The Comeback of Morris Brown College: 135 Year-Old HBCU Takes the Path to Restoring Accreditation
Rumors about the death of Morris Brown College were greatly exaggerated. Some naysayers had counted the college out, while others assumed the venerable, historically Black educational institution, which had fallen on hard times, was now defunct and laid to rest.
The Atlanta-based HBCU, a private, coeducational, liberal arts college, was founded in 1881 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church and named after its bishop, Morris Brown. It was established as “an educational institution in Atlanta for the moral, spiritual, and intellectual growth of Negro boys and girls.” And Morris Brown has a special place in history apart from some of its sister HBCU institutions as a financially independent Black college.
In 2002, in light of charges of financial impropriety and misappropriation of funds by some college officials, Morris Brown College lost its accreditation and became a scaled-down version of its former self, selling off some of its campus buildings in the process. But that is in the past, as members of the Morris Brown community will let you know. Born in the Reconstruction era and built by Black folks, the college is making a comeback.
The Board of Trustees, led by Chairman Preston W. Williams II, has just announced five new board members, including executive recruiter/CEO Keith Mahoney; food industry executive/operations management consultant James Atkinson; educator/higher administration and scientist Nevada Winrow, Ph.D.; former educator and legislator Donzella James; and CRM analyst and political consultant Myesha Good.
The move expands the board from 18 to 23 people, and helps the HBCU tool up with the leadership, skills and experience necessary for the considerable challenges ahead. Foremost among the priorities of the board is to lead the college on the path toward restoring its accreditation, building renovation and sustaining future growth, with a self-study process underway. Further, the school is involved in an ambitious fundraising campaign.
“It’s exciting to add new members who bring passion, commitment and combined expertise needed to help us overcome some of our most pressing challenges to regain accreditation,” Williams said. “As we moved forward with our turnaround at Morris Brown College, we sought respected leaders with specific experience in higher education, government and the accreditation process. These new trustees are already engaged in helping us build upon our tradition of challenging young minds and providing educational opportunities for students who might not otherwise get the chance to compete in a collegiate environment.”
Atlanta Blackstar caught up with board members James and Mahoney, two dedicated and impressive individuals with divergent backgrounds, each united in their commitment and dedication to this important institution.
“I strongly believe my political and business affiliations can be a catalyst to help not only bring Morris Brown back to self-sufficiency but carry out a vision of reaching new heights of learning,” said James, a Black legislator, Democratic member of the Georgia State Senate and an alumna of Morris Brown.
The senator, who is chairwoman of Interstate Cooperation, and a member of the Education and Youth, Special Judiciary, and Economic Development committees, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and political science from the college.
“I strongly believe in the concept of service above self. I want to help protect and grow the school’s history of bringing out the best potential in each student,” said Mahoney, who is a business leader, a Navy veteran, and who also happens to be a white Republican.
Mahoney is CEO of The Human Factor LLC, a human resources outsourcing firm with 24 employees and three offices in the U.S. and Belgium. He has over 25 years experience in executive recruitment. The former business-risk consultant and regulatory compliance trainer for Fortune 1000 companies is a South Carolina native and a former Republican nominee for Georgia Secretary of State in 1994.
“What attracted me was the passion that many Brownites — as those who have walked those wonderful halls at Morris Brown College are called — when they talk about their school, unlike many individuals who have gone to larger, maybe more traditional schools. I haven’t seen the same level of passion,” Mahoney said. “I was on an airplane about a year ago, and met one of the professors from Morris Brown. And we began to talk about his school, and I told him I had been following their story, and I wanted to know what I could do. And his eyes lit up. I don’t think many people stepped forward and just asked what they can do for Morris Brown,” he added. “So, the passion of the students, the passion of the graduates, the teachers, the administrators and all of those at Morris Brown attracted me, and it still does.”
While he doesn’t look like your “typical” Morris Brown cheerleader, if there is such a thing, Mahoney noted that his experience growing up in the presence of HBCU graduates helped shape him.
“My favorite teachers of all time, the ones who really cared about me and took a personal interest in me, were graduates of HBCUs — Howard University and South Carolina State in particular,” he shared. “They just seemed to individualize me over putting me into a group, and that is what I see in Morris Brown today. Those who have attended the HBCUs typically are many students who have been maybe marginalized at times. Maybe they [had] those counselors who didn’t believe in them, but they went on to HBCUs, and they found a nurturing environment they wouldn’t have found elsewhere,” he added.
Sen. James — who spoke with us from the Georgia State Senate while fighting legislation to bring guns to Georgia’s college campuses — said that accreditation is the key to everything for Morris Brown’s future.
“I believe that we do have everything that we need in order to move forward,” the senator said. “We have new board members who are dedicated to raising even more money and doing everything we need to do to try to restore some of our buildings. And once we get our accreditation back, we’ll be able to have more students. More. Students. And we’ll be able to restore those buildings, and maybe even do online [classes] … and open up to veterans,” she said.
When asked about the role of alumni in the future of the 135-year old school, the lawmaker was positive.
“We know the value of Morris Brown. We know that we want to preserve that lineage that made Morris Brown great, that’s still viable and still there. Most of us are working continuously, and we’ve never given up hope that we will continue to get stronger,” Sen. James said. “The alumni right now are still very proud and very honored to be a former Morris Brown grad or student.”
Sen. James, who serves on the education committee, said she was able to attach legislation for the HOPE Scholarship to enable students to attend Morris Brown when the school lost accreditation a decade ago. She wants to engage alumni so they help lobby for more resources for the institution. As a proud HBCU alum whose family members also have attended Morehouse, Spelman and other HBCUs, James understands the special place held by her alma mater.
“Of all of the colleges my family attended, Morris Brown was the only African-American college started by Blacks and continued to be run by Blacks. We never had the Rockefellers and all the other people. It’s always been the AME church and other African-Americans,” she said, noting that Morris Brown always served as a place of transition to a better life for its students.
“And that’s one good thing we can look at about the legacy, and we want to restore that legacy, and we want to strengthen it again,” she said.
The Georgia lawmaker is confident that Morris Brown will rise again and restore its status among other HBCUs.
“We would like to see Morris Brown come and join hands with us, because they’re having some problems, too. But all together, we can all do it together.”
With the loss of accreditation, Morris Brown lost membership in the Atlanta University Center, a consortium which includes Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and the Morehouse School of Medicine. However, Sen. James noted that Morris Brown and the other member institutions are still intertwined.
“Education is the great equalizer in America, and if we had more HBCUs that were thriving, I think we would have a better place,” Mahoney said. “Working together with people of different races, different backgrounds, this is diversity. This is what makes us strong, it doesn’t make us weak.”
Mahoney envisions the school focusing on STEM education and reaching out to nontraditional students such as adults and veterans such as himself.
“This school is not only alive. It is about to thrive,” he declared.
Morris Brown College celebrates its 135th Founder’s Day Convocation this week, with noted alumnus and former NFL player Solomon Brannan ’64 as the keynote speaker. Brannan, who said he had received over 100 scholarship offers, never regretted choosing Morris Brown.
“My message will be to relate my experience at Morris Brown College and why it was so special to me as a person,” he said. “I want to emphasize the school is still alive despite rumors;we have never been dead. There are a lot of people saying Morris Brown is gone. We haven’t gone anywhere and won’t be going anywhere.”