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Emory joins the Universities Studying Slavery consortium

In February, Emory joined the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium. Created in 2016 and led by the University of Virginia, it involves more than 75 institutions in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and is founded on the idea — as the website attests — of “sharing best practices and guiding principles about truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories.”

President Gregory L. Fenves says he made the decision to join the consortium because “our nation’s tragic history of human enslavement and subjugation is a history that is not only shared by Emory and many other colleges and universities, but one that echoes across society to this day.

“We have much progress to make, and the learning and research we will undertake with the consortium, as well as actions and initiatives we have recently put in place at Emory, will enable us to live up to our values as a university,” Fenves says.

The USS consortium website acknowledges the importance of Emory’s 2011 conference, “Slavery and the University: History and Legacies,” the first to examine slavery’s role in higher education. Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences, agrees that the university “came to this work earlier than a lot of our peers.” However, he acknowledges that, as the years passed, “we did not do a good job of ensuring that the work remained visible, and we failed to ensure that the work could grow and serve as a resource for the community.”

In 2005, Emory launched the five-year, Ford Foundation–funded Transforming Community Project (TCP). With the leadership of Leslie Harris, then an associate professor of history and African American studies, more than 2,000 people participated in community dialogues through a curriculum consisting of readings, films and reflections. In addition to the dialogues, community programs included lectures, workshops and an annual event, “Experiencing Race at Emory.” The “Slavery and the University” conference was a capstone to the TCP experience, as was a statement of regret about slavery issued by Emory’s Board of Trustees in association with the conference.

Looking forward

Emory has considerable depth related to the study of historical slavery in the United States and its legacy, thanks to scholars such as Walter Rucker, Maria R. Montalvo, Dianne M. Stewart, Jason Morgan Ward, Carol Anderson, Mariana P. CandidoAllison Collis Greene, Robert M. Franklin Jr., Marla F. Frederick and others.

Rucker, professor of African American studies and history, will serve as Emory’s institutional lead with the consortium, whose activities include hosting biennial conferences at member schools and collaborating on research.

In a 2020 Juneteenth webinar, Rucker expressed the view that “because Juneteenth is a liberatory moment, Emory needed to reconcile with its past in terms of slavery and dispossession.” With Emory paying forward what Harris began by its joining the consortium now, Rucker is excited about what can be achieved, saying, “We are at a moment when there can be a more open engagement about these things. No one is talking about shaming or suing universities. It is more about understanding how they came to be and their connections to the past.”

Before coming to Emory, Rucker was on faculty at Rutgers University, where the highly respected Scarlet and Black Project — an exploration of the African American and Native American experience — was carried out. He knows firsthand the ways that this work can transform a campus. 

As a result of Emory’s engagement with the consortium, says Rucker, “now I am plugged into what member institutions and the consortium are working toward. It is a rich brew, with projects, steering committees, documentaries, centers and institutes all being discussed. The real gamechanger for Emory is to be plugged into these networks, to know what ambitious projects these institutions are pursuing and to have a seat at the table planning the next conference, which takes place in October 2021.”

Other synergies

Emory recently announced its involvement in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative. With Anderson taking the lead, the university has joined a network of nine colleges and universities, each of which will engage in a collaborative public history reckoning designed to result in community-based racial reparations solutions. 

The university also is a key home for the Slave Voyages project, a preeminent resource for the study of slavery that was created and is hosted here. The project’s future was recently secured as Emory formed a consortium with five other institutions, all of which will support the site financially.

And in September 2021, Emory is hosting a symposium that will encourage reflection regarding slavery’s history and legacy at Emory and pay homage to those who have pushed the university to acknowledge its fraught past. The symposium will be co-chaired by Yolanda Cooper, dean and university librarian, and Carol E. Henderson, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and adviser to the president.

In a joint statement, Cooper and Henderson note, “The symposium will delve into work being done at Emory and elsewhere to acknowledge the past and explore pathways to restorative justice. Our membership in the USS consortium allows us to engage with other partners, in the process learning from them and contributing to a more inclusive future for higher education.”

The symposium is one of eight initiatives to enhance racial justice announced by Fenves just weeks after his arrival in August 2020.

“When I consider the many productive avenues Emory is pursuing to deepen transparency about its past, I have no doubt that the USS consortium will hold us and other members to a high collective standard,” says Interim Provost Jan Love.

“The consortium’s members recognize that slavery’s legacy is evident in so many ways, from the need to create better access to higher education for Black students to discussions about renaming our campus spaces. We welcome the far-reaching conversations that membership in the USS consortium will entail.”

Emory is not alone in welcoming the company. Since its founding, the consortium has been a beacon to many institutions, which didn’t surprise Elliott.

He notes, “Real expertise is necessary to understand the complexities of having slavery in one’s past. One of the best things about the academy is we recognize our limitations and then we seek experts in the field. The consortium is an excellent vehicle for doing that.”

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