Last week, the Wheel published a story recounting the physical reminders of the Confederacy on Emory’s Oxford campus and the school’s failure to educate students about its problematic history with racism and slavery.
In recent years, Emory has wrestled with its unsettling ties to the Confederacy and white supremacists, whose names dot buildings around campus. And yet, neither Emory nor Oxford administrators have begun to substantively reckon with the Confederate legacy on both campuses. Instead, they have opted for largely symbolic measures, such as renaming Longstreet-Means Hall to Eagle Hall and acknowledging both campuses’ construction on stolen Muscogee (Creek) land. These changes matter, of course, and the importance of making changes to reflect Emory’s current values of equity and inclusion cannot be overstated. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) spent years pushing for these changes for good reason.
A true reckoning with Emory’s history needs more — an in-depth education for the Oxford community about the school’s ties to slavery and Confederacy. Only through active effort can we increase student awareness of institutionalized racism and reduce the voyeurism that denigrates the painful history ingrained in our country. Oxford should also implore the adjacent town of Covington, Georgia, to remove a Confederate monument in the town square, which stands as a representation of hatred and intolerance undermining the mental health and well-being of the student body.
Casual reminders of the Confederacy are embedded throughout Oxford’s campus, intertwined as inescapable components of the student experience. A cemetery and obelisk honoring at least 32 Confederate soldiers sits a short walk from the Oxford gym. Moreover, a nature trail on campus sets off on a path to Kitty’s Cottage, the home of Catherine “Kitty” Andrew Boyd, who was enslaved at 12 years old. Boyd was enslaved by James Osgood Andrew, who served as the initial chair of the Emory Board of Trustees, and who advocated the creation of the cottage since he argued under Georgia law he was unable to free her. On top of that, both Tarbutton Hall and Phi Gamma Hall were constructed with slave labor and do not bear plaques explaining their history on campus. Indisputably, Oxford’s campus maintains deep roots in the Confederacy’s legacy, serving as a profoundly abhorrent reminder of our University’s racism.
But the relics to the Confederacy remain largely unknown and disrespected by faculty and students alike. For instance, students have reportedly taken voyeuristic photos at the Confederate cemetery and professors have allegedly taken their classes on uncritical visits. Visiting the sites of past injustice and hearing a few stories is not enough.
We call the rhetoric fruitless because hearing the right words is rarely enough. Students need extended, critical engagement with the related institutional history to understand the gravity of Oxford’s legacies of racism and slavery.
Such an initiative would have ample precedent. For example, the pre-orientation program Ignite Leadership, an early-arrival program for some Atlanta and Oxford campus first-years, took all of its students to the Oxford campus to learn about and discuss its historical involvement with slavery and racism. However, Ignite Leadership is a paid and voluntary program with a limited enrollment capacity. Though a few hours at Oxford neither atoned for the College’s legacy nor ended its complacency, it did help first-years begin to grasp their institution’s dark past. To serve all of its first-years, Oxford’s administration should incorporate one or more modules into their first-year seminar on their college’s legacy of racism and the built environment in which it still inherits.
The history of Oxford and its relationship with the Confederacy is largely unknown. It’s disrespected as nothing more than a passing comment or another mindless email from the University to stress a supposed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Emory’s progress in rectifying these injustices has been piecemeal. Renaming buildings and providing land recognition to Native American tribes has vastly improved Emory from a PR standpoint, but administrators have done little in the way of programming or policy.
The new Race & Ethnicity General Education Requirement is one important exception, as it requires students to explore and value new cultures and experiences. Though Oxford tour guides are starting to implement training to discuss locations like Phi Gamma Hall, Tarbutton Hall and the cemetery on campus tours as a part of the University’s early history, the University shouldn’t just stop there. It should change the way it educates students on its legacy and gets them to engage with it.
The aforementioned solutions are feeble, and barely scratch the surface to solving many of the problems that the Wheel’s reporting identified. At the very least, professors should only take their students to the Confederate cemetery when directly relevant to their teaching. Oxford administrators should also implement the ideas of the Oxford Black Students Association (BSA) for better acknowledging their school’s history. Along with their proposal to incorporate discussion of Emory’s slavery-related history into first-year programming, the Oxford BSA also advocates for the University to place plaques on Phi Gamma Hall and near the cemetery to explain this history.
Oxford should also foster greater engagement with its history throughout its students’ tenures. Virtual tours could include information about Oxford’s past involvement with slavery. Given Oxford’s economic and cultural weight in Covington, the school should lobby the city government to remove its monument to the Confederacy. As some Oxford students have proposed, Student symposia on local slavery should promote long-term consciousness of the school’s troubled past in the interest of a brighter future.
Matriculating to Oxford means inheriting centuries of traditions worth celebrating and centuries of debts long overdue. As Emory students, we have a moral responsibility to confront and remember our institution’s problematic past. Oxford administrators, it is your duty to give your students the chance to fulfill a collective responsibility to push forward on measures that aid in rectifying past transgressions. Almost 157 years after the Civil War and 188 years after Kitty Andrew Boyd’s enslavement, it’s long past time.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Rachel Broun, Jake Busch, Kyle Chan-Shue, Sophia Ling, Demetrios Mammas, Daniel Matin, Daniela Parra del Riego Valencia, Sara Perez, Sophia Peyser, Ben Thomas, Chaya Tong and Leah Woldai.