When Gonnet Manery left Liberia last November to attend college here, he expected to find a bustling university, with green rolling hills, modern buildings and hundreds of students.
But when he pulled up in front of 1510 U St. NW, his dreams of Blackwell Business College vanished with the sight of two dilapidated row houses and a door hanging off its hinges. Once inside, he found that the room he had paid a year's rent for was what he described as a bedroom closet cluttered with trash.
There was nothing left to do but cry.
"I had expected to see a campus like the picture on the front of the college catalog" -- the U.S. Capitol Building -- recalled the 28-year-old, who paid the school $1,080 for one year's tuition and room rent before he left Liberia.
Thirty years ago, Blackwell Business College was the business school in Washington for young black people. But when schools were desegregated in 1954, many of the blacks flocked to the previously all-white schools, which offered more prestige and better facilities.
Blackwell's enrollment declined, but it managed to survive by carving out a new role: serving as the gateway to the United States for foreign students looking for an inexpensive American college.
Getting into Blackwell can cost a foreign student as little as 1 percent of what he would have to pay to get into one of the four big universities in Washington. Over the last 25 years, 5,000 students from half a dozen West African countries alone have attended the school and foriegners now make up virtually its entire student body.
The school offers diplomas in seven business career programs, including a six-month IBM keypunch course and a two-year real estate brokerage course. The current student body of fewer than two dozen students is taught by a five-member faculty, which includes an accountant, a retired statistician and Lloyd Fennell, director of the United Planning Organization's Neighborhood Center Number 2, who teaches minority business and business principles as a volunteer. The typical class meets five hours a week, and full-time students are expected to take at least five course a quarter.
"Blackwell College undertook a very noble task in that they educated our people when no other school would do it," said Tarty The, research and information officer at the Liberian Embassy here. "Now that there are a lot of schools blacks can choose from, a lot of poorer students are attracted to Blackwell, not for the quality of its education, but because the school has a low tuition and is very liberal with I-20 forms."
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service felt in the past that the school was too liberal with those forms, which enable an alien to get a student visa. Ten years ago, it revoked the school's authority to issue the forms, which verify that a foreign student has been admitted to an American school. The INS said that the tiny college had not kept it informed of the whereabouts of students who were admitted to the school, but who later left.
The school appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals here, and the court ordered the INS to restore its power to issue I-20 forms, saying the INS had failed to follow due process. The INS had left the school alone since then.
"When our consular officials abroad receive Blackwell's I-20 forms with a childishly scrawled signature, the officials sometimes question whether it is authentic," said Margaret Warren, INS liaison for foreign students. "But when we write a note and explain that [the school's president] is 93, the officials understand."
Ninety-three-year-old Suzanna Blackwell, wooden cane in hand, curly brown wig over her gray hair, still presides over the institution she founded 39 years ago.
She arrived in Washington in 1920, up from South Carolina to take a secretarial job with the federal government. Within a few years, she had earned a law degree and become a real estate broker -- the first black woman in the city to earn her license, she says.
In 1941, using her own funds, Blackwell purchased two row houses and set up the college that bears her name. "My dream was to help black people get better education in business," she said, sitting in her dimly lit office, whose walls are dotted with her framed legal credentials.
Except for a small American flag that flutters from a second-story window, Blackwell College now looks from the outside as if it had been abandoned long ago. The college logo on a large front window -- depicting two students in cap and gown -- has faded with the years.
Inside, the school resembles a museum. The front office, where six of seven dust-covered desks sit unoccupied, is decorated with yellowed photographs that chronicle the school's history. One shows a three-man school basketball team; in another, Suzanna Blackwell is crowning a mini-skirted "Miss Business," the school's beauty queen.
One of the pictures shows six students, circa 1950, whom the Liberian government sent to the United States to be trained as court reporters. "The school that the students were sent here to attend turned them away because they were black," Blackwell said. "I invited the students to come to Blackwell and told them that we would teach them machine shorthand."
Nine months later, the students returned home as fully trained stenographers. One of them, Walter Moore, was immediately appointed executive secretary to then-Liberian President William V.S. Tubman, a position he held until the 1960s.
Moore and the others spread the word about their alma mater, and Blackwell's reputation grew along the West Coast of Africa.
It was through word-of-mouth that students like Manery and Seka Boni Vincent, the eldest of 19 children from a farm family in the Ivory Coast, found out about Blackwell. They were bitterly disappointed when they arrived in Washington, but they discovered that the school did have its advantages: It required students to put up as little as $120 [land no more than $845] before sending them an I-20 form. Howard University, for example, requires foreign students to pay roughly $8,125, George Washington University requires $11,000.
"I realize now that I probably wouldn't be in the United States if I had to pay [the tuition charged] at the other schools," said Vincent, who plans to transfer to Southeastern University in Southwest Washington next year.
"I sent applications to a lot of Washington schools, but I decided to come to Blackwell because it was all I could afford," said Manery, who enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia this fall to study marketing after attending Blackwell last year.
Suzanna Blackwell maintains that her catalog, which has been the same for nearly 20 years, is not misleading. "We decided to use a picture of the U.S. Capitol because we are located in Washington. It never occurred to us that anyone would assume that the picture represented our school. We've never tried to deceive anybody."
Last year, two Liberian students filed suit against the college in D.C. Small Claims Court, to try to recover nearly $2,000 they had paid in advance tuition. The court awarded William Greaves and Emmanuel M. S. Ambulu $250 each, plus $100 for attorney's fees. Greaves and Sambulu, who had both rented rooms at the school, contended in court, that the school did not provide proper heat and hot water, that their personal mail was frequently opened, and that their teachers were unqualified.
Blackwell denied the claims, arguing in court that the students had become angry with her because she refused to allow them to cook in their rooms.
For every disgruntled student, though, there seems to be one who is satisfied. One such is Doris Fletcher, the coordinator for the Washington office of the State of Texas.
"I attended Blackwell (in 1960 and 1961) when it was one of the few schools in Washington accredited to teach business skills," said Fletcher, who studied business administration, shorthand and typing at the school. "I came away from Blackwell with a very good education and I've since gone back for 'brush-up' courses.
Sam Nyanwleh, 24, said he arrived at Blackwell from Liberia last April 5 to begin studying general business.A week later, Nyanwleh said, the man who had promised to pay his room rent for the year was killed when the Nigerian government was overthrown. He said Blackwell, who had received his $780 tuition in advance, agreed to waive the $300 charge for a room.
Cathy Warren, 33, a native of Poolesville, said she was unemployed with no money to rent an apartment when she walked into Blackwell College a month ago and asked if she could take a room at the college and attend classes.
"They told me I could enroll in classes and live at the school for free," said Warren, who said she formerly worked as a secretary and a receptionist and is now studying business administration.
"Where else can a minority person go to college and pay by the week or the month?" asked faculty member Fennell. "Some people might raise their eyebrows and say. "Hey, that school is no good.' But the fact of the matter is that, after studying for a year at Blackwell, a lot of the students go on and do well at schools like Howard, Goergetown or American University."
When she died, Blackwell said, she plans to leave the college a $100,000 endowment -- earnings, she said, from her real estate investments over the years.
"I want the school to continue when I'm gone," said Blackwell, who said she currently donates her time to the school and pays her five-member faculty $5 an hour. "But I know that money won't last a year. The next president will probably want to be paid and the teachers will want those high salaries.
"I don't have the strength to keep this college alive. What we need is a younger person -- someone looking for a challenge."