Emory examines its ties to slavery

University organizes conference for colleges to examine racial past

The founders of Emory University owned slaves. They used slave labor to build the campus. Their pro-slavery views helped drive the North-South schism in the Methodist Episcopal Church leading up to the Civil War.

The university’s slave legacy didn’t end with the war. In 1902, the college forced a professor to resign for an article he wrote condemning lynching.

Fast-forward to 2003, when a professor’s use of a racial slur led to campuswide debates.

That incident spurred self-reflection.

Emory leaders created a program to research the university’s past and talk about race. The program’s work will be discussed during a four-day conference — beginning tonight on campus— where about 30 public and private colleges will examine the role of slavery at institutions of higher learning in America. And, as the private college marks its 175th anniversary, the board of trustees released a statement of regret over Emory’s involvement with slavery.

“We’ve talked about African-Americans on campus before, but now we’re talking about Emory and African-Americans,” senior Kyle Black said. “As a black student, I think it’s good they’ve admitted mistakes from the past. Emory is a great school and this just shows it. Now we can talk about it, so let’s just talk about it.”

President James Wagner said the statement allows Emory to be clear about its past.

The statement reads: “... 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.”

An apology, Wagner said, could be viewed as “inappropriate and an attempt to force today’s value and our own words in the mouths of the dead.”

Still, he said, if Emory’s goal is to educate students to become smarter and better citizens, the institution must model this behavior.

“If we think society must admit its mistakes so it can deal with future challenges, then Emory must live by those words as well,” Wagner said. “We want our students to lead and we want to model on our campus, and in our community, what a better world could look like.”

Students are reacting. An editorial in the student newspaper commended the statement and said the university must encourage discussion about race, diversity and other sensitive topics. About one-third of Emory’s 13,381 students are minority.

While few colleges have offered a statement similar to Emory’s, many are acknowledging their own pasts. Leaders from Brown University to Clemson University to the University of Alabama have conducted similar reviews, said Mark Auslander, an anthropology professor at Brandeis University.

“We have a lot of academic scholars now who came of age during debates on repayments and other issues from the 1990s and it is inevitable that we examine this,” said Auslander, who taught at Emory and wrote about the college’s racial history. “It moves into the wider discussion of justice, and it’s easier to think about what can be an abstract issue when we look at it through the histories of our own institutions.”

Senior Patrick Jamieson will present a paper at the conference about Emory’s “intellectual investment in slavery” — how professors and leaders used classroom lectures and scholarly activity to legitimize slavery.

“As students, we really have the chance now to learn about Emory’s past,” he said. “It’s a usable past. This isn’t just about history. It is relevant to our lives today.”

More than an academic project, the colleges will share their research on campus, schools and throughout the community, history professor Leslie Harris said.

Harris leads the Transforming Community Project, which began in 2005 to promote open and honest conversation about race. The project has held small group discussions with more than 1,000 students and staff. While the program started with race, it has expanded to gender, sexuality and the Middle East conflict, she said.

The program has allowed for greater understanding of Emory’s complex history, Wagner said.

“We knew certain things can be offensive and difficult, and we didn’t know how to talk about it,” Wagner said. “You don’t back away from something that’s difficult, you develop a vocabulary and an environment to safely have these discussions. We couldn’t just let things stay the way they were. Emory had to improve.”

While there was concern talking would keep people inflamed, Harris said people found ways to keep the conversation going even when emotional.

“What we have now is the challenge to move beyond racial inequity to racial equity,” Harris said. “How does the statement of regret translate to policy? When that happens the words become a meaningful statement.”

Harris said Emory already has meaningful actions through the program she leads, the annual State of Race lecture and the Emory Advantage scholarship program that has allowed for greater diversity on campus.

Still, Wagner and others acknowledged more work is needed.

“I will not guarantee that there won’t be other racial incidents on campus,” Wagner said. “If anything, there will be. But we will be better equipped to handle them.”


About one-third of the 13,381 students enrolled at Emory classify themselves as minority. Here’s an ethnic breakdown of the student body from this fall.


American Indian/Alaskan Native 0.3%

Asian 16.6%

Black 10.4%

Hispanic 4.2%

White 47%

Multi-racial 0.8%

Source: Emory University 2010-11 Academic Profile.

Note: Figures include undergraduate and graduate students.



Emory University must acknowledge times of shame and pride, President James Wagner said. Here are examples of both:

1836: Emory is established by a group of Methodists. Many of the early leaders advocated for slavery.

1902: University forced professor Andrew Sledd to resign after he published an article condemning lynching.

1962: Emory sued Georgia for the right to enroll students, regardless of race. At that time, Georgia law took tax-exempt status away from colleges that integrated.

2003: During a department celebration, a white professor used a racial epithet to illustrate a point. Incident led to charges of racial harassment.

2007: Emory Advantage created to make the college more affordable for low- and middle-class families. Program has increased diversity on campus.