Feb 4, 2011

 
 

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 doesn't end with the antebellum era. 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 campus-wide 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 Thursday evening 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.

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