President Fenves responds to racial and social justice advisory committee reports

By Susan Carini | June 28, 2021

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Emory’s racial and social justice initiatives advance significantly as President Fenves responds to reports issued by the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations and the University Committee on Naming Honors.

On Oct. 22, 2020, President Gregory L. Fenves announced the formation of two advisory committees related to the university’s racial and social justice initiatives: The Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations and the University Committee on Naming Honors.

Membership on the task force and committee included leadership, faculty, staff, students and alumni, and reflected diversity across many dimensions.

Both groups shared their reports with the president this spring, and after reviewing their recommendations, the president is taking immediate action in the following ways:

  • Emory will develop plans for twin memorials on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses to honor the labor of enslaved individuals who helped build the university in its earliest days.
  • The university will explore the adoption of an official land acknowledgment statement to recognize the university’s location on the homelands of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
  • Language Hall, at Oxford College, will be renamed in honor of Horace J. Johnson Jr.
  • The Longstreet-Means residence hall, which bears the name of Emory’s second president (1839–1848), Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, will be renamed Eagle Hall. This change is based, in part, on Longstreet’s strong defense of slavery, particularly while he served as Emory president.

History of Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations

When Fenves and Interim Provost Jan Love reappointed the task force, its charge was to review opportunities for recognizing and memorializing contributions by enslaved persons whose labor helped build the Emory campus, and their descendants, as well as Indigenous nations and peoples on whose lands Emory’s campus was erected.

Co-chaired by Yolanda Cooper, dean and university librarian, and Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, the task force submitted its report to the president on April 1, at which time it released an executive summary to the community.

The task force report anchored its recommendations on the knowledge that most of the original faculty and officers of Emory College, many of them Methodist clergymen, enslaved both African Americans and Native Americans. In addition, the university’s Atlanta and Oxford campuses were located on Muscogee (Creek) land, during a time in which the Muscogee (Creek) and Ani’yunwi’ya (Cherokee) peoples were undergoing forced removal. 

Task force recommendations

The task force advises that “to build an inclusive environment and future for the university, Emory must reach out to the living descendants of these communities, as well as surrounding communities, and work to implement transformative initiatives.”

Chief among the recommended actions is the creation of a Twin Memorials Working Group that will, by creating twin memorials on Emory’s Atlanta and Oxford campuses, honor the labor of enslaved individuals who built Emory.

The co-chairs are Gregory Ellison II 99C, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology, who chaired the twin memorials subcommittee of the task force, and Douglas Hicks, dean of Oxford College, who served on the task force. Once membership is set, the group will develop a request for proposals that will be shared with architectural firms.

The working group also will explore other forms of memorialization, including annual rituals, campus-wide programming and other ways to recognize the enslaved laborers who contributed to Emory. To begin a process of sharing Emory’s history more systematically, one possibility is to have annual pilgrimages for new students to the Oxford and Atlanta campuses.

The task force report contains a number of other recommendations that Fenves will continue to consider.

History of University Committee on Naming Honors

As Fenves and Love reappointed the committee this past October, they charged it with reviewing contested historic names associated with buildings, spaces, programs, scholarships and other honors. In every case, the evaluated names were of deceased individuals. They also authorized the committee to conduct research on potential new names submitted for consideration.

Chaired by Fred Smith Jr., associate professor at Emory School of Law, the committee submitted its report to Fenves on May 8, and the full report is available to the Emory community.

Committee recommendations

Given Longstreet’s pro-slavery views, “it is inappropriate for his name to continue to be memorialized in a place of honor on our campus,” says Fenves.

In addition to the residence hall that bears Longstreet’s name, there is a chair named for him in the Department of English. It will be renamed as the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English.

With regard to Alexander Means, Emory’s president from 1854 to 1855, the committee did not complete a full review; moving forward, the university will explore his history and consider the appropriate way to recognize him on campus.

The committee also advises discontinuing naming honors for Atticus Greene Haygood, L. Q. C. Lamar, George Foster Pierce and Robert Yerkes.

Names still under review by President Fenves

Atticus Greene Haygood served as the eighth president of Emory College from 1875 to 1884. The name is associated with Haygood Hall on the Oxford campus, the Haygood-Hopkins Gate and Haygood Drive on the Atlanta campus.

L. Q. C. Lamar was an Emory College of Arts and Sciences graduate, a United States senator from Mississippi, a U.S. representative, a Confederate official, secretary of the interior and an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. For several decades in the 20th century, the law school bore his name. Today, three chairs at the law school bear his name.

George Foster Pierce was the university’s third president, his tenure extending from 1848 to 1854. Naming honors include Pierce Drive on the Atlanta campus, Pierce Street on the Oxford campus and the Pierce Chair of Religion.

Robert Yerkes was a comparative psychologist and eugenicist; the Yerkes National Primate Research Center bears his name.

Regarding these individuals, the president will, in his words, “review the research and seek consultation on these names.”

According to Smith, the committee’s recommendation to discontinue naming honors for the five individuals “is not a punitive decision, not a decision about what to remember.” Instead, the committee was focused on “what are the legacies that we are going to continue to honor?”

New naming honor

One answer to Smith’s question comes with the committee’s unanimous recommendation, fully supported by the president, to honor Horace J. Johnson Jr., a widely respected judge, lawyer and alumnus who made extraordinary contributions to the greater Atlanta and Newton County communities. Johnson was the first Black Superior Court judge in the circuit he served.

Once the committee endorsed the Johnson name, Hicks asked to apply that honor to Language Hall on the Oxford campus, and the committee approved the idea. Fenves observes that Johnson “dedicated his life to public service, and his many achievements reflect the Emory mission to ‘create, preserve, teach and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.’”

Johnson Hall will be dedicated during a ceremony on the Oxford campus in October.

Creating a deeper understanding of who we are

“By understanding our history and expanding the Emory story to include voices, perspectives and contributions that were overlooked or silenced, we are able to create a deeper understanding of who we are and all we can achieve as a university,” Fenves concludes.