Report issued by Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations

By Susan Carini | Emory Report | April 1, 2021

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The Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations, reappointed in October 2020 by President Gregory L. Fenves and Interim Provost Jan Love, has delivered its report to the president. The executive summary is available on the president’s website.

At work since being reappointed by President Gregory L. Fenves and Interim Provost Jan Love in October 2020, the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations has delivered its report to Fenves, and the executive summary is available on the president’s website. Over the next month, he will review the research and recommendations of the task force and make decisions about which measures to adopt.

The group’s charge was to review opportunities for recognizing and memorializing the contributions made to the university 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.

The task force is one of two presidential advisory committees. The Committee on Naming Honors was charged with reviewing contested historic names for buildings, spaces, programs, scholarships and other celebratory titles as well as with developing recommendations for leadership. It also was reappointed by Fenves and Love in October 2020 and will issue a report in May.

The beginning of dialogue and reflection 

Co-chaired by Yolanda Cooper, dean and university librarian, and Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, the task force was purposefully large in order to represent many aspects of the university as well as the broader community. The group also widened the circle of contributing voices through listening sessions with the community and by consulting with scholars and other experts.

Wolpe credits the example set by the president and provost. “We believe the recommendations contained in the report will transform Emory’s institutional culture and change the experience of being a student, faculty or staff member here,” Wolpe says.

Cooper welcomed having a dual role — helping lead the task force and also making some of the subcommittees better aware of the library’s holdings with regard to Emory’s history. 

“We see this as a beginning,” Cooper says of the report. “The task force is adamant about connecting the past with the present. We definitely want to make people aware of the history, but we also have proposed positive recommendations for moving forward.”

The task force subdivided into four working groups that corresponded to its charge.  

  • Honoring the labor of enslaved persons;
  • Defining criteria for a descendants’ scholarship;
  • Acknowledging the contributions of Indigenous peoples; and
  • Developing educational and experiential opportunities.

Honoring the labor of enslaved persons

“One of the great joys of this process has been the ideation and the invitation to dream big,” says subcommittee chair Gregory C. Ellison II 99C, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling, who credits “a team of experts” that has included Molly McGehee 07PhD, associate dean for faculty development, director of the Oxford Center for Teaching and Scholarship and associate professor of English and American studies at Oxford.  

The group brainstormed suggestions for how to create memorials on both campuses to honor the work of enslaved people. The hope is to wed the narratives of the two campuses so that, on either campus, it is possible to grasp the full history. McGehee’s insights were germane, for she teaches the course Visual Culture: Monuments, Memorials, Meanings. 

According to Ellison, “Buildings are named and plaques are placed with great intentionality, oftentimes to send a counter-message to social issues that are brewing at that particular time. To think about when buildings received their names and why, as well as what they were speaking against in the culture, was a really intriguing way to look at this history — and Professor McGehee helped us get there.” 

Mayor David S. Eady of Oxford was one of the group’s invited speakers. The town of Oxford is pursuing outreach similar to Emory’s; hence, he has pledged to work with Emory in honoring descendants and in giving families who previously might have felt excluded reason to believe that the university is becoming more welcoming.

The subcommittee also looked at ways to more fully express the value of hourly staff at the university. Notes Ellison, “There are generations of families who, year after year, have worked in the Emory system. It is important to acknowledge these individuals.”

Defining criteria for a descendants’ scholarship 

John Leach, associate vice provost for university financial aid, was at the helm of the group charged with developing criteria and processes for awarding scholarships to descendants of enslaved people who built Emory. “In some ways,” he says, “ours was the most operational of the charges the task force was pursuing. Our job was to give life to Eugene Emory’s idea of establishing scholarships for descendants.”

Emory, a professor of psychology, first expressed the idea in the late 1980s when he was the keynote speaker for an event honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. that involved the Board of Trustees, Emory leadership, faculty, staff and students. A descendant of Bishop John Emory, for whom the university was named, Emory sees a scholarship “as an investment in human capital for the descendants of those who gave so much to Emory” and described participation on the task force as a way to pair “genuine compassion with concrete action.”

