Fall symposium connects activism to Emory’s history of slavery and land dispossession

By Kelundra Smith | Emory Report | Aug. 3, 2021

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Emory College professor Walter Rucker, Emory College junior Ronald Poole II and Oxford College professor Alix Olson are among the steering committee members planning the “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession” conference.

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In 1905, the philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." More than a century later, people across the world are reckoning with shared histories and working to tell wider truths to set the historical record straight. The Emory University community is invited to explore its own past at a symposium this fall, “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession,” from Sept. 29-Oct. 1. The symposium will feature a variety of panel discussions, performances and exhibitions held on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses.

The symposium builds on work started by student activists as well as the Emory Native American Initiative, the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations and Emory’s work as a member of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. For this event, a diverse steering committee of students, faculty and staff have been working together for almost a year to ensure as many perspectives as possible are included. (Learn more about them.)

“This is a moment in which scholars, activists and artists of color have compelled a national conversation surrounding enduring legacies of anti-Black racism and, increasingly, colonialism, including overlaps between Indigenous dispossession and the enslavement of Black people in this country,” says Alix L. Olson, a member of the steering committee and assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Oxford College. “Academic communities must continue these conversations within each of our universities so that real change can occur at a local level.“

Each day of the symposium will focus on three themes: history, impact and healing, and restorative justice. A full list of events will be announced in the coming weeks.

The three-day program will feature both virtual and in-person events. It will open with a panel about Emory’s history of student activism, from admission of the first African American students in 1964 to the 2015 list of demands by Black students issued to the administration. 

“The past is a part of our living present,” says Walter Rucker, an African American studies and history professor and steering committee member. “Slavery, dispossession and Jim Crow created a continuum for the racial logics we live with today. To talk about slavery and how it devalued Black lives helps us address why a police officer could kneel on a man’s neck for nine minutes. The same, or similar, logics that spawned racism energize patriarchy, homophobia and transphobia as well. Every person has a role in chipping away at these constructs in order to create a more just future.”

There also will be several student-led events including poetry readings, an academic presentation exploring the work of James Baldwin, a panel of Native American students discussing overcoming trauma, and a panel led by Oxford Men of Color and the Black Student Alliance on the history and present of Oxford College. On the final day, there will be a guided racial healing circle, which Emory College junior Ronald Poole II believes is mission critical.

“I think that’s all we can hope to do, tend to each other and recover, as this already fatiguing work is couched in the context of a global pandemic and a political landscape oversaturated by deficient and reactionary ethos,” says Poole, who is on the steering committee as a member of the Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs. “I only hope the symposium will provide a forum for some spiritual restoration on campus among students, faculty and staff.”