The Crown Morehouse College Is Trying to Reach

Photo: Panama Jackson

As both Morehouse College and Spelman College celebrated their annual homecoming in late October—usually more than reason enough for me to make the trip to Atlanta—I had a little extra pep in my homecoming step. The weekend also coincided with Morehouse College’s “Experience The House” open house for prospective students and parents, and one of my nephews decided to attend. He’s a high school senior in Madison, Ala., and trying to decide where to take his talents after graduation.

For that reason, I decided to come to Atlanta a day earlier than normal (Thursday), and attend some of the panel talks and see how we sell the idea of Morehouse firsthand. From my perch as a graduate and as somebody who has seen how the school has impacted my life almost 20 years after graduating, it seems like the easiest sell on Earth; I literally would not be where I am today without Morehouse College. To drive that point home: I literally started blogging because I met VSB co-founder Liz Burr and struck up a friendship with her the old-school stalker way, via AOL Instant Messenger, where she told me to start blogging. I found her, though, on the blogroll of one of my friends—Calvin Smith—from, not only Morehouse College but the pre-freshman summer program for science, math and engineering that we were both invited to. I owe my career to a friendship I made at Morehouse College in the summer of 1997 that continues to this day.

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But that’s all retrospect. I know the benefits because I experienced them as a student and continue to experience them in myriad ways as an adult. My nephew and the 100 or so other prospective students got a front-row seat to a bunch of Morehouse students and graduates saying all of the things that I’ve been preaching to anybody who will listen for years.

And you know what? It’s effective as hell. I’m not saying that my nephew is heading to Atlanta’s West End neighborhood in August—he still has to get accepted and Morehouse is exponentially more expensive now than it was when I went there (though I was on scholarship), so financial concerns are a thing—but it’s impossible to hear what he heard and see what he saw and not feel in some way that there is no better place to be a young black man learning than 830 Westview Drive SW. Hell, I wanted to go back to Morehouse (well, I didn’t want to go back to class) after sitting through panels and listening to my classmates talk about what Morehouse meant to them.

Plus, I then took him to Spelman College and he stayed in Atlanta to experience SpelHouse’s Homecoming Friday at Spelman and tailgate on Saturday. Morehouse, it turns out, at least in theory, is as easy a sell as I think it is...in a vacuum. While I was there all I kept thinking about was how does a school that has this much history and this much positive reinforcement have so many issues that keep us from reaching our true potential? Morehouse College is an iconic institution in black America and we struggle with enrollment, finances, perception, etc. I realize that we are not unique in that sense; lots of historically black colleges and universities struggle. But Morehouse is unique in that it is the only institution of its kind; we shouldn’t be a shining jewel in theory only. We should be the gold standard.

I realize that part of the issues that Morehouse College has (I think it would be disingenuous to say that we don’t have issues) come from the truism that all black folks like to share when speaking about our community: We are not a monolith. If you ask 10 different Morehouse Men what they want for the school, while all of us want it to be successful and be the best institution possible, what constitutes an issue probably varies by person. While we might all agree (maybe) that there is a perception problem, what that perception problem is could vary. While one group of men could very much feel like we need to be more of an inclusive campus, especially when it comes to addressing and creating a safe space for our LGBTQ students, there are others who feel like the school shouldn’t be accommodating at all because their definition of man doesn’t include any of the aforementioned letters. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring Morehouse’s success, but there does need to be an approach.

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I don’t know what our cap on student enrollment would be (at max institutional capacity), but I do know when I was a student, we were around 3,000, compared to the 2,100-plus that we are now. And I don’t understand that. Is it the cost? Morehouse is exponentially more expensive now than it was when I was a student, clocking in at around $50K a year versus the $16K a year it was when I graduated. Even with celebrity financial support and random, once-in-a-lifetime gifts of debt forgiveness, financially, Morehouse may be more untenable for black families than I realize. And I do know that for some students, they’re also applying to schools that will cover costs if your family falls under a predetermined financial bar; if it’s free or Morehouse for $50k a year, then yeah, that’s not a hard decision no matter what I personally got out of being there.

I’m sure it’s available but I don’t know what percentage of alumni give back (for the record, I make a monthly automatic donation to the school and have been doing so for at least the past five years). Alumni giving always seems to be a convo that persists. I won’t count anybody’s pockets but I hope brothers are giving what they can. Especially when you see things like the 25th-anniversary line of Eta Kappa, Spelman College’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., having created a giving strategy resulting in a gift of $160K this homecoming. Or Spelman College making strides to create a curriculum that addresses the needs and desires of the student body and finding individuals willing to put up the money to do so. This isn’t a comparison, per se, but Spelman seems to have figured out something in the way that Morehouse hasn’t.

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When I sat in the auditorium listening to my Morehouse brothers talk about who they are today, and feeling tremendous pride, I also thought about the attempts to police students’ way of dressing and the many incidents that have put us in the news for all of the wrong reasons. It’s a college campus, a powder keg of personalities and experiences that can become volatile quickly. When you throw in administration issues and the rotating game of Duck Duck Goose the presidential position has become, maybe on the outside, the school just doesn’t look as stable of an institution despite the human stability it has created for many of us. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that not every Morehouse Man had a good experience at the school, largely for the various reasons that threaten the vitality of the school in the long run. I see the new crop of individuals working on campus in the administration doing their best to ensure that the Morehouse experience lives up to the promise being espoused at open houses for prospective families.

I realize any discussion about any institution and how it can be its best self is a nuanced one. Largely, I’m asking a question that I felt in my soul while I spent a whole day being presented with who Morehouse wants to be: If Morehouse is this great place, why does it have all of these issues that are preventing us from being the destination and home for, I don’t know, 5,000, black men a year? To me, Morehouse College should be every black man’s first choice, even if they don’t end up there.

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I asked my nephew, when it was all said and done, what he thought and he used every ounce of his 17-year-old detachment to tell me that it was “cool.” But I know that even if the day ran long and at some point, possibly early on, that the point was made, what he saw had an impact. Hopefully, it’s one that can help him gain all that I have from the school.

All Morehouse Men are challenged to grow tall enough to wear the crown that Morehouse holds over our heads. I hope that Morehouse College can also do the same and that most of us graduates are on board to make that happen.

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About the author

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.