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.