Photograph by Radcliffe "Ruddy" Roye, National Geographic
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Janae’ Sumter of New Orleans used art and activism to encourage Spelman College to be more supportive of the school’s LGBTQ community. After graduating in spring 2017, she enrolled at New York’s Pratt Institute.
Photograph by Radcliffe "Ruddy" Roye, National Geographic

Meet Trailblazers From Atlanta's Historically Black Colleges

These young people are challenging the idea of what it means to be a "Morehouse Man" or a "Spelman Woman" on their college campuses.

Morehouse and Spelman college students represent the diversity of the community from which they come. There are some who were the only black students at their elite primary and secondary schools and students who attended public schools in low-income communities from Kindergarten through high school.

There are students who grew up in big cities like New York and Los Angeles and others from small rural towns in the Deep South. There are students with radical political sensibilities—who advocate for the abolition of prisons, police, and capitalism—and students preparing to work on Wall Street, who believe that the best thing they can do for their community is to make as much money as possible so that they can one day have the power and resources to give back.

There are students studying to be doctors, dentists and scientists and others preparing for lives of public service. There is not so much a quintessential “Morehouse man” or “Spelman woman” as much as there is a range of students defining for themselves what they will draw from the institution.

These students have chosen Historically Black Colleges and Universities because they represent a sanctuary from the tumult of the world, and a place where they might be able to be the fullest versions of themselves. But finding a sanctuary doesn’t mean that they do not still see what’s happening in the world beyond it.

These students have been deeply impacted by the daily struggle of waking up to a world that seems to consistently devalue and them.

The colleges include socially conservative evangelical students who struggle to accept homosexuality and transgender students pushing the traditional boundaries of gender and sexuality in new directions.

Spelman College was founded with a mission to serve black women. But evolving definitions of gender have pushed the school, and many other single-sex schools across the country, to reconsider who they are serving while also staying committed to their mission.

After months of debate that considered years of research as well as student, alumni, and administrative input, in September Spelman announced that the college would admit any women who self-identify as such at the time of their application, and additionally would allow students who transition from female and male during their time at Spelman to remain at the institution and graduate.