Carol Henderson takes the podium at “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession” symposium after several performance artists, dancers and priests acknowledge their ancestors through readings, music and prayers. She is the vice provost for diversity and inclusion, chief diversity officer, adviser to the president, co-chair of the Symposium Steering Committee and a powerful speaker.  

“This symposium is a journey. I want to say that again. It’s a journey,” Henderson says. “It is a journey for us to realize a more equitable, diverse and inclusive Emory. That journey cannot begin if we don’t acknowledge where we’ve been.”

With these words, Henderson opened the symposium presented by Emory Libraries on Sept. 29 that concluded on the evening of Oct. 1. The symposium events focused on the history and impact of slavery, as well as dispossession in the South, encouraging students at Emory University to remember, or discover, the lasting implications of such events.

(The Emory Wheel/Xavier Stevens)

The symposium is part of an ongoing effort from Emory to create dialogue from perspectives of Black, Native American and Indigenous peoples. Sessions highlighted these perspectives through panel discussions, research presentations, interactive art, song, dance, virtual reality and more, with each event focused on history, impact or healing and restorative justice.

Emory also released an acknowledgement statement in conjunction with the symposium. The statement highlights Emory’s founding in 1836 by slaveholders and the Oxford campus’s construction by enslaved people. The locations of both campuses are also on the lands dispossessed from the Muscogee Nation. The statement hopes to recognize the injustices on these peoples and their labor in the creation of the university.

In the symposium’s history track, Lucas P. Kelley, assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University (Ind.), presented his research titled, “University of the People?” on the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s (UNC) growth through dispossession. After the War of 1812, Americans used an expansion of power to force land sales from Indigenous peoples. UNC benefited from an 1818 treaty with the Chickasaw Nation negotiated by Andrew Jackson to acquire over 200,000 acres of land to sell and fund the university. 

Emory also saw growth at this time. Only 15 years before Emory’s founding, the American government signed the First Treaty of Indian Springs, seizing Muscogee land that would later become Emory’s campuses

“Not only is every American university built on Indigenous land, but many only exist today because they sold indigenous land to white expansions,” Kelley said. 

One section of the symposium featured visual artist Charmaine Minnefield and her collaborators who developed the Emory Arts Praise House project. The project emulates a Praise House — a small, wooden structure used for worship by enslaved peoples in the South. To resist white oppression, enslaved peoples gathered in these structures, shouted and stomped on the wooden floors to perform the Ring Shout. This act served as a communal drum to preserve their culture and religion. 

Minnifield and her team recreated a Praise House as a public art installation that surrounds the viewer with a visual presentation of the Ring Shout on the structure’s walls. In 2022, the structure will be placed at the historic South View Cemetery on Juneteenth, at Emory in the fall temporarily and the Decatur Square permanently.

“It is the energy of the Ring Shout, that assertion of life, that we gather,” Minniefield said. “We gather in this circle as collaborators, artists and activists to remember a difficult past. This institution has established wealth and systems of white supremacy, and we must gather in the form of a community project.” 

The symposium turned its focus to solutions in the healing and restorative justice track. Briyant Hines (22T), a student at the Candler School of Theology, presented with a perspective of an American descendant of the enslaved in the 21st century. 

“Nightmares within an American Dream” by Frank Luster III (The Emory Wheel/Xavier Stevens)

His presentation cited scientific research that gives evidence for traumatic events leading to changes in DNA that can be passed down from one generation to another. Hines believes that he may inherit trauma from his grandmother who grew up during segregation and his third grandmother who experienced the burning and hanging of her husband by a white mob. 

Hines also said that the many mental health issues that African Americans experience today likely stem from the constant trauma of slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights and today’s institutions. 

“Movements should be created that address the African American, homeless and mentally ill population as well as offering mental health resources in underserved and underrepresented populations,” Hines said. “There needs to be any emergency triage in the African American community where healing is at the forefront.”

On the opening night of the symposium, a panel of Black students and activists gathered to explore the history of Emory and what comes next from student activism. For the panel, the journey towards healing and change does not simply end with a statement from the University or a symposium. 

“I feel like a lot of the challenges that we face here come down to the many avenues and channels that we have to go through in order to finally get the change that we need,” Coumba Diao (22B) said. 

Diao was a pivotal part of the Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs letter of demands sent to Fenves in summer 2020 and believes there is still a lot of room to grow for the University. At the symposium, Diao had a seat with six fellow Black activists involved in the letter.

“Some of our demands have been acknowledged with action taken, but there’s some that still haven’t been,” Diao said. “How do we know when we’re going to get to a place where Emory is inclusive to all students?”