West Side development has yet to reach the John H. Lewis Gymnasium

Thursday, August 25 was the fifth anniversary of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Nine years ago a deal was made that helped get that project off the ground at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and Northside Drive. It included a Baptist church and some valuable land on nearby Mitchell Street. 

There once were Division I basketball games played in the gym at 570 Mitchell Street, which is located on the edge of the Atlanta University Center. There were also Olympic handball competitions watched by fans from all over the world, professional indoor football and professional basketball. All of this took place on the campus of Morris Brown College at the John H. Lewis Gymnasium.

Today the doors to the building are boarded up, the windows blacked out and the walls covered with graffiti. There hasn’t been a ticket purchased at the box office in close to 20 years. The building was once a state-of-the-art facility, says Bishop John Lewis (no relation). He would like to see the property benefit residents on the West Side, “rather than it just sitting there,” he said. 

“I would love to see that building repurposed as a place for the community,” Lewis, a chairman of the Vine City Civic Association  said during an interview with The Atlanta Voice. “That building could be used as an auditorium for meetings, or a community center. We don’t have a community center on the West Side.”

Lewis shared a story about the Vine City Civic Association needing a venue to host a mayoral election forum last year. There wasn’t a location on the West Side, other than churches and schools and both of those involve so much red tape in order to book time and space. “My whole thing is the preservation of our landmarks.”

What if anything will become of the old gym on Mitchell Street? “I don’t know, but we don’t need these landmarks reduced to markers and plaques,” said Lewis, who has been involved with community activism for decades.

A Buyer’s Market

The 2.19-acre, 95,396-square-foot building, once deemed good enough to welcome guests from across the globe, is owned by Friendship Baptist Church and is valued at just over $3 million, according to Fulton County property records. With development taking place all over Metro Atlanta, downtown properties in particular have changed hands at a record pace for record-setting prices this year. Could the long-neglected John H Lewis Gymnasium be next? 

There is no indication that a sale of the property, similar to the deal Friendship Baptist Church agreed to in 2013 when the congregation voted to sell its original church location on Walnut Street to Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons for $19.5 million, is on the table. 

Founded as Atlanta’s first independent Black Baptist congregation in 1866, Friendship Baptist spent 130 years at its Mitchell Street address. The church is now located in a beautiful building at 80 Walnut Street.  

A new multi-investor development in Westside Village will take place where the former Paschal’s Motor Hotel and Restaurant once stood. 

The Atlanta University Center has undergone construction of residential property closer to the Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College campuses. The land that the gym sits on is more than big enough for an apartment tower or mixed-use development. 

The Atlanta Voice made several attempts to reach Friendship Baptist Church leadership and did not hear back from them prior to the publishing deadline for this story. 

Better Days and Big-time Basketball

Just steps from the front steps of Morris Brown College, which is newly accredited and preparing to bring bowling, golf and soccer back to campus, the gym has seen better days. 

The last Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Division I basketball program in Atlanta, the Morris Brown College Wolverines would win their final home game of the 2002-2003 season in the gym, a 72-71 victory over the Texas-Rio Grande Valley University Vaqueros, in February 2003. It was the Wolverine’s eighth victory in 28 games that season, and it would be the program’s last at the Division I level.

Once Upon A Time in the AUC

Once upon a time in the AUC there was a Division I men’s basketball program that dared to schedule any and everybody, both far and wide. Waiting on either the MEAC or SWAC conference to grant entry, the Morris Brown Wolverines and then head coach Derek Thompson were an independent without fear.

Asked what he remembered most about that one-point win, Thompson, during an interview with The Atlanta Voice in March 2018 then he was an assistant coach on the men’s staff at Alcorn State University said, “I remember the guys being really excited, we had guys that, no matter who we played they competed. The guys on that team really appreciated putting on that uniform and representing Morris Brown College.” 

Thompson was the youngest Division I men’s head coach in the country at the time and with the late Russell Ellington, the longtime Wolverines head basketball coach, giving him his blessing a season and a half earlier he would coach his alma mater all over the country for two and a half seasons.

The opportunity to become a head coach kind of fell in his lap one afternoon.

“Coach Ellington just walked into the locker room one day after practice and told us that he was moving upstairs to be the athletic director and that I was going to be the new head coach,”  Thompson said. “And that was that. We had to learn and learn fast.”

The 2001-2002 season began with the Wolverines opening the season at a tournament in the Virgin Islands against Clemson, LaSalle and Eastern Michigan. Morris Brown lost all three games by an average of 15 points but the experience for a group of players that were assembled to compete at the Division II level in the SIAC was something that Thompson considered to be a blessing.

“We played teams with open dates in their schedules and could squeeze in a game,” he said of the hodgepodge schedule that would have the Wolverines play their next game at home, their season opener against Lipscomb, a 71-70 victory, before heading back out on the road to play at Tulsa, Mississippi and Boston College in a week and half span.

“Because of the money we made from those games we didn’t really have much control over where we were going to be,” Thompson said. The experience of playing at Oregon (a 96-50 loss at McArthur Court on Dec. 27, 2001) or in Ames at Iowa State (a 69-45 loss on New Year’s Eve 2001) was something kids from Atlanta would never forget.

The John H. Lewis Gymnasium once was used to host the handball competition during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

In some cases it would be experiences that they would never have again. “I had guys on that team and the team after that one that had never even been to an airport before,” Thompson proclaimed.

Players like Amien Hicks, Larry Washington, Joseph Dunn, the Wolverines leading scorer during the 2001-2002 season and Anthony Adams, the team’s leading scorer during the final season, 2002-2003, with a 16.8 points per game average.The 2002-2003 season began with a game in Miami at Florida International University (a 60-52 loss) and the specter of the college potentially losing its accreditation and along with that the basketball  program and football programs, which played on the Division II level and managed to send a number of players to the NFL during its illustrious tenure.

Making It Do What It Do

The Wolverines basketball program had to make do with what was thrown at them season after season.

“Sometimes because of the accelerated class schedules some of our guys were taking we didn’t have enough guys to practice,” Thompson recalled. “We would leave for games with six or seven guys and meet up with the rest of the team later.”

As an alumnus of Morris Brown College Thompson was more worried about getting his players diplomas than winning games but the games mattered. They all mattered. “Originally we were approached by the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) and had worked on a proposal and I also remember paperwork being worked in for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC),” said Thompson. “The MEAC was looking to get into the Atlanta market.”

The loss of accreditation put all of those discussions to a stop. Asked if he thought Morris Brown could have competed in either conference, Thompson answered, “I felt really good about where we were and where we were headed. I believe we would have. For the most part the athletic department was in good shape.”

“After the 2002-2003 season, that would have been my first full recruiting class as a Division I program,” said Thompson. 

Lewis believes the gymnasium has just as much historic value as actual monetary value. “It is an affront to our history and all of our ancestors that laid out the plans for this campus,” he said.