Updated Jan 20, 2023 - News

Morris Brown College's comeback

Jon Ossoff and Morris Brown president Kevin James

Sen. Jon Ossoff and AME Bishop Reginald Jackson (right) listen to Morris Brown College president Kevin James on Monday at a press conference announcing a nearly $3 million grant for the school. Photo: Emma Hurt/Axios

Morris Brown College — known as the only college in Georgia created solely by African Americans — has quietly been pursuing a renaissance after years on the brink of closure.

Driving the news: After losing its accreditation for financial mismanagement, filing for bankruptcy, even having the water cut off for unpaid bills, the Vine City-based historically Black college received its largest grant in decades from the federal government this week: nearly $3 million for academic programs and building rehabilitation.

Why it matters: Morris Brown is the only Black college to come back from losing its accreditation, the school's president Kevin James told Axios. When he started in 2019 the school had 20 students. They're hoping to have more than 400 this fall.

What they're saying: "No one thought that this was possible," James told reporters at a press conference announcing the grant. "The fact that we're here today, even just open, is a miracle in itself."

Between the lines: Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) told reporters at the press conference he made a campaign promise to support the college's resurgence.

  • Ossoff has already pushed for the restoration of eligibility for student veterans to attend the school and crucially, for students to qualify again for federal financial aid.

Catch up quick: Morris Brown was founded in 1881 by formerly enslaved leaders in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Its storied list of alumni include the late Rev. Hosea Williams and Alberta Williams King, the mother of Martin Luther King Jr. W.E.B. Du Bois was on the faculty.

Fountain Hall Morris Brown
Fountain Hall. Photo: Courtesy of Morris Brown College

The intrigue: Its alumni were crucial to keeping the school open, organizing fundraisers in the depths of its financial struggles.

  • "As they say, when you find a Morris Brown alum, you cut them, they bleed purple," said R. Candy Tate, a board member for the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation who's helping lead efforts to restore the school’s historic structures.
  • "For many first-time college graduates that might have questionable GPAs, Morris Brown was the school that took a chance on folks and allowed them to come get their four-year degree and excel," she told Axios.

The big picture: James said Morris Brown is the most affordable HBCU in the Atlanta University Center and intends to set itself apart by continuing its legacy as a "haven for all. An institution for all," particularly those, he said, who might need more financial support.

Run-down Morris Brown stadium
Morris Brown's Herndon Stadium hosted the 1996 Summer Olympic Games field hockey events. Today it — like many other Morris Brown buildings — sits vacant. Photo: John Bazemore/AP

Zoom in: James said the school is also making academic investments to make the program unique. Through a partnership with Hilton and an investment group the school is building a hotel and hospitality management training complex on campus. It will be the only HBCU hospitality degree program in Georgia, James said, and will "bring some business to the campus."

  • Morris Brown is also the only school in Georgia with a degree in esports performance, he said. They just built a new esports lab.

What we're watching: About half a million of the federal funds will go towards restoration of the school's iconic Fountain Hall, which is a National Historic Landmark. Additional fundraising remains underway for its full restoration.

The bottom line: James said he hopes to beat the school's historic peak student enrollment of nearly 3,000 within a few years — in part through online programs.


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