According to Leach, members of the scholarship subcommittee challenged themselves to “think audaciously” as they looked at Emory’s own scholarship programs and those offered elsewhere for models. Carol Henderson, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and adviser to the president, stressed that the scholarships should provide recipients maximum flexibility and that the university should deliver the best “web of care for the descendants.” Leach phrases the group’s approach this way: “These students will not be obligated to Emory; Emory will be obligated to them.”

The group has created a process for potentially identifying more descendants of the enslaved peoples of Newton County beyond the 13 families currently known. Rev. Avis Williams 78Ox 98C 08T 18T, herself a descendant, works in the Georgia school system and has provided insight into why Newton County applicants have been few and how Emory’s enrollment management division can address perceptions of Emory and the specific needs of descendants.

Williams worked with Emory on previous efforts to acknowledge disenfranchised populations. When invited to join the task force, she says, “my first thought, to be honest, was here we go again. With Black Lives Matter occupying our attention, Emory doesn’t want to be left out, but will we achieve anything?”

Instead of her doubts being borne out, her hopes were lifted. “I am excited about the future and grateful for Emory’s commitment to inclusivity. I also have confidence that the right steps are being taken to attract bright students of color who live in the area to Emory and Oxford,” she says.

Acknowledging the contributions of Indigenous peoples 

Working group leader Megan E. O’Neil, assistant professor of art history and faculty curator at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, describes the task force as “a moment of great synergy and opportunity to effect change at Emory.”

But the working group confirms a tension they felt — namely, with the long arc of its history effacing Indigenous peoples, could Emory halt such erasure and would the task force be the right platform to address longstanding needs of this community? 

On the one hand, recent progress at Emory includes the expansion of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative Ad Hoc Committee; the hiring of Beth Michel, a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation, as associate dean of admission and lead for Native American outreach; programming offered by the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference as well as the Carlos Museum; and interdisciplinary work on the part of several departments.

Moreover, in 2020, Emory recognized Indigenous Peoples’ Day, acknowledging that the university is located on the homelands of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Summer 2020 saw Emory host the College Horizons program, which supports Native American and Indigenous students on the path to higher education, and Emory again will be the host in 2022. 

Yet when Craig Womack, associate professor of English, retires from Emory this year, only three Native American professors will remain at the university. Notes Womack, “We started the task force with the conviction that our top priority was hiring more Native American professors in tenure lines at Emory, and that priority continued.” With Native American subject matter currently being taught and slated to be expanded, the hope is for Native American faculty to be welcomed in greater numbers. 

In addition to recruitment of Native American and Indigenous students and faculty, other central topics for the group have been creating online and physical reminders of Native American individuals, lands and treaties; establishing meaningful lines of communication with the Southeastern tribal nations; and supporting robust collaborative research about Emory’s history with those nations, as well as the points of intersection with African American history. 

Developing educational and experiential opportunities

This subcommittee canvassed to learn about course offerings on the Oxford or Atlanta campus that delve into Emory’s history. Says chair Mary Dudziak, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law, “some courses are occasionally offered, but not many, and most students don’t encounter them.” Her group wants to see Emory encourage and reward faculty for revising their courses to include components that cover the university’s history.

Grateful for a subcommittee she describes as “diverse, creative and smart,” Dudziak and her colleagues have a vision for a culture at Emory where “history doesn’t happen somewhere else. Instead, in a course about the legacy of slavery, students will learn that it is part of Emory’s history as well.” 

The second half of her group’s charge was about creating experiential opportunities that can lead to deeper reflection by Emory as an institution and by faculty, staff and students as participants in the next phase of Emory’s history.

Inspiring ideas came from Holocaust remembrance efforts and from the practices of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). “We considered the way that HBCUs work to create a sense of place and history as students come to campus and as they think about who they are in relation to the institution and its past,” says Dudziak. 

In a sentiment echoed across the working groups, Dudziak expressed gratitude for leadership’s support of the task force, believing that “the ideas we have offered will serve Emory’s broader community-building purpose.”

Love agrees, saying, “the issues that the task force has courageously tackled arise at a time of national reflection but also at a critical juncture in the university’s history. We are steadily advancing to be worthy of our values. I am grateful to the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations for reminding us of these ideals and for advancing a series of actions to bring us to this higher ground.”