost a century before—to the City’s economic development arm, Invest Atlanta, which bought the stadium and Gaines Hall for $35 million. President Kevin James, appointed in 2020, built on that momentum, first getting Morris Brown approved by the Georgia Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission, which authorizes and regulates in-state nonprofit and out-of-state postsecondary colleges and schools operating or offering instruction here. Approval from GNPEC cleared the path for accreditation on the federal level. The school decided to apply through the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools—and on March 26, 2022, Morris Brown’s accreditation was restored.

Earlier this year, the historically Black college received its largest grant in decades from the federal government: nearly $3 million for academic programs and building rehabilitation. About half a million of those funds will go toward restoration of the school’s iconic Fountain Hall, a National Historic Landmark.

CGI Merchant Group, a minority-owned global investment management firm, has donated $30 million to create a 150-key upscale hotel and hospitality management training complex. Erich Thomas, an alum and founder of Pharaoh’s Conclave, which creates opportunities for minorities in the video game industry, is sponsoring the school’s new e-sports lab and degree program.

This may be the school’s greatest comeback yet. “The thing that intrigues me the most is the story of perseverance and resiliency,” says James, of Morris Brown’s legacy. “This institution is the only college in Georgia that was actually founded, funded, owned, and operated by African Americans. And that, in itself, is historic and a story of the American dream.”

This article appears in our October 2023 issue.