Picture this: a small group of Methodist ministers build a university from the ground up, against all odds, while dreaming of a place to build character and sharpen minds. They struggle to make ends meet for years until a “million-dollar letter” and land donated by the Coca-Cola Company paves the way for the acclaimed powerhouse of a university we know today.
That is the story of Emory’s founding. Or, at least, such is the case for white students.
Emory University was chartered in 1836, but the origin story that really matters, its rebirth, occurred in fall 1963 when Emory College accepted its first Black student, Charles Dudley (67C). According to the University, his arrival marked Emory’s desegregation. This is far from reality. Dudley’s enrollment was the beginning of a decades-long process, not the centerpiece of a stand-alone event. Desegregation at Emory was and continues to be a slow and arduous undertaking.
“1963,” an investigative project led by the Emory Wheel’s Opinion section, seeks to deconstruct the University’s legacy surrounding desegregation that current students have inherited and emphasize the lasting inequities that remain, both throughout Emory and at the Wheel. Building anew the institutions that prized racism over equity means understanding both our unvarnished history and tackling deeply seated inequities that persist to this day. We are here not to rewrite or erase history, but instead to lay it bare for you — for the world — to see. It is our fervent hope that regardless of your relationship with Emory and the Wheel, the perspectives and stories collected here will change how you navigate Emory’s campus.
Emory was built on racism. It literally formed the University’s foundations; enslaved people helped build the original campus in the 1830s and 1840s. John Emory, the Methodist bishop for whom the University is named, owned enslaved people, as did most of the University’s antebellum presidents, founders and faculty members. To this day, the Atlanta campus stands on land originally stolen from the Muscogee Creek Nation. And from the University’s very first lecture in the 1830s until 1962, Black students were barred entry.
In 1962, Emory successfully petitioned the Georgia Supreme Court to strike down a law prohibiting state funding to integrated private universities, allowing it to open its doors to Black students for the first time. That year, the Laney Graduate School admitted Emory’s first Black student, Nervada Jackson, as part of a non-credit program. Dudley became the first undergraduate to enroll at Emory College in 1963, and Master of Nursing candidates Verdelle Bellamy (63N) and Allie Saxon (63N) became the first Black students to graduate from Emory later that year.
Their experiences were unpleasant, to say the least. While Bellamy and Saxon cheerfully described their experiences as nursing students, Dudley often felt extremely isolated on campus. According to his brother, Julius W. Dudley, he would “sit quietly in a corner while others would look at him and stare at him.” And Charles wasn’t alone in that — in a 2019 interview with the Wheel, he explained, “there were a lot of students of color that decided to leave because they were feeling uncomfortable with being mistreated.”
In an interview with the Wheel, former Sports writer Bruce Sternberg (67C) described inviting Dudley to a group dinner on a Saturday night, only for his friends to ask him, “what were you thinking?” Most restaurants would have stopped Dudley as a Black man in the 1960s at the door, so the two had to spend their night alone in a cafeteria on campus. Indeed, Emory officially integrated in 1963 by admitting its first fewBlack students. But in the years afterward, the few Black students on campus remained marginalized and ostracized. Desegregation had only ended in name.
Black students were not the only members of the Emory community who suffered extreme prejudice at the time. Sternberg, for example, recalled hearing a fraternity member snarl, “we can never allow a Jew into our house.”
Emory may have allowed Black students to attend classes and live in residence halls in 1963, but it did not eliminate the racism that had excluded them in the first place. It still hasn’t. In the decades since the University’s official integration, racism has pervaded Emory’s campus. In 1969, 1990, 2015 and 2020, Black Emory students demanded justice from administrators, imploring the University to create scholarships for Black students, create a race and ethnicity general education requirement, and more. But action on most of these demands, spanning over 50 years, has been slow or nonexistent. For generations, the proportion of Black faculty at Emory has languished below 10%. Campus Services continues to abuse its staff, most of whom are Black. Clearly, we have not escaped our past.
