A public relations firm hired to promote historically black Morgan State University is under fire for telling students not to show up for a TV commercial with dreadlocks, head wraps, corn rows or braids.
Sahara Communications outlined the conditions in a letter that arrived Monday at the university's theater department. The request outraged many students, who saw it as a blatant attempt to portray a false image of a school where 90% of the 5,700 students are black.
"It's ridiculous that a black college would typecast its students," sophomore Zakiyyah Seitu said. "For a long time, black people have had to change who they are so they can fit in, and a lot of us go to a black college so we don't have to change who we are."
The only two men in the theater department were told that they could not be in the ad because of their hairstyles, and a female student was asked to go home and change her hairdo, students said.
While the filming continued, school administrators met with about 20 upset students and assured them that all interested students could participate, college spokesman Clinton R. Coleman said.
"The commercial was not intended to be exclusive from our point of view," he said.
Sahara spokeswoman Karen Sloane-Thomas said company officials met with students and "the issue discussed has been resolved."
The firm, owned by Morgan State graduate Sandy Harley, also issued a statement Friday saying that it is owned by an African American and prides itself on diversity.
"Many of our staff wear their hair naturally, and Sahara has paid student interns who wear braids and 'locs,' " the statement said.
The company added: "Sahara erred in stipulating that students with braids or 'locs' could not participate in the shooting of the Morgan commercial. We apologized to the students in the theater department, and those who accepted our apology participated in the commercial shoot."
Founded in 1867 as a Methodist seminary, Morgan State evolved into a teacher's college, ultimately becoming a comprehensive public university primarily known for its music and engineering programs.
Morgan State signed a three-year, $1-million contract with Sahara in July and hopes to air the commercial next spring on area TV stations.
"They don't want to portray Morgan as a historically black college, but other people have got to be aware, if they come to Morgan, they're going to be around people with head wraps," senior Yullanda Hinds said.