In early February, scholars and university presidents from across the country will gather at Emory University for a conference on "Slavery and the University." For even as the United States marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, some of its battles continue to flare on campuses. Last year, for example, Eastern Illinois University rejected a faculty proposal to rename a dormitory that honors Stephen A. Douglas, who debated Lincoln and who many argued -- at that time and today -- defended slavery in unacceptable ways.
While some campuses argue over statues and building names, other institutions have a history of direct ties to slavery -- and those histories will be examined at the Emory conference. The Atlanta institution itself this month responded to the conference's call for self-reflection. The university has documented many ties to slavery in its antebellum roots, and the executive committee of the university's board this month adopted a statement formally acknowledging the results and their implications.
The statement reads: "Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the college's early history. Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the university's decades of delay in acknowledging slavery's harmful legacy. As Emory University looks forward, it seeks the wisdom always to discern what is right and the courage to abide by its mission of using knowledge to serve humanity."
While a number of colleges and universities have in recent years examined their ties to slavery, and all have done so out of a sense that slavery was abhorrent, many have shied away from such a formal institutional statement. Brown University conducted one of the most publicized inquiries, and its commission on the topic released detailed findings, but said this on the subject of an institutional statement: "While members of the steering committee have different opinions about the propriety and value of an institutional apology, we believe that it is incumbent on the university, at a minimum, to acknowledge formally and publicly the participation of many of Brown’s founders and benefactors in the institution of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the benefits that the university derived from them."
James W. Wagner, Emory's president, said in an interview Monday that the idea of expressing institutional regret was carefully examined. He said that "it would seem inappropriate and some might say disingenuous to try to issue a kind of apology that would impose our values, today's values, on earlier colleagues and try to put words in the mouths of the deceased." At the same time, he said, the history of the university is such that trustees and others came to believe that "we could look back and say that we really regret" the ties to slavery, and to "make a statement of institutional regret."
Study of Emory's history with regard to race includes moments of heroism, Wagner noted, as when Emory successfully sued in state courts in the early 1960s to overturn a Georgia law that removed tax-exempt status from any college that educated black and white students together. But along with such "heroic moments," Wagner said, there were "really ugly parts to Emory's history," and many of them having to do with race are now receiving more attention. For instance, Wagner noted the university's attention to the ouster in 1902 of a professor, Andrew Sledd, who published an article on the horrors of lynching.
Not surprisingly for an institution founded in 1836 in Georgia, some of those ugly moments relate to slavery. A summary by Gary S. Hauk, an Emory vice president and author of a history of the university, of research by Mark Auslander and others notes that every antebellum president of the university, and most of the faculty members, owned slaves, and that the university regularly used slave labor for building and other projects. (The university didn't own slaves directly, but "hired" slaves for the work -- meaning that the slaves received nothing, but their owners were paid for their services.) Further, Emory's leaders for years "marshaled theological and political arguments against abolition and played prominent and decisive roles in the schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery," says Hauk's summary.
Wagner said that the study of Emory's slave ties came out of a confluence of events: a focus on the university's history as part of its 175th anniversary, the forthcoming academic conference, and the Transforming Community Project, which has aimed to encourage discussion of race relations today by bringing diverse groups of students and faculty members together in various programs to also examine the university's history.
He said he believed that discussions of the past would encourage more positive discussions of the future, as well as examining issues such as how to honor the slave labor that helped build the university. Wagner said he hoped the university would discuss, "How do you appropriately express and acknowledge the roles that slaves and slave owners had in our history?"
Given that Emory's early leaders recorded their own activities but didn't think their slaves worthy of history, much detail about the slaves remains difficult to come by. But one professor at the university, Auslander (who has since moved to Brandeis University), did research to document the names (first names) of some of the slaves who worked at Emory: men named Charles, Sib, Jim, and Cornelius.
Leslie M. Harris, the conference organizer and an associate professor of history at Emory (whose scholarly focus is on slavery), said she believed that Emory's statement will be "a great point of discussion for the conference." She said that scholars of university ties to slavery have a range of views on whether institutions should apologize in some way.
The question, Harris said, "is whether these kinds of statements can promote action to greater racial equality and promote memorialization of slavery." The Emory statement will be positive, she said, if it "alerts the community that we are aware and even grateful to those who sacrificed on behalf of the institution," including those who did not have any choice in their labor. And Harris said that she hopes the discussion extends to Jim Crow labor, the black workers at Emory and other colleges and universities who for decades worked without the basic legal protections and wages provided white workers.
Studying this period, she said, is important to historians at all institutions. "My job as a historian is not to apologize, but to make transparent the past," she said. As for the information coming out about Emory's and other universities' histories, she said, "I want to see how this stirs people."