Nor has inequity at Emory remained constant over time. In the last decade, student activists have stood against contemporary manifestations of segregation. The 2012 inception of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) defined an entirely new marginalized community on campus, comprising many non-citizens who arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16. In 2020, calls to rename structures honoring racist figures from the University’s past gained steam, and the Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs exhorted administrators to defund and disarm the Emory Police Department. Increasing consciousness of Emory’s failure to acknowledge Indigenous students and faculty’s needs sparked public agitation for justice. More so than ever before, marginalized communities at Emory have found their voices and elected to use them. There is hope. And yet, as “1963” will reveal, they nevertheless continue to suffer discrimination, mistreatment and marginalization. In the United States of America, segregation has a long half-life.
Throughout this project, the Opinion team explores and explains how Emory’s institutions have yielded decades of inequity. For instance, CBOC’s 2020 demands mirrored Black student demands from 1969. The buildings and relics that adorn our campus honor slave-owners and slavery apologists. Asian American activism has made enormous strides in the decades following the Vietnam War, but its historical documentation was almost lost. These stories matter, and we preserve them here for the benefit of the Emory community.
As Wheel editors, we are especially concerned with recasting the story of our institution. We have bared it here for the world to see.
We celebrated the Wheel’s centennial last year, but how many of those years were spent degrading, beating down and excluding communities of color? Our history, like that of most institutions, is marred with cruelty and ugliness. How can we begin to reconcile 100 years of harm? These are the questions we have sought to answer.
While progressive for its time, the Wheel of the 1960s was far from the anti-racist, inclusive organization that BIPOC students on campus deserved. Desegregation at the Wheel was treated as something that would naturally happen, not something editors had to build. Consequently, progress was inconsistent: even as it highlighted Black writers in a column called The Black Voice, it platformed hate speech, spotlighting Ku Klux Klan members on several occasions.
Editorship is a hefty time commitment; producing the paper every week often involves working into the early hours of the morning, which poses a barrier to low-income students who need to work part-time to support themselves. Throughout its history, the Wheel has largely been a white space, centering white voices and censuring BIPOC voices. Most, if not all, of our institutional problems today can be traced back to our roots.
It’s time the Wheel shattered the structures originating in white Emory. Anti-racism should not be the sole responsibility of BIPOC students. Evaluating our harmful reporting practices, discerning the gaps in our coverage and reexamining the language we use to describe marginalized groups is up to us.
The Wheel may be especially dear to our hearts, but it is far from the only Emory institution capable of tracing present inequities back to its origins. Our community, in the broadest sense of that word, must reckon with the fact that two of the events on which its identity rests — its founding in 1836 and its integration 127 years later — are not what they seem. White Emory was founded in 1836; the University as we know it today was born in 1963. Desegregation did not occur at once in 1963 — it merely began then and continues to this day. These are not easy opinions to swallow, and we expect and welcome disagreement. But we don’t just want you, the reader, to engage with Emory’s uncomfortable history or our writers’ perspectives on them. We urge you to incorporate the paradigm of equity that this project presents into your daily lives. Let considerations of justice inform your actions on campus and make this institution a more ethical place for all.
“1963” is only one part of a dynamic, ongoing reckoning with institutional racism. We hope readers will learn from the perspectives and reporting featured in this project, but we are not here to teach. The problems our writers explore warrant action, and we hope their perspectives inspire you to make your communities, at Emory or elsewhere, more equitable and less segregated.
We can’t start anew. But we do aim to inspire change, uplift communities that have been brushed aside and uncover untold stories.
Here’s one to start: Colvin expressed that one of her biggest regrets came soon after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat at the pinnacle of the civil rights movement.
“I got on the bus in Buckhead … this older Black woman got on the bus and sat next to me. I was 11, I didn’t know what the right thing was to do. The only thing I knew was to get up and get off the bus at the next stop. It’s one of those things you wish you could go back and say I’m sorry.” Neither she nor the rest of us can go back and apologize to anyone, nor would doing so fix anything. We can, however, act such that we won’t need to in the future.
Amid Black Lives Matter and a national reckoning with racism, your place at Emory is historical. The institutions to which you belong, the stories you chronicle and the lives you live. Like it or not, the events and perspectives of “1963” are Emory’s story. We have told it as best we can, but that, ultimately, is all we can do.
We hope the next part of Emory’s story is something of which we can be proud. But what comes next is up to you.
Brammhi Balarajan (23C) and Ben Thomas (23C) are the Wheel’s Opinion editors. Balarajan and Thomas oversaw “1963.”
This article is one part of “1963,” an investigative opinion project. Read the rest here.