I don’t remember the first time I ever heard the term “SpelHouse,” the portmanteau of Spelman College and Morehouse College—two prominent historically Black colleges situated across the street from one another in Atlanta, Ga. It was probably very early into my college experience; I almost feel like the term itself kind of wafts into your consciousness once you step onto either campus. You start hearing about SpelHouse babies and SpelHouse marriages and it becomes, at least subconsciously, part of the experience at either school. While I don’t know how many people are intentional about finding a suitor from the other school, the idea itself is kind of heartwarming. We’re already brother and sister schools—I attended Morehouse College, for the record; my daughter is actually a SpelHouse baby—so the idea of meeting your future wife or husband across the street at the other school who “gets you” has a certain romance to it. The bond is set in stone early on.
Either way, over time, as “SpelHouse” as a recognizable brand has grown it’s become easier to find items that represent neither Spelman nor Morehouse individually, but SpelHouse. It’s common now to see t-shirts being sold at homecoming bearing the blended name. Etsy has tons of stores that sell items bearing the SpelHouse name. People have begun referring to the schools as SpelHouse. As the SpelHouse excitement has grown—we can have this argument if you want, but SpelHouse Homecoming is in the convo for best HBCU homecoming—the demand for apparel has grown.
Here’s the thing about HBCU apparel though, that shit is not easy to find. There are definitely more retailers now than there used to be; there was a time when you could only get college gear from college bookstores and perhaps a small indy retailer—shouts out to Collegiate…RIP. The internet democratized the sales game and created new avenues to promote and sell HBCU-branded stuff. New brands pop up frequently that have either secured licenses from the schools or are waiting to be told to stop selling their stuff. This past year alone I’ve probably purchased 5 different Morehouse or SpelHouse items from five different retailers of HBCU apparel.
The game changed hardbody in the wake of the Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd protests this past summer. The marketplace for Blackness hit unexpected heights. There were articles about Black bookstores being inundated with demand, I probably bought more items from Black sellers than ever before and HBCUs also benefited. Then came a game changer: Chris Paul, the All-Star point guard for the Phoenix Suns who was at the time of the NBA bubble playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder started rocking shirts, shorts and even shoes paying homage to HBCUs before every game. He wore clothing representing HBCUs big and small. It became a thing to see which school he was wearing next. And because we share everything on social media, what he wore got shared a bazillion times.
Up until yesterday, it was my experience that this company with expedient shipping (seriously, I cannot stress enough how fast I’ve gotten every single order I’ve ever placed with this company—I’ve purchased two pairs of shorts, one SpelHouse hoodie and an 1867/Spike Lee t-shirt), was well viewed and appreciated by the community for bringing the goods we want. And then I went onto a Facebook thread and saw that something was afoot. As it turns out, Mr. Murray has attempted to trademark the term “SpelHouse.” First the Fat Boys break up, now this. I don’t know how far and wide the pisstivity went—me, myself personally, I ended up in a few Facebook debates about it yesterday—but everywhere the convo went on social media, shots were fired, folks were hot and I think Brick killed a guy. However far and wide, it was enough for the company to release a statement. (The statement was released via his IG page @shopLHP; that post has since been deleted; but because the Internet lives forever, below is a screenshot).
(Two other entities have applied for trademarks on the term “SpelHouse” in 2008 and 2018. Both died by abandonment. I have no idea how that bodes for the likelihood of his application being approved, it can’t bode well, though. Several people involved in debates about his trademark attempt believe his application will meet a similar fate for various reasons.)
It’s a lengthy (and rather) defensive statement but here’s the gist: there was some controversy about his company’s decision to trademark it. His rationale is that his company has become popular for selling SpelHouse items and decided to apply for the trademark in apparel to “protect” it from “culture vultures” who might otherwise come in and benefit off a community they don’t invest in. He says that his company gives back in various ways, including to the Atlanta HBCU Alumni alliance in the form of donations towards scholarships. He mentions doing it before the Colonizers do it, etc. It’s a spicy statement for sure. If he ran it by his PR team, he might need a new PR team. If he wrote it himself, he might should hire a PR team. Nothing in that statement was going to bring people to his side. In fact, I saw some folks saying that he effectively just took his business out to the barn to shoot it.
