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Friday, March 5, 2021

The Morgan State Hall of Fame: Hundreds of alumni have come through, but one man gave it all

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A recently signed $20 million pledge for college scholarships is historic in the city of Baltimore, where access to a college education is not always universal.

But the unprecedented gift from a Morgan State alumnus, Wayne Parrish, is so large that it creates a class of distinction. The only other students to have received such a gift at Morgan State were the National Football League Hall of Famers Robert Brazile and Marvin Harrison, who are African American and Catholic, respectively.

Mona Bankhead (the actress, from “Peyton Place”), who graduated from Morgan State in 1917, is another name that might come to mind when contemplating the class of 2018. Mr. Parrish’s parents, William and Clara Parrish, lived across the street from Ms. Bankhead when they first moved into the neighborhood in the 1940s. Her college was for blacks at the time, and Morgan State was the only full-time campus.

The spectacular red-brick buildings on West Baltimore’s East Baltimore Street, built in 1928, have a national prominence. Under the direction of the late Willard Hackerman, who was president from 1946 to 1981, the school won national awards for its football program and other athletic activities, but it was also recognized for its educational achievements. A six-decade period of tripling enrollment was at its height, the Baltimore Evening Sun reported, and classes were small — classes were generally two to three students. Although enrollment was down to 3,218 during the 2015-2016 school year, students described school life as robust and, in some cases, a form of religious observance.

Founded by freed slaves in 1839, Morgan State is part of the Eastern University System and started as a Baltimore Normal and Industrial Institute, a precursor to colleges. After President Hackerman moved in, the school gradually began adapting to the modern world, including acquiring new academic resources.

Reverend Orr Anthony Johnson, a part-time student and member of the alumni board of trustees, came to the university in 1980. He remembers going to classes with students who worked in local industries to pay for the $40 monthly fee and living with family members. He recalled that during a famous NAACP campaign, the university’s campus was put up for auction. Mr. Johnson himself received an invitation to join the state’s famed Charter School Network in 1972. In 1994, the school moved to newer digs on West Baltimore Street, and it later added a Dormitory, residential and athletic centers, and a 23,000-square-foot aquatics center.

Mr. Parrish, an engineering technology major, graduated from Morgan State in 1989. The U.S. Navy veteran worked as a systems engineer for Cold Steel LLC, and in 1994, he began mentoring a group of students who were planning to attend the school.

Mr. Parrish had a vision. “I wanted to make a difference in the lives of my students,” he recalled in a recent interview. “By that I mean I wanted to make a difference in their lives personally in just being able to have that endearing feeling of an informal relationship with someone you’ve never met who’s a leader in society.”

Morgan State had just launched the largest scholarship fundraising campaign in its history in 1998. It now has an endowment of $15 million. Mr. Parrish came along to back the fundraising efforts, especially toward the end, when his arm began to tighten, causing his forearm to snap.

“I just thought, ‘I’m so good at this and the sooner I stop, the sooner we can raise more funds,’” Mr. Parrish said.

That’s when his initial goal was met. With the help of the Morgan State Alumni Council and the alumni foundation, which sponsored the move to West Baltimore Street, the university was able to double the amount of the award. However, Morgan State President David Wilson remembers those days at a meeting during the campaign.

“In my mind, it was no more than 10 minutes before this big halo of light and positivity left Wayne’s face and his spirit went inside of him.”

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