In November, President-elect Joe Biden unexpectedly won Georgia in the 2020 presidential election. A few months later, Georgia elected two Democratic senators for the first time in two decades. This is a time of great change in the Peach State; new voices like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who boosted Georgia’s Black voter turnout by over 30%, and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), the first Black senator from Georgia, are working to move the state past its horrific history of racism.
Emory was part of this history, and many of the early figures in our University’s history were Confederates or slave owners. Their names still adorn buildings and locations all throughout campus. Emory must move beyond its disconcerting past and rename these locations to honor people more deserving of respect.
On campus, you can find Confederates and racists on the names of Emory’s streets and buildings. Erected in 1931, Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church honors Wilbur Fisk Glenn, a Confederate soldier and the father-in-law of former Emory Board Chair Charles Howard Candler Sr. The Haygood-Hopkins Memorial Gateway and Hopkins Hall both celebrate Isaac Stiles Hopkins, Emory’s ninth president and a Confederate soldier. Longstreet-Means Hall honors Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, a staunch defender of slavery, and Alexander Means, a Confederate soldier. Both the Atlanta campus’ Pierce Drive and Oxford College’s Pierce Street are named after George Foster Pierce, Emory’s third president, who supported and supplied the Confederate army.
The Yerkes National Primate Research Center, a more recent example, was founded in 1965 and obtains its name from Robert Yerkes, whose work on intelligence testing fueled racism and the American eugenics movement. Finally, Atticus Greene Haygood, Emory’s eighth president, whose name decorates many buildings and streets on campus, believed Black Americans were better off enslaved rather than free.
By allowing these figures to define various locations on our campus, we are continuing to honor and respect them. None of them deserve it. We can’t change Emory’s past support for slavery and the Confederacy, but we can still acknowledge and disavow it.
Administrators have recently begun listening to Black student demands for reforming the University. But despite all that strong rhetoric, Emory celebrating the names of old racists still recalls a glaringly evil reality. Haygood eventually changed his views on slavery and created institutions to help educate freed African Americans. He will always be a man who defended chattel slavery, but he is also a man who tried to right his wrongs and help formerly enslaved persons. Emory is no different. It will always be descended from the Emory University that was led by racists, but it can also be something better. Although renaming a few locations is far from the reparations and dismantling of white supremacy needed for true healing, taking Confederate names off buildings sends a message that Emory acknowledges the faults of its past and will work toward a better future.
Instead of lionizing those who have oppressed Black Americans, we should honor the many Emory alumni who have dedicated their lives to positively influencing our University and the world. Emory already has a few places named for Black and anti-racist alumni. For instance, Bowden Hall is named for Henry L. Bowden, who led Emory’s desegregation, and Hamilton Holmes Hall is named after Hamilton Holmes, the first African American graduate of the Emory School of Medicine.
More deserve recognition, though. Verdelle Bellamy (63N) and Allie Saxon (63N) were the first two Black students to graduate from Emory. Dr. Delores P. Aldridge was the first African American woman faculty member and founder of the African American Studies program at Emory. Leah Ward Sears (80L) was a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and the first female African American to serve on a state Supreme Court. Inspired by her parents’ legacy of activism, Bernice King (90L, 90T), daughter of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and an American minister, continues to fight for civil rights. These and countless other Black Emory alumni have garnered significant recognition in their respective fields and deserve to be enshrined in their alma mater.
The positive message Emory hopes to instill on its students is lost when administrative stubbornness precludes necessary changes reflective of Emory’s goals to “create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity.” Given our knowledge, we must apply it effectively in our lives.
Changing the names on our buildings does not erase Emory’s past complicity in slavery and racism, but it holds the University accountable to push for even more progressive changes. It is a visible way for Emory to send the message that change and reflection is happening, and we can critically analyze the past and stop categorically glorifying our founders. While Emory has issued a statement of regret for its involvement “with the institution of slavery,” the meaning of their words is lost when substantial actions and uncomfortable conversations are slow to be implemented.
It may be our history, but it does not have to be our legacy.
Martin Shane Li (22Ox, 24C) is from Rockville, Maryland. Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.
This article is one part of “1963,” an investigative opinion project. Read the rest here.