Flint, MI– Ashton Brandon read the acceptance email from Morehouse College three times before believing it was real. 

It was 11 a.m. and Brandon, 18, was in class at the International Academy of Flint when he saw the email notification on his phone from the college he’d longed to attend since middle school. 

“I really got in,” he thought in the moment he described as completely surreal. His classmates saw him cry that morning.

Brandon was one of three students from Flint to be accepted to the private, all-male, historically Black college (HBCU) in Atlanta. Finding out that they’d been accepted had been an emotional moment for all three of them. 

Antonio Sweeney, 17, saw the email on his smartwatch while he was at home. As a high school senior, Sweeney said he had gotten tons of college spam emails that he’d typically ignored but this one, which began with a “Congratulations!” caught his attention. 

“Oh snap,” Sweeney yelled. “Ma! Ma! I got into Morehouse College!”

Like Brandon, Sweeney had wanted to go to a historically Black college or university since he was in middle school. He visited Morehouse over spring break this year and knew that was where he wanted to go. It was his mom’s top pick for him too.

For TK Thomas, 18, going to Morehouse had been a dream he’d had since he was 7 years old. He got the news while he was working at Lawrence E. Moon Funeral Home.

His phone buzzed with the email notification and as soon as Thomas read the subject line, he dropped his phone and cracked the screen.

“Oh, Jesus. Oh, my God. This is amazing. This is amazing,” Thomas screamed and cried, prompting his co-workers to check on him.

The excitement they all feel is complex. 

There’s the thrill of going to college in general, and the prospect of living in Atlanta. There’s the pride in knowing they’ll be attending an HBCU, just like they knew they wanted to since they were children. There’s also a sense of relief in knowing their incredibly hard work to maintain a solid GPA and participate in extracurricular activities (throughout a mentally taxing pandemic, no less) has paid off. 

There’s something else, too. Brandon, Sweeney, and Thomas aren’t just looking forward to their own future success. They’re thinking about what this will mean for Flint. 

International Academy of Flint senior Ashton Brandon, 18, poses for a photo on April 29, 2022. Brandon is one of three Flint students who was accepted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

“I don’t want people to even think of Flint as a water crisis city. I want them to think of us as our successes. I want them to think of Antonio Sweeney. I want them to think of TK Thomas, and Ashton Brandon,” Brandon said. “When they think about us at Morehouse, I don’t even want them to think we’re just Morehouse Men, I want them to know us as Morehouse Men from Flint.”

Brandon was born and raised in Flint, and said he’s seen people label the city negatively and put limits on what people from Flint are capable of that are “just not true.” 

Sweeney said that whenever he meets people from outside of the city, he gets what he calls, the “You’re from Flint?” look. 

Thomas, who is a part of more than a dozen organizations, has started his own business, and is working on a book, said people look at Flint citizens as if they are a factor in the problems they face. 

“They’re not realizing that in Flint, we have many people like Antonio, Ashton, and I, that can be the solution to every problem in Flint, Michigan,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’re hardcore Flintstones, and it’s very important to let people know that even though we’re from Flint, we got into one of the best schools in the nation.”

Ron Spears, the president of the Morehouse College Alumni Association in Detroit, said the admission of the three young men was great news for Flint. 

“With all of the stuff that’s been going on in Flint, in these past number of years … this is just a great achievement, and we are honored by these three gentlemen,” Spears said. 

Spears referred to Morehouse College as a “Black male excellence factory,” and noted famous graduates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Sen. Raphael Warnock. 

“The whole mission of the college is to develop men with disciplined minds who will lead lives of leadership and service,” Spears said. 

The National Science Foundation ranked Morehouse as the primary producer of doctorates in science and engineering for Black men, according to a press release from the college on May 2.

Spears said that Morehouse is also a top “feeder school” to Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. But in addition to academic achievement, Spears explained that Morehouse aims to mold “well-rounded” men. 