I’m of two different minds about this situation, in the vein of perception versus reality.
Let’s start with the perception side of things as it seems that’s the part that is really at the heart of this matter. On principle alone, I can absolutely understand not liking a person not of a community owning any part of it. It’s annoying to think that somebody from a rival (for the sake of this convo let’s call Howard University a rival) institution would own something innate to another. Especially such a definite term. Howard refers to itself as “The Mecca,” but there are people, even college educated Black people, who might not get that reference. SpelHouse is pretty unique in its specificity. So I get it. It sucks that he is trying to “own” a “term” that really nobody should own because it belongs to none of us and all of us; it’s both a real place and an idea. Why kill the romance of something that ain’t yours to begin with. It’s a clean reference to the bond Spelman and Morehouse share; it belongs to us. How dare he? The audacity, and all the other sayings you might say when you can’t believe somebody did that thing they did.
Here’s the reality part though: when you start putting romantic ideas on t-shirts, somebody is about to get paid and ownership matters and if the United States Patent and Trademark Office signs off on it, then yes, somebody can own the term. And at the very least, you don’t want people who don’t care about what it means to profit off of that idealistic identity. This is a young Black man who created a product that we love; he is of our community and I’d wager (as he’s from the Atlanta-area) SpelHouse means something to him, not just financially but because of the legacy of HBCUs he seems intent to represent. To me, it seems like he paid attention in business classes. Now, he might have slept through his public relations classes because that statement can use some work, but ultimately, I’m fine with this. I don’t think any of us believed he was a culture vulture and basically hated himself and all of us before we discovered he was applying for the trademark.
Which brings us to the business end of this: should he just NOT do it because of some principle? That’s not smart business. Should he have called somebody at SpelHouse and been like, “somebody needs to trademark this?” Why would he call a potential competitor who could then shut him down since he’s doing so many sales? This makes zero sense. A week ago, we all loved his shit (or many folks did anyway), now we mad because he stayed awake in class? We cannot have this both ways. I’m proud that he is being smart about his business. I wish the prices would come down but ya know, sometimes the price of coke goes up.
Here’s more reality: maybe this can’t even be trademarked. There were two applications out there that didn’t work. Maybe this is a non-starter, and even if it is, from a business standpoint it’s still smart business on his, or anybody else’s part. I’m actually surprised that it ISN’T already trademarked (if it’s trademarkable) and if it isn’t that only two other applications even exist.
I’ve purchased some SpelHouse items from retailers at booths and via online shops all up and through 2019 and 2020. None of those folks thought to do this? Am I underestimating how much folks respect the “SpelHouse”-doesn’t-belong-to-anybody code? I’d be surprised if I am. If I had a guess, I’d bet most folks assumed it was but were trying to get their coins before the cops came knockin’. Hell, I’d bet money that Mr. Murray assumed it was already taken and was surprised it wasn’t but got his lawyers right on it because I imagine 2020 was a very, very good year for him and his company. He might as well go for it to make sure he can continue to sell his wares, right? For the record, I do think folks might be irritated if even somebody in the SpelHouse community owned the mark. Especially if they were like, “I am the SpelHouse retailer, everybody else must cease and desist.” And this ain’t that—according to his statement, he doesn’t even seem inclined to clip anybody’s wings. And that makes this mostly a principle issue.
Where do I stand? I don’t have a problem with this. Sure, it would be nice if a person in the SpelHouse community owned the trademark, I suppose. But this young dude is making goods we all seem to love and I, for one, would like for him to be able to keep doing it. In his statement he makes it clear enough that he’s not trying to stop anybody who uses the term from doing so, but from a business end, let’s say, I don’t know Jeff Bezos, got that mark and then was like, nobody else can do it and could afford to actually go after everybody. Then we definitely wouldn’t be supporting the Black community, right? This young man, and his family, have already done the work of supporting the community by both being a Black business and providing clothing items that represent HBCUs and presumably by giving back. I mean, the owner ATTENDS Howard University right now. He’s one of us. He gets it.
I can see both sides. I can also see clearly now that the rain is gone.