Morehouse, Spelman alums reflect on sometimes tense history

Update: In August of 2016, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard had decided not to prosecute cases referenced below. See for details.

Spelman College grad Lori Robinson was stunned when she returned to Atlanta on a magazine assignment to cover a brewing controversy after a woman from her alma mater accused four Morehouse men of sexually assaulting her.

It was 1996 and Robinson was in a packed court hearing when the judge asked those supporting the acuser to stand up. A few did. Then the judge asked for those with the accused men to stand. Nearly the entire gallery stood.

“I sat there wondering, ‘Where are the supporters of the accuser? Do they not believe her? Do they not want black men being condemned?” Robinson recalled.

Ted Lackland, attorney for one of the accused Morehouse College students, remembers the hearing quite differently. He said then-Spelman president Johnnetta Cole walked in with the accuser, sat with her and then testified in the bond hearing.

“From where I sat, it seemed to be quite inappropriate,” said Lackland. “She came to court with no personal knowledge of the case and testified. Cole made it a big, big deal about the virginity of Spelman against these wild young men. It created a great prejudice against my client.”

Nearly a generation later, a similar situation is playing out. Four Morehouse students are accused of sexually assaulting two Spelman students in separate incidents. Three of the men in the recent cases are basketball players — two were in the 1996 cases — and the alleged crimes are receiving what some think an inordinate amount of publicity because of the cache of the two prominent historically black colleges.

The two campuses have been intertwined for generations, with the terms “sisters” and “brothers” getting thrown around freely. They are schools with inspiring and uplifting narratives. But when bad things happen — as they do on all campuses — the events can gain a life of their own with institutional prestige at stake, touched with a racial backstory.

“These campuses are seen as the crown jewels of the (historically black colleges and universities),” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor African and African American studies at Duke University. “They are where the black middle class sends its students to be educated. They produce black leaders. It takes on a sense of greater importance because of what those institutions mean.”

Neal came to Spelman and spoke at a forum there after students marched in 2006 to Morehouse in anger after they heard reports that a couple students were assaulted by Morehouse students. Such accusations, he said, open up old, historical wounds.

“What becomes unique in these cases is there’s a fear (in the black community) of placing black men into the criminal justice system,” he said, “especially black men who have been labeled ‘Good black men.’ “

Leana Cabral, who was a senior in 2006 and an organizer of that protest, said such accusations become more explosive than on other campuses. She said the now-unique set up of the all-male Morehouse and all-female Spelman brings dual viewpoints, rivalries and even conspiracy theories.

“There are two different administrations with two different agendas with two different priorities,” she said. “It can cause issues.”

Last month, Morehouse students Chukwudi Ndudikwa, Malcolm Jamal Frank, Tevin Mgbo and Lucien Kidd were arrested and charged with sexual assault. Ndudikwa, Frank and Mgbo — members of the basketball team — are accused of having “non-consenting” sex with an 18-year-old Spelman freshman apparently under the influence of a powdered form of Ecstasy, Morehouse police said.

Kidd, a junior who played football as a freshman, was arrested in a separate alleged assault at an off-campus apartment involving a Spelman student. Each man was released on $10,000 bond. Lawyers for the accused men say their clients are innocent.

The cases are drawing comments on social media ranging from “lock ‘em up” to others urging the system to go slow and not end up lynching them. Others say accusations will surely bring about much-needed discussions.

“Any time I hear a story about sexual violation, it makes me sad and disgusts me. But it speaks to larger issues,” said Erin Harper, a 2002 Spelman grad now getting a doctorate at Georgia State University.

“Any opportunity there is to talk about sexual violence and dating violence needs to be discussed more often, as early as possible, in a developmentally appropriate way,” she said. “We have these unspoken rules in relationships and often there is an imbalance of power and these are things that need to be explicitly discussed.”

Harper added she had “great relationships” with Morehouse students who continue to be her friends and supporters. “I can’t recall any time where I felt threatened, harmed or harassed. … But the times were different then. The culture has changed.”

But that may be a view every generation shares.

Robinson, a 1990 Spelman grad, recalls the 1996 case as an ugly incident where four men allegedly took  turns assaulting a petite, quiet freshman. Robinson, who was herself raped after graduating, said the accuser was believable and stunned by the level of publicity the case had generated.

Robinson, who later wrote a book titled “I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse,” said she knew two Spelman women who were sexually assaulted in the late 1980s, one by a Morehouse man. Neither reported the alleged attacks, she said, afraid of not being believed or worrying it was somehow their fault.

Lackland called the 1996 case a “witch hunt.”

“You had all these large black men so everyone believed they were thugs,” he said. “There are strong social forces involved that condemn these men. Many of these men have just one chance in life. You screw up in college and it’s over.”

Lackland hired a private eye, who he said found evidence the accuser had not told the truth. The case never made it to indictment, he said. One of the basketball players later won a sportsmanship award in a tournament. Lackland’s client, the son of a maid, became a lawyer, he said.

In 2006, Cabral, then a leader in Spelman’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, was outraged when she heard two students come to the women’s center to say they had been attacked by Morehouse men. Neither case ever led to adjudication.

She said she and other students were staging a walk-out that kept gaining momentum as they marched through campus, then onto neighboring Clark Atlanta and, finally, onto Morehouse with maybe 150 placard- carrying, chanting students, mostly women.

They came upon a group of Morehouse students.

“We were met by some hostility,” she recalled. “They were outside doing their student elections at the time. They were upset because we were disrupting them and that we didn’t get their permission. Of course, getting permission wasn’t our concern.”

Orie Ward, was a Morehouse student leader at the time and said the protest drew a backlash.

“We didn’t like them coming onto our campus accusing us,” he said. “They were very emotional. They were saying ‘You raped my Spelman sister. You raped me.’”

“We were like, ‘We don’t even know who it was.’ “

Ward, like most grads, recalls his sibling school with fondness.

“It’s a college for empowering women. They also became activists. They are inspiring. They’re brilliant. They’re attractive. They have great priorities. Also, they don’t give a damn what you were thinking. They’re going to come hard at you.”

Staff Writer Ernie Suggs contributed to this report

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