A developer in northeast Baltimore once started building a wall to impede blacks crossing an unmarked yet well-delineated border. Unlike talk today of building a wall to keep out certain foreigners, this wall — a portion of which is still visible on Hillen Road across from the chapel at Morgan State University — would have shielded white residents from masses yearning to be educated at what was then Morgan State College.
This nation goes through periods of a kind of insanity from time to time that may manifest itself in anti-immigration policies, internment camps or walls — real and, in the case of President-elect Donald Trump, imagined. History shows we eventually regain our senses. But, oh, the angst and bitterness and uncertainty until then.
Even before the episode of what the Afro called "The Spite Wall" in 1941, Morgan had tried to overcome the wrath of people of the neighborhoods in the northeast sections of the city and the county. Under the blaring headline, FIGHTS NEGRO INVASION, The Sun reported on May 2, 1917: "Lauraville has blood in its eye for any invasion of its 99 per cent pure white community by a negro institution, colony or settlement of any kind or character and proved last night … its determination to fight any such invasion to the last ditch." After Morgan's trustees purchased land a month later, angry neighbors took the fight all the way to the state's highest court before losing in October 1918. They kept fighting, even entreating a segregationist mayor to create a municipal park out of land earmarked for housing for Morgan administrators and faculty. Again, they lost.
Unknown to them, they were up against a dream set into motion at least since the 1850s — years before Maryland abolished slavery in 1864. One of the visionaries was Samuel Green, who had been born into slavery on the Eastern Shore, purchased his freedom and — like his first cousin Harriet Tubman — led many people out of bondage via the Underground Railroad. Caught with the antislavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in his possession, he was imprisoned. Released after five years and a pardon from a sympathetic governor, Green and other black Methodists stepped up the campaign for a school.
Their efforts eventually led to a meeting 150 Christmases ago — on Dec. 25, 1866 — that laid the groundwork for what would become the Centenary Biblical Institute. Its first class of nine young men committed to moral and intellectual elevation met at the Sharp Street Methodist Church in the spring of 1867. The school was formally incorporated that November.
Centenary became Morgan College in 1890, named for one of its many white Methodist leaders and benefactors. The State of Maryland purchased the private college in 1939 to finally provide higher education opportunities for blacks. The state had done so for whites since the 1780s.
As Morgan launched its sesquicentennial year in a special service at Sharp Street on Sunday, alumni and university officials, Methodist clergy and Sharp Street congregants — some wearing all these identities — heard words like "resolve," "resilience," "sacrifice," "self-determination," "pride" and "promise" as often as they heard hymns and amens.
It was not lost on anyone there — including Dale Green and Randolph Rowel, two Morgan professors who are descendants of Samuel Green — that Morgan's progress, like that of blacks in the U.S. in general, has come through concerted struggle. Even now its future is tied to the outcome of a federal lawsuit that seeks redress for vestiges of the Jim Crow era of state-sanctioned separate and unequal educational systems.
Like other presidents of historically black colleges and universities, Morgan's David Wilson awaits a signal from President-elect Trump. Describing himself as neutral for now, he plans to make the case that "historically black colleges are essential to America's competitiveness."
"We know how to break the cycle of poverty," he told me Sunday. "We know how to move individuals into the middle class. And we think that those experiences that we have had for over a century and a half will serve this country well as it becomes a more diverse country with a population that is in dire need of higher education."
Such weighty matters will be far from their minds Friday as about 400 students march across the stage at Hill Field House during fall graduation exercises. One of them, President Wilson says, will actually be the 50,000th graduate. As he marveled Sunday, "To use the vernacular, 'Who would have thunk it?'"
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: email@example.com.