Rivalry, yes, enmity, no, colleges say

March 11, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Coppin State College and Morgan State University have shared a cross-town sibling relationship for more than 100 years -- sometimes affectionate, sometimes competitive, but always close.

The most obvious rivalry between Baltimore's two historically black schools is on the basketball court, where Coppin dominates. This week, both schools are competing at Morgan in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament.

On the floor, the athletes play hard and tough, but with respect. In the stands, fans from both schools mingle, root for their team and socialize. In the teeth of a January ice storm, more than 3,500 people packed Morgan's gym to watch a game with Coppin.

Yet the fatal stabbing of a Morgan student on Feb. 17, and the March 4 arrest of two Coppin students in the killing, created a public perception that there is bad blood between the schools.

It is a portrayal that students at each campus resent and faculty members and alumni regret.

"It's a moot issue; this is nothing for us to worry about," said Batala McFarlane, editor of the Spokesman, Morgan's student newspaper. "There is no animosity."

Zachary McDaniels, president of the student branch of the NAACP at Coppin, said, "We released a statement [Tuesday] saying there was no tension; we said that outsiders were projecting their views on us. But the media put a spin on the story like there was [tension]."

Tuesday night, about 50 students from the schools met at Morgan to confront publicity that has dogged them since the Coppin students -- brothers Scott and Mark Stevenson from New York City -- were charged in the stabbing of Morgan junior Sean Jones. Police said the stabbing followed an argument over a parking space.

"The meeting was about reaffirming their sense of family, that they weren't going to allow all the attention paid to recent events to change that," said Rick Perry, vice president of student activities at Morgan. "It was a great thing to see -- kids getting together to say they weren't going to let this thing divide them."

Perhaps the most important example of the schools' closeness came in 1992, when the state, looking to save money, considered merging them. Intent on preserving their separate heritages, students, staff members and alumni from both schools lobbied hard against the proposal.

"We had people from Morgan and Coppin on the governor's task force looking into [a merger], and never was there any mention of unhealthy rivalry between the two campuses," said Dr. Hilbert Stanley, president of Morgan's alumni association. "We believed the two schools shouldn't have to apologize for being distinct."

Morgan, with more than 5,000 students on its campus at Hillen Road and Cold Spring Lane in Northeast Baltimore, began as a small Bible college in 1867. It now offers graduate and undergraduate programs and is known for its engineering program.

Coppin's roots go back to 1900, when a one-year preparatory program for black elementary school teachers was established at Douglass High School. Five miles away from Morgan on West North Avenue, Coppin now has 2,800 undergraduate students, most of them local commuters. Students are attracted to Coppin to study nursing, education and criminal justice.

"We are two independent, historically black colleges that have done important work in providing higher education for African-Americans," Dr. Stanley said. "There was no need for a merger."

Though independent, the schools' histories have been interwoven since the days of segregation, when black schools felt the need to stick together.

Rebecca E. Carroll, who retired in 1981 as deputy superintendent of Baltimore schools, graduated from Coppin in the 1930s and served on Morgan's board of regents for 12 years.

"When I was going to Coppin [for a teaching certificate], you went for three years and then went another year at Morgan to get your degree," Dr. Carroll said. "Teachers who wanted to learn elementary education went to Coppin, those who wished to teach in secondary school went to Morgan. The schools enhanced each other."

Commenting on the stabbing that made such news, Dr. Carroll echoed the sentiments of current students by calling it an isolated incident.

"How can you classify institutions with a history of cooperation through the unfortunate actions of individuals?" she said. "The African-American public would never perceive [the slaying] as symbolic. They know too much about the cooperation between Morgan and Coppin. There has never been jealousy or competition in a negative way."

Sherrold Small, a 21-year-old Morgan student, said, "This is a reflection of our violent society. Where are you safe? Nowhere.

"I come from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn [N.Y.], where the bullets come down like rain. The pope himself has to ride around in a glass cage. What does that tell you?"

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