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Slavery helped build Emory; now it explores that history with “Slavery and the University”

In the Atlanta boosters’ mantra of “the City Too Busy to Hate,” the mania to move forward has often come at the expense of historical denial: old buildings razed to make way for the new or the unquiet history of slavery too often glossed over.

In an effort to sift through the past to illuminate the present, Emory University is hosting “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies” from February 3 to 6, billed as “the first-ever conference examining the history and legacy of slavery’s role in higher education.” (For a complete conference schedule, go to the website.)

Emory faculty, Oxford College, Georgia, 1860. (Emory University Archives Photograph Collection, in Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University)

The conference will feature academics from 30 institutions, including Brown University (chartered in 1764, with much of its early endowment coming from slaveowners’ wealth), Harvard, Stanford and others. They will deliver papers on, among other things, their schools’ ties to slavery. The conference will launch February 3 with a keynote lecture in Emory’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium by Brown University President Ruth Simmons, titled “From the Shadows to Plain Sight: Slavery and Justice at Brown University.” It is open to the public.

“Slavery and the University” is an outgrowth of the Ford Foundation-funded Transforming Community Project, directed by Emory professor of history and African-American studies Leslie Harris, the author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: African-Americans in New York City, 1626-1863” (University of Chicago Press, 2003). “It is vital to recognize the foundational role of slavery and slave labor in the creation of institutions in the United States and around the world,” Harris states in Emory’s literature on the conference.

Miss Elmira Henderson, 1910, from the Henderson Family Collection

The underpinnings of “Slavery and the University” are Emory’s own historical ties to slavery, established when the college was founded in Oxford, Georgia in 1836. One of the organizers of the conference and the community research fellow at TCP, Melissa Sexton, concedes that “history has shown that a lot of the people in and around Oxford College were slaveholders and it looks like some of the buildings were built by slave labor.”

Such unsettling revelations are partly based on the research of anthropologist Mark Auslander, a former Oxford College professor now at Brandeis University. He has also investigated Emory’s ties to slavery in an essay published in “Where Courageous Inquiry Leads: The Emerging Life of Emory University.” Much of that history will be treated in Auslander’s forthcoming fall 2011 University of Georgia Press book “The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family.” Auslander will also speak at the conference and lead a revisitation of Emory’s complex relationship with slavery at Oxford College, Emory’s original campus, on February 6.

Auslander has found concrete evidence of Emory’s economic ties to slave labor in the school’s minutes from 1840, which stated, “Resolved … That five of the man servants hired by the Trustees be employed in making rails and in hauling them to the place where they will be needed in the repairs of the fence around the plantation.”

“The institution’s founders were, without exception, slaveholders,” Auslander asserts in his “Where Courageous Inquiry Leads” essay “Dreams Deferred: African-Americans in the History of Old Emory.”

Such pieces of the historical record, ferreted out over time, stand in opposition to the absence of visual proof of a sometimes unpleasant history at Emory. “The biggest revelation is the lack of images: this history has been erased, people have been erased,” says Sexton. “There are no pictures. And it’s not just at Emory.”

In an effort to in some measure correct that lack of visuals, Georgia visual artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier has created an installation, also to be unveiled on February 6 at Oxford, called “Unraveling Miss Kitty’s Cloak.” The piece commemorates the experience of slave Catherine Andrew Boyd, known as “Miss Kitty,” who was owned by Emory’s first Board of Trustees president, James Osgood Andrew, who Auslander says owned 20 slaves. Residents of the local Newton County community, Emory academics and the descendants of both James Osgood Andrew and Catherine Boyd will meet at Old Church for a “talking circle” that same day.

History undergraduate Patrick Jamieson, who will deliver a paper February 4 at the “Slavery and the University” conference, found that although an 1851 publication of rules and regulations for Emory students stated that “no Student shall keep, for his use or pleasure, any horse, carriage, dog or servant, except when his parent or guardian shall, with the approbation of the Faculty, allow him a horse for the purpose of healthful exercise,” the institution both profited from and championed slavery. Jamieson has written in Emory’s campus newspaper, The Emory Wheel, that “Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Emory’s second president, serving from 1840-1848, became one of the most prominent defenders of slavery by the mid-1840s.”

“Emory impressed upon its students a pro-slavery ideology which evolved with and paralleled pro-slavery thought across the South,” says Jamieson.

“A lot of this was undocumented, and it’s been hard to dig down and tell the stories that need to be told,” Sexton adds.

“Slavery and the University” comes on the heels of Emory’s recent statement of “regret” for its ties to slavery as the university celebrates its 175th year in 2011. Emory did not allow black students to attend the school until 1962.