For more than 100 years, Atlanta’s Morris Brown College offered Black men and women a place to earn an education, be a part of a community, and enter the middle class.
But a decade of financial and management problems led to the school losing its accreditation, selling off most of its buildings, and seeing its enrollment drop below 20. Photographer and 1984 Wharton alum Andrew Feiler spent a year wandering the shuttered sections of campus trying to document what had been lost.
"I thought this was a complex and compelling story that deals with race, religion, class, social justice and education,” Feiler said. “I didn't know where it would go, but I knew I wanted to explore it."
Now Feiler is bringing the story to Penn’s Burrison Gallery at the Inn at Penn. His exhibit “Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color: The Past, the Present, and the Future of One Historically Black College” opens 5 p.m. Thursday with a reception and discussion with Penn GSE’s Marybeth Gasman. The exhibit runs through September 30.
Gasman, one of the foremost scholars on minority serving institutions, believes Feiler’s photos are important to helping people understand what can happen when often-underfunded Historically Black Colleges and Universities face added difficulties. The exhibit has special meaning to some of the Penn GSE Higher Education Division alum. Gasman devoted a spring 2013 class to finding solutions to Morris Brown’s problems – which were then shared with the HBCU’s struggling leadership. The students’ investigations and problem-solving were translated into a book co-edited by Gasman addressing contemporary issues at HBCUs.
“If we don't care about Black colleges, this is what ends up happening,” Gasman said. “It says a lot about how we care for African-American students.”
Feiler said his work has affected both Morris Brown alumni and people who have never visited an HBCU campus. The classrooms, dorms, locker rooms, the music rooms all offer emotional touch points that lead people back to their own lives, and lets the story become very personal.
"This is an educational institution populated not by people, but by ghosts, and that really resonates with people," Feiler said.
"You can see beyond the dust and the faded glory. You can see the power of what this school meant to the people who went there, you can see the quality of the facilities, and you can see the potential for what the school could be again."
Feiler has exhibited the show in a few Southern cities, but he wanted to bring his work to Philadelphia. The African Methodist Episcopal Church founded Morris Brown in 1881. The AME Church itself was founded in Philadelphia, and headquartered only a few blocks from where Feiler’s work will hang.