On October 15, 1885, just 20 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, 107 students and nine teachers walked into a crude wooden structure at the corner of Boulevard and Houston Streets in Atlanta, Georgia, marking the opening of the first educational institution in Georgia under sole African-American patronage. That institution was Morris Brown College, named to honor the memory of the second consecrated Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The circumstances that evoked the founding of Morris Brown are traditionally linked to a visit by a group of Clark College trustees to Big Bethel Church to interest the AME supporters in furnishing a room in their institution.
In response to the proposition they presented, layman Steward Wiley said “If we can furnish a room at Clark College, why can’t we build a school of our own?” These words ignited a flame in the mind of Reverend Wesley John Gaines.
On January 5, 1881, during the North Georgia Annual Conference at Big Bethel, he introduced a resolution calling for the establishment in Atlanta of an institution for the moral, spiritual and intellectual growth of Negro boys and girls. The steps between the resolution and the opening were few and simple: the Georgia Conference was persuaded to join the endeavor. An assembly of trustees from both conferences convened at Big Bethel Church and selected the Boulevard site as the school’s home.
In May of 1885, the State of Georgia granted a charter to Morris Brown College of the AME Church. The fact of its founding as a child of the church not only determined the institution’s philosophical thrust, but also created a system of support which functioned to channel its early energies toward developing programs to serve the needs of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The College, at that time was largely dependent upon a denomination whose constituency was primarily unskilled, untrained, and economically unstable. In order to survive, the College had to absorb into its enrollment a large segment of underachieving students whose parents were loyal supporters of the Church that kept the doors open. What began as survival strategy of Morris Brown in 1881 became the liberation cry of the Black masses and the country at large in the 1960s. At that point of higher education, that cry was heard in all colleges – Black and White, large and small, state and private – in the form of pressures to develop programs in tune with the needs of economically disadvantaged youth. For Morris Brown, however, it was a matter of doing what came naturally – better and more effectively. If there is uniqueness about Morris Brown, it is perhaps a kind of institutional flexibility, based on the assumption that a college can serve the needs of all students with the desire and the potential to earn a college degree. In a campus atmosphere – conducive to well-balanced growth, and an academic program consisting of course content, course requirements, and teaching methods geared toward the preparation, motivation, and achievement levels of all students – the College not only has inspired average and better-than-average students to great heights of achievement in competition, but has also transformed sensitive “high risk” students into performers far better than their credentials suggest them capable.