Growing up in the mostly white cocoon of Joppatowne, Alanna Dixon says she knew very little about African-Americans -- her own people.
"It's hateful to say," she admits, but her image of blacks revolved around rap music and basketball.
Determined to learn more about herself and her culture, Ms. Dixon turned down offers from more prestigious, predominantly white institutions to enroll at Morgan State University, where she is now a junior and president of the student government.
It was the right decision, she tells black friends who didn't choose a historically black school. "They don't know what they're missing," Ms. Dixon says.
Morgan, now celebrating its 125th anniversary, is riding a new wave of popularity. Dramatically increased numbers of students, most of them black, have been streaming to the Northeast Baltimore campus the past few years.
Some, like Ms. Dixon, are searching for themselves and their heritage. Others are searching for a comfort level they say is impossible to find on mostly white campuses.
"Many are asking why should they go to those institutions where they feel isolated and don't feel like part of the university culture," says Clara I. Adams, Morgan's vice president for academic affairs.
"They are choosing a university where they do feel comfortable."
While many institutions of higher education have been struggling to keep their enrollments up, most of the 100 historically black colleges across the country are enjoying enrollment booms.
At Morgan, enrollment has swelled by 55 percent the past six years. Some 4,900 undergraduates now go there, about 40 percent of them from out of state.
Tiffany McMillan, a senior from Pikesville, says she came to Morgan because it offered her a chance to be black with no backlash. That's not always true for her friends at white colleges, who can have problems with any display of their blackness.
"For them to wear kente cloths on their graduation robes was a protest, a whole rebellion thing," says Ms. McMillan. "For us, it's natural. You don't have to fight for those things."
Students like Tiffany McMillan might have passed over Morgan a decade ago.
After a modest beginning as a Bible college in 1867, Morgan became a state school in 1939 and grew to be the most prestigious place for Maryland's black students to go to college. It added enough graduate programs to be renamed a full-fledged university in 1975. But like many historically black colleges, Morgan suffered from the integration of public higher education in the 1960s.
Overcoming the ambivalence
"There was so much ambivalence in the '60s and '70s about what to do with historically black schools that Morgan was grossly underfunded," says state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees Morgan's budget.
As funding suffered, so did enrollments. The college spent almost nothing on maintenance and it showed. Paint was peeling everywhere and water streamed in through leaky roofs. Mismanagement produced a series of embarrassing audits that showed widespread financial problems.
"My first reaction was one of horror," says Morgan board chairman John L. Green, describing his initial visit to the campus a decade ago. "I certainly would not have sent my kid to live in the dorms here."
Morgan is a different place today.
Faced with pressure from students and civil rights advocates, state funding for the campus gradually improved through the 1980s, spurring a major refurbishing of rundown buildings and construction of a dormitory and academic halls. Money was funneled into the business program and a new engineering school, and the college landed several multimillion dollar federal grants.
Even in the last three years, as the state's budget slump forced major cuts for other Maryland schools, legislators managed to keep Morgan's funding steady.
As the campus atmosphere improved, the school attracted better students. In the last 10 years, the average Scholastic Aptitude Test score for incoming freshmen has gone from 642 to 851 for this year's class. That is still below the average for freshmen at Maryland's other public schools, but Morgan officials attribute that in part to the large number of borderline students Morgan continues to admit as part of its commitment to the community.
And while officials have been forced to raise tuition significantly in the last few years -- to $2,400 for Marylanders, twice that for out-of-state students -- the cost remains comparable to other state schools.
There are still problems. Among them, students and administrators complain that the university has not been able to hire faculty to keep pace with the growth in the student body. In the late 1970s, the student-teacher ratio was 14 to 1. Today, it is 19 to 1.
That creates overcrowded classes that can stifle interaction. "You have to go the extra mile to get one-on-one time with the professor," says Ms. McMillan.
But overall, Morgan is on the rebound. As Senator Hoffman says, "Morgan always had a good reputation, and I think they're beginning to meet the reputation again."
Or, as Mr. Green puts it: "It has come out of the ashes."
Competing with white schools
While Morgan's enrollment has soared, there are students such as Jamie Turner, who wanted to go there but couldn't.
A promising black student from Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, Ms. Turner "most definitely" wanted to attend a historically black college, particularly Morgan State.
"I know lots of black people who went to these schools and I wanted to be part of that tradition," Ms. Turner says.
But when Morgan extended its financial aid offer, only one year of her scholarship was guaranteed. The other three were contingent on money being available.
Ms. Turner took no chances. She accepted a fully guaranteed scholarship from Towson State University.
"I was grateful Morgan offered me a scholarship," she says. "But it just wasn't enough."
It is a problem that afflicts many predominantly black institutions. With limited financial aid funds and tiny endowments, Morgan finds it hard to compete with many white schools, including other public schools such as Towson State.
Indeed, nearly all universities now actively recruit good black students in a competition similar to the hunt for the best athletes.
Officials at Morgan, for example, enviously talk about the computers and grants that the University of Maryland Baltimore County hands out to its most promising black students in its privately funded Meyerhoff scholarship program.
"Many of those who go to a white school do not go there because that was their first choice," says Dr. Earl S. Richardson, Morgan's president for the last nine years. "They go there because of money."
In many cases, students go to Morgan to learn about being black.
"Many of them have gone to schools where the teacher didn't know very much about black history, or it was not taught very well," said history professor Glenn O. Phillips. "Often it was just cosmetic. In terms of the reasons behind the lessons, the rationale, they are not into that at all."
Dr. Phillips teaches a course on the black diaspora, a sweeping history of Africa and blacks in other places. It is one of three black-history courses required of all students.
Some students say the classwork is the least important part of the experience.
"When you go to a white school, sure you're given a good book education," says Joseph Simms, a senior from Baltimore County. But a school like Morgan, he says, is better suited to building self-confidence, too. "It's real-life preparation for being black in a white society."
Kyle Burch, a 22-year-old black junior from Detroit, has tried both types of schools. He never felt content at two predominantly white schools he attended in Michigan.
"They basically didn't care if you came to class as long as you did your exams," says Mr. Burch, who transferred to Morgan last fall. "Here, they make sure you come to class."
Beyond that, he said, Morgan is simply more comfortable.
"There's people just like me," he says. "I'm not saying I couldn't get along with the white students. But, the music was different. The food was different. The culture was different. Here, we all just hang out. It's just a bigger group of people I can hang out with."
Preserving an identity
The enrollment boom at Morgan has come at a pivotal time for historically black colleges. In a landmark decision last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Mississippi's higher education system unlawfully segregated. The decision now threatens black schools in several states with closure or drastic changes.
It's not clear what impact, if any, the ruling will have on Morgan and Maryland's three other historically black colleges, Bowie State University, Coppin State College and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Under one scenario, the state could merge black and white schools to spur integration. Under another, the state could enhance historically black schools to attract more whites.
Dr. Richardson says he is confident that Morgan will make out fine no matter what.
Because of its strong political base, he finds it almost inconceivable that Morgan would be allowed to lose its identity. If the state sends more money for programs aimed at attracting whites, who now make up less than 4 percent of enrollment, Dr. Richardson says he would welcome both the funding and the students.
But because of its long tradition and location in Northeast Baltimore, he believes Morgan will always be a predominantly dTC black institution.
"I don't think there will be a day . . . that Morgan will be predominantly white," Dr. Richardson says. "We've got to accept the notion that some schools will be predominantly black."