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Picturing Morris Brown's past, present, and future

Photographer Andrew Feiler highlights threat to higher education and American Dream

The first building Andrew Feiler and his camera entered once he set foot on the campus of Morris Brown College was Fountain Hall. In the clock tower of the historic building where W.E.B. Du Bois penned his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, Feiler discovered what would become the theme for his eventual book of photography documenting the troubled state of the historically black college. On the tower's large hanging bell — donated by the Congregational Church of Spencer, Mass., in 1888 — he read the 127-year-old inscription stating the commitment to the ideal of educational access "without regard to sex, race or color."

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"As soon as I read that, I knew that was the title of the book," Feiler said while standing in the middle of the campus quadrangle one month ago. Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color: The Past, Present, and Future of One Historically Black College gives viewers a candid look inside the 37-acre campus, much of which has been sold off or sitting empty since a 2002 mismanagement scandal led to bankruptcy in 2012. Feiler's own history as a fifth-generation Georgian, who grew up Jewish in Savannah and became an award-winning photographer with a commitment to telling stories of the South, comes through in 60 images (and five contributed essays) that become an artful metaphor for the deterioration of higher education in America and the struggle for HBCU survival.

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Granted access by school president Stanley Pritchett, Ph.D., Feiler found himself blown away by the legacy and lineage of the Atlanta college. Now that Morris Brown is emerging from bankruptcy with a smaller footprint and student body, he hopes the book can serve as a broader conversation starter about the dire future of Morris Brown, in particular, and HBCUs in general, while also highlighting the threat America's middle class faces from the erosion of higher education.

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What drew you to this project?

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I think the South is really unique. We have different values, different history, different art, different music. And a lot of that emanates from African-American culture — everything from okra to jazz to civil rights. To some degree everything in the South has to be viewed through a prism of race. So as I sought my own photographic voice, it was about the South: history, culture, geography, tradition, injustice, progress.

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And when Morris Brown officially filed for bankruptcy in 2012, I thought, "This is an important story." I didn't necessarily know where it was going to go. But it was a story worth looking into. Three years later, here we are.

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What was your understanding of HBCUs and their relevance before the project?

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There's an important component of the HBCU narrative, which is part of the story, but the story is broader because of the research I've done. Let me tell you this story this way: In the years after the Civil War, there were about 120 colleges founded to educate African-Americans. They became known as historically black colleges and universities. Six of those are here in Atlanta — what we call the Atlanta University Center. One of those colleges is Morris Brown. Most of the HBCUs were founded by white northern philanthropists. Morris Brown is one of the few found by African-Americans. It was founded in 1881 in Atlanta under the auspices of the A.M.E. Church. Over time, it became a college within that panoply of HBCUs that specifically was known to cater to children of the families of lesser means. But over time, as finances became precarious, they went from 2,000 students to 40 students overnight. So part of the story is a Morris Brown story. It has a proud past, it has a challenging present, it has an uncertain future. But all of the HBCUs have proud pasts, their stories are different but they're all challenged, and they all have uncertain futures. The key statistic that I've come across was shocking to me: The more than 100 HBCUs that remain are 3 percent of colleges in America. They represent more than 10 percent of African-Americans that go to college and more than 25 percent of African-Americans who get college degrees. That places the HBCU story squarely in the narrative that asks how do we fulfill the American Dream? How do we create an on-ramp to the middle class?

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What surprised you the most?

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When you start out on a project like this, you're not sure where it's going to go. And when I came into these buildings, I was looking for those emotional touch points. Many of us have been in college classrooms, and there's a visual iconography to our experiences. And when you walk into a room and you see the outline of a map that had been on the wall that's been ripped down, you feel something inside. Knowing the tradition of marching bands at HBCUs, when you see the stands, usually full with seas of friendly faces, and they're empty, those moments touch you.

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How do you communicate the value of Morris Brown in this day and age?

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A lot of people have said to me, "HBCUs should go away, like women's colleges." But I go back to the data that I researched: HBCUs represent 3 percent of colleges in America, 10 percent of African-Americans who go to college, and 25 percent of African-Americans who get college degrees. That is people voting with their feet. And as long as there are people that chose the path of HBCUs, they have a critical role in maintaining the middle class and they play a critical role in our society. There are lots of decisions that are going to have to be made to stay relevant. But clearly, today they are relevant.

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The other part of the answer is specifically about Morris Brown. Morris Brown went into bankruptcy with an elegantly simple strategy: sell off the land on the periphery of the campus, pay off the debts, reconstitute the college on the heart of the old campus. They have done that. They sold the periphery of the campus to Invest Atlanta (the Atlanta Development Authority) and Friendship Baptist Church. They are out of bankruptcy. They own this part of the campus that we're standing in front of — Fountain Hall, Griffin Hightower Hall, etc. — and there is a long and proud tradition here. A lot of alumni and a lot of people that have been touched by Morris Brown would like to see the college resurrected. And as long as there are people who can vote with their pocketbook, it can happen.

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And I'm hopeful that over time, not only will they be able to reestablish a successful path for Morris Brown, but they'll perhaps be able to regain some of the historic buildings that are now owned by other parties and expand. The Morris Brown of the future will not necessarily be the Morris Brown of the past, but there can be a Morris Brown of the future.



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