Back in 2006, when OutKast released the song "Morris Brown," most people were more worried about the status of Atlanta's favorite musical offspring than the financially strapped black college for which the song was named.
The Big Boi solo featured Sleepy Brown and Scar on vocals, but no Andre 3000, who produced the song. Despite a funky video with a purple dog and the introduction of Big Boi signee Janelle Monáe, the second single from OutKast's Idlewild project barely cracked the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 95, making it a harbinger of the film's impending box office doom. It also preceded a change to the group's dynamic that everyone could see coming but no one was eager to embrace.
But the song was still a cool come-up for Morris Brown College. With a hook that celebrated the tradition of black college bands, the track's musical backbone prominently featured Morris Brown's Marching Wolverines. It was almost enough to overshadow the PR hit the Atlanta college had taken earlier that year when former Morris Brown President Dolores Cross (1998-2002) pled guilty to embezzling government funds intended to cover student tuition just four years after the college lost its accreditation partly due to mounting debt.
In the decade since, things have only worsened. Enrollment has dwindled from 3,000 students to around 50 and debt has ballooned to more than $30 million. The only bright spot has been the use of the school grounds as an on-location shoot for films set on black college campuses, such as the locally produced Drumline (2002) and Stomp the Yard (2007).
Whatever Morris Brown's future may hold — now that the school is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to stave off creditors and get its financial house in order — it's a small reminder that anything goes as long as you don't sell your soul.
The cameras on campus last Saturday belonged to local news outlets rather than filmmakers. The prayer service attended by hundreds of alumni, school administrators, and African Methodist Episcopal church officials was followed by a press conference on the yard at which Bishop Preston W. Williams, the newly appointed chairman of the board of trustees, announced the college's plan to restructure its debt in an attempt to keep one of the oldest historically black colleges in the country from being forced to close its doors and auction off its assets.
Like the rest of the schools that make up the Atlanta University Center, the history is priceless. In a sense, the founders of Morris Brown College were the original ATLiens as former slaves who, in 1881, founded the school in the basement of Big Bethel AME Church on Wheat Street. The buildings and grounds on the school's campus tell a similar story of Atlanta's rich black heritage: three nationally registered historic sites, including Fountain Hall, where NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois kept an office during his time as a professor at Atlanta University; and the historic Herndon Home, where Atlanta's first black millionaire, Alonzo Herndon, resided with his family in the early 1900s. The school also holds the honor as the first college in the South to have black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities. Like most HBCUs, Morris Brown thrived in an era when African-Americans were locked out of the mainstream. But the irony of integration — fought for by students that attended schools like Morris Brown — was that it lessened the necessity for HBCUs.
Although I didn't attend a historically black college, I was born at Tuskegee University where my parents resided in married student housing in the '70s. So I've always felt like a by-product of HBCUs and even felt that twinge of envy over the sense of cultural pride such schools instilled in friends and relatives who attended. More than the equal access to education, the real value in HBCUs has always seemed less tangible, kind of like the vibe displayed at that pajama party scene in Spike Lee's School Daze — another movie partially filmed on Morris Brown's campus.
So this new challenge could be a great opportunity for the school to recast its role. School officials have to determine whether or not the mission of providing education for underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students is a viable one at a time when state schools are doing it better and cheaper. Maybe there's a greater future in becoming a specialized institution, like a for-profit technology center, or even a premier digital filmmaking and art school that offsets costs by renting out space to Atlanta film productions.
If it were up to diehard OutKast fans, Big and Dre never would have charted new territory, either. Sure, they would've continued to make some good music, but it probably wouldn't have been as successful or as personally rewarding as their current solo endeavors. As much as people pretend to hate OutKast for breaking up, we'd truly hate Big and Dre if they'd tarnished their own legacy by not knowing when to quit, change, adapt, and transform.
There may be a minor lesson in there for the wealth of HBCUs across the country that are trying to survive at a time when African-Americans, while still challenged by a more subtle brand of inequality, face unprecedented levels of access to that all-American dream. Finding ways to adapt Morris Brown's 20th-century mission to help students face 21st-century challenges will only make it stronger. Because at the end of the day, even outcasts have to know when to come out of the rain.
To make donations to Morris Brown College Recovery Fund, visit www.morrisbrown.edu.
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