Morris Brown meltdown: Uncertain future for one of the nation’s oldest HBCUs

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(courtesy of Morris Brown College)

(courtesy of Morris Brown College)

ATLANTA – One of the country’s oldest historically black colleges is fighting for survival following revelations it is facing foreclose next month.

Morris Brown College, in downtown Atlanta, is in a fight for its life, after investors called $13 million worth of bonds tied to the college. An auction of a “significant portion” of the campus is scheduled for September 4.

In a statement, Preston W. Williams II, the newly appointed chairman of the board of trustees of Morris Brown, said he will announce the school’s formal response to the notice of foreclosure at an on-campus event, on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Officials are calling on supporters to gather at the school’s gymnasium to hear the plan and pray for the college’s survival. Benjamin Harrison, a spokesman for the 6th District African Methodist Episcopal Church, which oversees the school, told theGrio, the announcement will be “a plan of action to prevent the sale, restructure the debt and reorganize the college.”

The bonds were issued by the Fulton County Development Authority in back 1996. As security for the bonds, Morris Brown pledged several pieces of property, including the school’s administration building.

The college has a long history of financial problems, dating back to 2002 when it was embroiled in a financial mismanagement scandal during the tenure of Dolores Cross as school president. As a result, Morris Brown was stripped of its accreditation and deprived of its ability to receive federal funding.

“Once that [accreditation] was taken, it became extremely difficult to attract and retain students,” says Harrison. Moreover, “a higher than average percentage of students at Morris Brown needed support from federal grants or scholarships to complete their studies.”

Sidmel Estes, an Atlanta native, is the maternal granddaughter of Edward Caesar Mitchell — president of Morris Brown College in the early 20th century. “The college had a long history of taking students who may not have made it into traditional colleges,” she said.

Indeed, during the 2002 financial scandal it was revealed that 80 percent of the school’s 2,500 students received aid from the federal government, which gave Morris Brown $8 million a year. A federal criminal case against the then president, Dolores Cross, and the financial aid director, Parvesh Singh, proved the pair had misappropriated a large proportion of the aid and diverted it to ineligible college costs, such as personal staff, instead of subsidizing the students.

At its height, Morris Brown enrolled nearly 3,000 students and was considered a premier historically black college. Though, less well-known than neighboring Spelman College and Morehouse College, the college is of significant historical importance.

Founded in 1881, by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Morris Brown College, says in its press release that “it is the only institution of higher education in the state of Georgia founded by African Americans.”

Estes says her mother, Emellen Mitchell, was an undergraduate between 1932 and 1936, and then went onto become a leading educator in Atlanta. “Morris Brown has a legacy of producing great people.” She added, “it is very sad” because in its heyday “the college was a great institution” and my grandfather even taught “Latin and German.”

Today a mere 50 students attend the college and some of the campus buildings are dilapidated and boarded up.

“We will forever cherish the legacy and honor the graduates of this beloved institution that did so much to uplift our community and improve the nation,” says Dr. Robert Franklin, the president of Morehouse College.” We are all diminished by this loss.”

In December 2008, the City of Atlanta disconnected water service to the college because of an overdue water bill. At the time, Olympic gold medalist and Morris Brown graduate Angelo donated $10,000 to the aid of his alma mater.

Last July, it was reported that Morris Brown owed more than $30 million to several creditors.

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