ALBANY, Ga. - All freshmen at Albany State University know the saga of this small but proud school.
In a mandatory class, they learn how Joseph Winthrop Holley, a son of slaves, built the campus in 1903 to educate fellow blacks here along the banks of the Flint River.
They learn how the historically black school survived the roiling race issues of the 20th century - from Jim Crow to desegregation and beyond - and how it survived the muddy Flint, which has often flooded the campus.
But now there is fearful talk of a possible new deluge at this public school: an influx of white students from a nearby two-year college who would come to Albany State under a proposal in the statehouse to merge the campuses.
Bernard Postell, 25, an Albany State senior, worries that a merger with Darton College - a school of 5,000 across town that is 53 percent white - would dilute Albany State's status as a Historically Black College and University.
He and other students enrolled at this grassy southwest Georgia campus, he said, for the special experience of attending a majority-black school, with its step shows, its show band, and its small but significant role in the civil rights struggle.
"It's not that we don't want to be with other races," he said. "It's that we don't want to lose our culture that we've been building since 1903."
The proposal to merge the two schools comes from State Sen. Seth Harp, chairman of the Georgia Senate's Higher Education Committee.
Georgia, like many states, faces a dramatic budget crisis, and Harp said the proposal would help close an estimated $2 billion shortfall.
Under his plan, Darton would be folded into Albany State, whose undergraduate enrollment of 3,800 is 92 percent black. Harp proposes a similar plan for historically black Savannah State University and a nearby majority-white college, Armstrong Atlantic State University.
Harp, a white Republican from the Columbus, Ga., area, said his plan was about more than saving money - it is also about tearing down what he called "the old vestiges of segregation."
Darton, he said, was founded as a haven for white students. In 1966, the school's first year of operation, all of the 620 students enrolled at Darton were white, according to school records.
"We've got to heal one another and put this chapter behind us," Harp said.
Harp has not given details of how the mergers would work or save money. The proposal would have to be approved by the university system's Board of Regents. Although the board has no plans to consider Harp's proposal, the senator said he hoped to pressure it into considering it.
Even so, the idea has become a topic of concern among supporters of historically black colleges.
Leonard L. Haynes 3d, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said that in decades past, similar mergers had been proposed in Georgia and other states.
He called the proposal "crazy" and argued that black colleges meet special needs of black students that are inextricable from the broader African American experience.
"They're a foundation of our community."
HBCUs are schools that were founded before 1964, with the express purpose of educating black students, although open to all.
A number of schools considered "historically black," such as Kentucky State University and Lincoln University of Missouri, serve large white populations and still get special federal funding.
Black students who oppose the plan emphasized that they didn't mind being around white students - they just didn't want the school to lose its special role.
"It wouldn't be uncomfortable for me," said freshman Martez Carr, a business major. "But it wouldn't be a black college."
Carr, 18, attended a mixed-race high school in Detroit; he said attending a black college had been a relief from the pressure of being the only minority in the room.
Other students wondered whether the school's black alumni would feel such strong ties to their alma mater. They spoke, too, about Albany State's special place in the history of this rich-soiled swath of the South.
School president Everette J. Freeman declined to comment on the proposal. Instead, he distributed the mass e-mail he recently sent to the school community. It mentioned the school's mission and race-neutral objective: "To be the pre-eminent institution of higher learning in southwest Georgia."
The question was put to white students across town at Darton. Compared with Albany State - with its columned old buildings, moss-draped oaks, and founder's grave near the riverbank - Darton's campus feels prosaic, its buildings flanked by parking lots bustling with black and white commuter students.
Ryan Edmondson, 19, opposed the merger. It had nothing to do with race, he said.