“Morehouse does a great job of molding young men into leaders in the community and the political and economic world. But in reality, what I’ve learned is that these men were great before they even stepped foot on Morehouse campus,” Spears said. “It’s just Morehouse gave them a platform, and the necessary finishing, so to speak.”

Spears said students at Morehouse learn etiquette, business acumen, literature, history of the world and of African civilizations, religion, philosophy, and art. 

“We’re required to take all of those classes, and that’s one of the things that makes Morehouse men so well-rounded,” Spears said. “It just really sets you up for whatever it is that you’re going to do beyond undergraduate.”

Flint’s Southwestern Classical Academy senior TK Thomas, 18, poses for a photo inside Comma Bookstore in downtown Flint, Mich. on April 29, 2022. Thomas is one of 3 Flint students who were accepted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Thomas plans to major in psychology and minor in business as well as criminal justice. He said he was inspired by family members who are psychologists and business owners, and his own work on creating an app for mental health. But he’s also interested in learning more about the legal system.

He said high incarceration rates for Black people, and violence against Black people at the hands of police officers “sparked an alarm” for him. 

“If I decide to go a different path after the mental health app, I actually want to be a psychologist in the court system,” Thomas said.

Brandon plans to major in psychology and sociology, and minor in philosophy and anthropology. He said that these topics have interested him his entire life, and that he would like to see mental health discussed more openly in the Black community. 

“Many Black people, Black families don’t want to enlist therapists, you know. They believe that therapy is a negative thing, when in reality, I believe therapy is very beneficial, especially to a community like ours,” Brandon said. 

Once he graduates from Morehouse, he said he wants to travel and come back to Flint to connect with people and talk about mental health care. 

Sweeney, who works as a youth empowerment advocate, said he plans to major in political science and minor in business and marketing inspired by his volunteer work and creative content making in Flint. 

“Politics have always been like a major interest of mine from being one of the youngest election inspectors in 2020 during the presidential election, to just volunteering on a daily basis and working in the environmental justice section with the National Clean Water Collective as an ambassador,” Sweeney said. 

Sweeney said he’s excited to bring “the 810” to Georgia, but also said he wants to take what he learns in school and bring it back to the community he grew up in. 

“We’re going to pour into Morehouse and bring it back to the city of Flint just as much as they have poured into us,” Sweeney said.  

Madison Academy High School senior Antonio Sweeney, 17, poses for a photo on April 29, 2022. Sweeney is one of three Flint students who were accepted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Even before they get to school, the three of them have offered to help other Flint students navigate the college application process.

Brandon’s advice to other young people is to “protect your potential.”

“I just feel like people are so quick to abandon what they could be for a reality that they feel like they have to accept,” he said. “You don’t have to think that you’re going to be anything less than what you want to be. So don’t ever limit yourself.”

He offered his email address to anyone looking for guidance or connections: ashtonbrandon04@gmail.com

Sweeney’s advice to people in the college application process, specifically for those looking to attend an HBCU, is to “take a leap of faith.” 

“Trust yourself. Ask questions. And you know, the HBCU network in the city of Flint is not as small as it looks,” he said. He encouraged anyone looking for help to follow him on Instagram, @tonio.dakid, and email him at amsweeney23@gmail.com.

Thomas, who was accepted to more than 40 colleges and received more than seven full-ride scholarships, said many people are asking him how he did it. 

“Well one, prayer and coffee. That’s what I have to say, because coffee has been helping me stay awake,” Thomas said, laughing. “I feel like a grown adult just drinking coffee on a daily basis.”

Coffee aside, Thomas recommends using the “Common Black College Application,” tool. For $20, it allows students to submit a single application to all of their participating member institutions. He said this was a contributing factor in all of his acceptances.

Like Brandon and Sweeney, Thomas also wants people to know they can email him for any guidance about scholarships or schools in general, at kclp810@gmail.com.

Amy Diaz is a journalist hailing from St. Petersburg, FL. She has written for multiple local newspapers in her hometown before becoming a full-time reporter for Flint Beat. When she’s not writing you...