Students hope to foster greater sense of belonging at symposium on slavery and dispossession

By Kelundra Smith | Emory Report | Sept. 14, 2021

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Oxford College students Devin Gee and Sarah Bekele will host a discussion during the symposium about Emory’s history with slavery and its impact on the experiences of Black students today.

In summer 2020, the Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs at Emory University sent a list of 11 demands to administrators to address racial and social injustices on campus.

On top of the COVID-19 pandemic upending all semblances of normality, the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks sent people around the world to the streets in protest. Those demonstrations created a sense of urgency to address a wide range of racial issues at universities across the country, including Emory.

Since then, administrators, faculty, staff and students have been working together on a range of items, including renaming buildings that were previously named after supporters of slavery and improving relations between campus police and the community. On that list of demands, the coalition also asked for students to be “educated on the histories and contributions of Emory’s, and more broadly, America’s Black constituency.”

The “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession” symposium, set for Sept. 29-Oct. 1, is a step toward addressing that educational component.

“These presenters are going to draw an arrow through slavery and dispossession to redlining and school inequity,” says Camille Goldmon, a PhD student in the Department of African American Studies who is on the symposium steering committee. Goldmon’s dissertation is on the legacies of Black farmers in the South. “It’s rare that over a few days you’re going to get a history that’s immersive and complete. It’s healing that an institution like Emory is acknowledging its own role in these issues.”

In addition to presentations by renowned scholars and community members, students on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses will lead discussions as well as host performances and art exhibitions to educate their peers.

Iliyah Bruffett, a third-year student in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, says that she is looking forward to the symposium and hearing about the past, present and future relations of Emory and its Indigenous community. Bruffett is Ojibwe from White Earth Nation in northern Minnesota.

Since arriving on campus, she has been involved with creating more visibility and belonging for Native American and Indigenous students, including contributing to a new website for the Emory Native American Initiative. She and fellow third-year Emory College student Sierra Talavera-Brown are working toward forming Emory’s first organization for Native American and Indigenous students.

“Walking into Emory and not having the community I would have at a college back home was scary,” says Bruffett, who is an anthropology and human biology major with a minor in African American studies. “I want future students to come in knowing there’s a place for them and a support system to back them up.”

On the first day, there will be a keynote panel discussion, “Student Activism at Emory University.” On Sept. 30, there will be two more student-led panels, one on student activism and the other on art as a catalyst for social change. On Oct. 1, there will be multiple student presentations, including a session on Native American leadership models with the College of the Muscogee Nation and another on the work of writer James Baldwin.

Oxford College second-year students Sarah Bekele, president of the Oxford Black Student Alliance, and Devin Gee, a member of Oxford Men of Color, will host a discussion about Emory’s history with slavery and its impact on the experiences of Black students today. Bekele says that they will address the romanticized “Kitty’s Cottage” narrative as well as the national conversation around Confederate monuments, including the Oxford Confederate Cemetery. 

“When I first saw the plaque of what happened to ‘Kitty,’ I knew it wasn’t telling the full story,” says Bekele, who is majoring in linguistics and psychology with a minor in quantitative sciences and mathematics. “Being open [about the history] could help students make a more informed decision about whether to come here.”

Gee also believes that starting these conversations can help students find a better sense of belonging. Before arriving at Oxford, Gee says he’d heard that some of the campus buildings were constructed by enslaved people, but he did not know about the cemetery.

“I feel like I can speak for most college students when I say that the only thing on my mind during my first few days was ‘Am I in the right place?’” says Gee, who is pre-med, majoring in quantitative sciences and computer science. “Emory not being vocal about its past made it unclear how the university viewed its own history. I felt alienated by this.”

Still, he sees the symposium as a step in the right direction.

“I do not think that any one finite action could really atone for the past,” says Gee, “but it seems that Emory has committed to starting and continuing this conversation and work.”