Main content
Robust community engagement will inform design of twin memorials
group of college adding notes to brainstorming session

More than 225 descendants, students, faculty, administrators, staff, alumni and community partners joined spring engagement sessions that will inform the design of twin memorials honoring enslaved individuals and their descendants.

“I had no idea.”

“I knew some of this history.”

“What do we do next?”

These are some of the responses of more than 225 community members during 18 listening sessions — 16 in-person and two virtual — conducted during spring semester by Baskervill, the firm guiding Emory’s community-engagement and design process in association with the Twin Memorials Working Group.

President Gregory L. Fenves charged the working group — co-chaired by Oxford College Dean Douglas A. Hicks and Gregory C. Ellison II 99C, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology — with designing and constructing twin memorials to honor the enslaved individuals and their descendants who lived and worked on Emory’s original campus, which is now Oxford College, as well as others whose labor has not been fully acknowledged by the university. Having two memorials is a means of articulating and interconnecting the shared histories of the Atlanta and Oxford campuses.

Participants included descendants, students, faculty, administrators, staff, alumni and community partners who met on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses as well as at Atlanta and Covington churches. They came not only to learn more about the university’s history but also to address a central question — what messages should the memorials convey?

An unforgettable history lesson

Avis Williams speaking to crowd

The Rev. Dr. Avis Williams began each session with a history lesson related to the group's work.

The 90-minute sessions covered considerable ground, both intellectual and emotional. Each one kicked off with a history lesson that the Rev. Dr. Avis Williams 78Ox 98C 08T 18T is uniquely qualified to deliver.

Born and raised in Covington, Williams is a descendant of enslaved forebears who lived and worked in Oxford and Covington as well as one of the earliest African American graduates of Oxford College. In addition to being a member of the Twin Memorials Working Group, she also serves as the community liaison to Baskervill.

Burt Pinnock, principal at Baskervill and the primary design consultant working with Emory, says, “Because what Rev. Dr. Williams delivers is a clear-eyed, factual account of Emory’s history regarding the contributions of enslaved individuals, it is emotional for many people to hear. From the time she started talking in a given session, participants were fully present and responding.”

To conclude her presentation, Williams reads the names of all those known to have been part of the enslaved and descendant community as well as their ties to Emory. Alexa Taylor, an Emory student pursuing an MPH/MSN, says of Williams, “Her speech brought me to tears because I felt all of the pain and sacrifice of my ancestors as well as the humble feeling of being so appreciative for the life my family has created for me.”

Had her schedule allowed, says Taylor, “I would have attended every meeting just to feel the way I felt that day learning more about my history and ancestors, and proud that there are people in this world who truly want to better it and do things the right way.”

D’Marquis Allen, who is pursuing an MDiv/MBA at Emory, commented on the session’s “heaviness,” saying, “For a list of no more than 15 to 20 people, it felt like an hour had passed once she read the final name on the list. I struggled to form a sentence when called upon to respond. The heaviness is worth it, though, for the overdue recognition we are paying to those enslaved persons and for Emory’s pursuit of justice and equity.”

Memorials elsewhere and what they teach

Pinnock’s team shared images of memorials across the world, created for a variety of purposes. Some were monuments that Baskervill designed to honor the enslaved, including William & Mary University’s Memorial to the Enslaved as well as the Richmond Slave Trail and Reconciliation Plaza. The firm has also been involved in the University of Richmond’s Burying Ground Memorialization.

Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial

The Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial is at the epicenter of the earthquake in China.

The Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial honors the nearly 100,000 victims of China’s 2008 earthquake by recreating striking images of cracked Earth. From the First Amendment Monument erected in Charlottesville to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, participants got a sense for the myriad ways memorialization can take place.

Given that Emory will design twin memorials, participants saw the three Reconciliation Triangle sculptures that speak to the slave trade’s effect on the peoples of Africa, the Americas and Europe and are, for that reason, located in the Republic of Benin; Liverpool, England; and Richmond, Virginia.

Baskervill emphasized that creating a memorial is not always about the act of building or, in the case of Confederate monuments, removing. In summer 2020, following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and as the Black Lives Matter movement crested, the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond was reclaimed by projecting images on it of Black leaders.

According to Pinnock, “We tried to open up thought as much as possible with these examples. We challenged participants to see the memorials as not capturing a static moment but instead expressing where people are in the present moment and where they might be in the future.”

Jonathan Butler, a 1996 Emory College graduate, is drawn to a memorial that “could grow, change and evolve over time, honoring history and recognizing that we are still working to create a more perfect union.”

As former president of the Emory Black Student Alliance, former chair of the Caucus of Emory Black Alumni and former Emory Alumni Board president, Butler “feels a responsibility to the Black community and the entire Emory community to participate in constructive efforts to acknowledge our shared history in hopes that it may contribute to an environment in which all members feel a sense of place and belonging.” 

The road ahead

Going forward, there will be some changes to the leadership of the Twin Memorials Working Group. Dean Hicks recently was named president of Davidson College, where he will begin on Aug. 1.

“I am pleased to announce that Molly McGehee and Carol Henderson have agreed to join Professor Gregory Ellison in co-chairing the Twin Memorials Working Group. Drs. Henderson and McGehee are outstanding leaders who are well prepared to shape this next phase for the working group, inviting the community to respond to proposed design concepts along with planning for construction on both campuses,” says President Gregory L. Fenves.

McGehee received her doctorate from Emory in 2007 and is associate dean for faculty development; director of the Oxford Center for Teaching and Scholarship; and associate professor of English and American studies. Henderson is vice provost for diversity, equity and inclusion; chief diversity officer; and a special adviser to the president.

In late summer, Baskervill will provide design concepts to Emory. In the fall, the team will host eight community-wide sessions to solicit input on the concepts on the Oxford and Atlanta campuses. Baskervill then will narrow the field to final concepts for the two campuses and hold final design presentations.

The upcoming schedule is bittersweet for Hicks. “I’ve been inspired to work with colleagues across Emory and with the Baskervill team to move this project closer to reality. I cannot wait to see what the Emory community creates,” he notes.

If the strong engagement to date is an augur, the Baskervill designs will attract much interest.

As Butler noted, “Telling our history in these sessions is difficult but also necessary. Embracing discomfort can lead to transformational outcomes.”

image of sticky notes with writing

Recent News