Related History

Reflections on the History of Slavery at Emory

Gary S. Hauk
Former University Historian, retired January 1, 2020


We're all familiar with what may be William Faulkner's most famous line: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Closer to home, the great southern historian C. Vann Woodward, Emory College Class of 1930 and later a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, remarked on the power of history to shape and guide our response to our own time and conditions. For him, the fact that the past isn't past means that our relationships to it are fluid -- as we learn history, we become more clearly located in our present and therefore more able to understand our opportunities.

Thanks to campus-wide efforts like the Transforming Community Project and, even earlier, the Year of Reconciliation a decade ago, facets of Emory history previously unknown or not fully understood have taken on that kind of power to shape and guide us. One thing we have become more aware of is that our shared institutional history, like our shared national history, offers reasons for regret as well as pride. Indeed, some of our pride is in knowing that we have outgrown the reasons for regret. America has grown and is in many ways better than it was; Emory has grown and is in many ways better than it was. Great and positive transformations in American society and in Emory's institutional life have occurred since 1836, transformations that have taught us a fuller truth about community, human dignity, and civil rights. We are able to claim this truth because of the commitment of our forebears and our own generation to the principles of inquiry, ethical engagement, and diversity -- principles that undergird Emory's strength of community as well as its academic excellence.

All of this is by way of prelude to say that our community is now more acutely conscious that Emory College was founded when American society was divided over issues arising from an economy, both North and South, dependent on chattel slavery. Emory's participation in that system is now a source of regret. Who among us would wish for a return to that system? As the university prepares to host a national conference on slavery and universities in February 2011 -- a conference borne of the work of our Transforming Community Project -- it's fair to ask, just what was Emory's involvement with slavery?

What the records show

Minutes of the Georgia Conference Manual Labor School and Emory College indicate that the boards of these institutions occasionally hired "servants" (for which, read "slaves") or "negroes" for work at the institutions. For instance, the December 2, 1840, college minutes read: "Resolved . . . That five of the man servants hired by the Trustees be employed in making rails and in hauling them to the place where they will be needed in the repairs of the fence around the plantation."

Thanks to the research of former Oxford College professor Mark Auslander, we know the names of many of these slaves -- Charles, Sib, Jim, Cornelius, and others -- and while it is clear that Emory College did not own them, it is also clear that the College did not pay them for their work. Rather, it paid money to their white owners for the hire or "rent" of the slaves' services.

We also know that John Emory, for whom the college was named, came from a prominent slave-owning family in Maryland and himself owned slaves. Like many of the nation's founders, and like most Methodists of his day both North and South, John Emory abhorred slavery. Still, he argued against abolition of the system and sought to keep the Methodist church out of the abolition debates engulfing the larger society. Emory himself was never associated with the college except by name, and he died before its founding -- freeing his slaves in his will, which Auslander found in the Maryland state archives.

Most faculty members and trustees of the college, as well as some of its most generous early benefactors and every antebellum president, owned slaves. To the degree that the well-ordered functioning of these Emory leaders’ personal and professional lives depended on the institution of slavery, the college benefited from the work of these servants.

Challenging the state to integrate

Many of the leaders of Emory College in its early years marshaled theological and political arguments against abolition and played prominent and decisive roles in the schism of the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery. It is true that Emory as an educational institution had no direct authority over matters of state. But as the Emory Board of Trustees would demonstrate more than 100 years later, in 1961 -- when it voted to sue the state for the right to enroll students regardless of race -- intellectual inquiry and ethical engagement do not stop at the campus boundary. So we can be grateful for and proud of the leadership of later Emory generations in helping Emory and America travel a difficult distance since 1836.

A further question, then, can be raised about how Emory managed to traverse that moral distance. It was not a foregone conclusion. As segregation began to give way following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it took an additional court decision -- by the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia -- before Emory University could legally enroll African American students without threat of losing its tax-exempt status. This story is well known.

Less well known is the complex history of the institution and some of its leaders in other dimensions of life involving race. For instance, one of the ironies of Georgia law until 1962 was that while it prohibited mixing white and "colored" races, Emory College enrolled Asian students as early as the 1890s. By the 1950s, thanks to connections through the Methodist church, Cuban, Japanese, Indian, and Chinese students had graduated from several of the schools at Emory.

The role of Emory's faculty members, alumni, and presidents in the period following Reconstruction and up through the mid-20th century likewise demonstrates what we today might view as contradictions. Few of even the most liberal white leaders of those times saw anything wrong about "separate but equal" education. President Haygood -- who left Emory to devote himself to educating southern blacks -- never embraced racial integration. Warren Candler, an ardent foe of lynching and the namesake of the library at historically black Paine College, opposed integrated education. Goodrich White served on the boards of several black colleges but opposed integration. And while Emory might have been desegregated earlier than it was, if not for some institutional foot-dragging, it is also true that the vocal leadership of many faculty members, students, staff, and trustees brought the issue to a head and pushed for the right resolution.

As we recall Emory's mission to discover and apply knowledge in the service of humanity, we can be grateful that truth has power to set us free, even though truth may be acknowledged only long after the fact.