When Morgan State University staged a lavish grand opening of its new $80 million building housing the Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management last week, the historic significance of the occasion could hardly be missed.
"This is not just a grand opening for a business school," said the university's president, David Wilson, enthused. "This is really a grand opening on a new era of thinking about the role of Morgan State University in shaping the world and creating an understanding amongst our students of this great link to the past with a promise of the future."
First, that past.
The gleaming edifice on Hillen Road near Argonne Drive is on the site of the old Hecht's department store. It is as much a symbol of defiance, perseverance and triumph as it is a citadel for 21st century education in business. Here in the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center more than 50 years ago, hundreds of Baltimoreans, mainly black students from what was then Morgan State College, mounted a prolonged fight for integration.
James Heyliger II, class of 1957, was one of those students who picketed, sat-in and went to jail for the cause. When he learned about the new building's location, the New York businessman immediately knew where he would be on Nov. 13. "When they said this building was on the site of the old Hecht Company — that was one of the main culprits — I said, 'I've got to go down there.'"
And the future?
From the floor-to-ceiling windows or the rooftop garden looking onto the shabby shell of the pre-World War II suburban retail center Northwood was designed to be, some of that future is discernible. The Graves building is just the first on Morgan's nine acres in the shopping center. By 2018, the next home for behavioral and social science programs, an $80 million project under construction, will be open; and the owner of the remainder of the shopping center will have razed what is there now and built a new commercial and residential center.
But that vision is almost small potatoes compared to the contours of a future that may be revealed in a federal courtroom later this month. That is when the state is expected to quit stalling and reveal its oft-delayed response in a federal lawsuit that challenges a long and duplicitous history. From as long ago as 1937, various state commissions have noted in stark detail how the state shortchanged black students and black colleges. It took from Peter to pay Paul — or, in this case, took from Morgan, Coppin, Bowie and the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore to make the University of Maryland, Towson and the University of Baltimore the jewels in its crown.
Maryland has always straddled the line between North and South, but Earl Richardson, the former Morgan president who is an adviser to the black alumni and students who are suing, minces no words in describing the state whose actions he has chronicled for nearly 40 years. "While it is on the northern periphery, in attitude it's still very much a deep southern state. They just have a different way of expressing it."
Over the years, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake found, it created new degree programs and acquired new schools that duplicated what was being offered — or in the planning stages to be offered — at the historically black schools. Morgan's MBA program in the business school is a prime example. For a while in the 1970s, white students flocked to the program. That ended when the University of Baltimore, partnering with Towson, established a similar program.
It is this sort of "unnecessary program duplication" that Judge Blake wants addressed by Nov. 20. In her ruling two years ago, she anticipated "the transfer or merger of select high-demand programs" from the traditionally white schools to the traditionally black schools. And that might include a takeover of the University of Baltimore by Morgan, one of the remedies proposed by the alumni and students organized as the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education.
The notion is not farfetched.
In Tennessee after a 30-year legal battle, the mostly white University of Tennessee was forced to merge with the much older and historically-black Tennessee State University in 2001. Earlier this month, the Board of Regents in Georgia announced that predominantly white and larger Darton State College would merge with the much older and historically-black Albany State University. In both instances the new institutions carry the name of the older black schools.
So even before the aroma of newness wears off in the business school, the eddies swirling around that roof garden may soon blow away the last vestiges of Jim Crow in Maryland higher education.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.