The Atlanta HBCU Alumni Alliance hosted its 12th annual HBCU Run/Walk on Saturday, June 29, 2019, at Piedmont Park. Over the years, the organization has raised more than $1.5 million for scholarships for metro Atlanta students attending HBCUs across the country. (Photo: TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)

Atlanta 5K more than just fundraiser for HBCUs

The annual HBCU Alumni Alliance Run/Walk in Atlanta is more than just a fundraiser.

Over the course of 12 years this event has raised $1.5 million for metro Atlanta students who plan to attend one of dozens of participating historically black colleges and universities. But this 5K, held Saturday at Piedmont Park, also serves as a homecoming of sorts for Atlanta area graduates of HBCUs and in the process highlights the unique role these schools have in African American culture.

Jazz Bean spent a year at a predominantly white institution before transferring to and graduating from Albany State University. It was her first time attending the HBCU Run/Walk, but she said she won’t miss it again after experiencing the camaraderie and school spirit.

“This reminds me of why I went to an HBCU,” she said. “Because it’s a community. It doesn’t matter where I went. If I go to the (Florida A&M University) table, if I got to the South Carolina State (University) table, they’re going to show me love. It’s a culture.”

Minutes earlier, she and other ASU alumni had performed a school cheer starting with the year the university was established: “1-9-1-9-0-3. E’erbody get up! Get crunk! And do the Ram Buck!”

The road race is the main event, with close to 4,000 people signed up for the 5K course this year. After they crossed the finish line, participants retreated to the tents representing dozens of schools where alumni in paraphernalia shared snacks and memories.

The Atlanta HBCU Alumni Alliance formed in 2004 as an umbrella organization for local alumni chapters of eight schools. The Run/Walk launched as the group’s major fundraiser in 2008. This year, students who attend over 50 HBCUs will benefit from the proceeds.

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The more participants and donations a school garners, the higher the payout. Ten current students also received $500 scholarships on the spot Saturday.

“The friendly competition not only drives an increase in the number of dollars we raise for our respective institutions for scholarships, but it also encourages alumni reclamation by having people who are not connected with alumni chapters to come out and seek out their school’s tent,” said Dan Ford, a North Carolina A&T State University alum who has been the president of the alliance since its inception.

The homecoming-like atmosphere is another highlight. Kentucky State University alumna Zelena Cotten-Brown livestreamed the action on her social media page, narrating the sights and sounds to her viewers.

“Everybody is just loving on each other and having a good time,” she said. “There is no other experience like an HBCU experience.”

Today, some of these institutions are in peril. Factors include competition from predominantly white institutions looking to diversify their student body. Black colleges and universities have also faced financial hardships, especially after the Great Recession.

There are currently about 100 HBCUs in America, but each year the number has decreased. Concordia College in Selma, Alabama, closed last year after a debt crisis.

All-women’s Bennett College is fighting in court to retain its accreditation. If a school loses accreditation, students will no longer be eligible for state and federal financial aid. The loss of those dollars nearly always creates an insurmountable financial hole for schools.

Atlanta’s Morris Brown College has only a few dozen students enrolled after financial issues caused loss of accreditation in 2002. The school is in the process of trying to regain certification.

Miles College alum William Harris attends the HBCU Run/Walk faithfully, sometimes as a race day volunteer. This year he manned the tent where his chapter passed out materials about an upcoming scholarship dinner and how to pay dues.

“I tell anybody: Go to an HBCU,” he said. “To keep them going. We’ve had a few who have gone by the wayside. They don’t need to die.”

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