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  • Working to Transform Community at Emory University
  • Leslie M. Harris (bio)

In the nearly twenty years since I co-founded Emory University’s Transforming Community Project, I have watched in amazement as an ever-growing number of institutions of higher education in the United States have sought to explore their histories of slavery and racism in the pre-Civil War era. Over seventy universities are engaged in such projects, often initiated by groups of students and faculty, but with a significant amount of funding and other support from college and university administrations.1 Research by these groups as well as by individual scholars makes clear the ways in which colleges and universities were closely connected to and benefited financially from slavery, from their founding until slavery’s end.2 Colleges and universities were not ivory towers removed from the most pressing issues of the day. Faculty, staff, and students were themselves enslavers and in some cases staff and students were or had been enslaved. Higher education institutions were intimately involved in struggles for and against slavery, supporting the development of pro-slavery and, eventually, anti-slavery beliefs, as well as ideologies about racial hierarchies.

Those involved in the recovery of histories of slavery and racial hierarchies in higher education institutions have done so not simply to add to the store of knowledge. Many of these projects have an activist agenda: Once we know more about these longer histories of racial inequality (and slavery is only the beginning), they ask, should our institutions think of their mission differently? The [End Page 56] development of the Transforming Community Project (TCP) at Emory University, which I co-founded and co-led between 2003 and 2012, sought to provide members of the Emory community with a creative space to answer that question. The project developed in response to a series of “racial incidents” on campus over the course of the 2003–2004 academic year.3 Less important than the particular incidents (which happen with regularity on every college campus in the nation) was the decision of a small number of people at Emory—faculty, staff (including administrators), and a few students—to come together to talk about what these incidents meant for Emory’s sense of itself as a forward-thinking institution of higher education. We sought to understand how one of the most diverse and intellectually sophisticated campuses in the country, located in Atlanta, Georgia—the city “too busy to hate”— could continue to be subject to flashpoint racial incidents as well more persistent racial inequities. For example, non-white faculty members were concentrated in some departments, while other departments had none. Although the undergraduate student population was diverse by many population markers, the campus ranked near the top of institutions with limited interaction across differences of race and ethnicity.4 What were we doing wrong?

Our small interracial group of faculty, staff and students met informally to discuss our understandings of the history and experiences of race in the institution. Similar to current discussions about whether or not the United States is intrinsically racist, our discussions over the course of that year were an attempt to discuss two opposing views of Emory: was it an institution with a deep-seated tradition of racism that continued to the present day? Or was it an institution that had moved beyond such racism in the 1960s, and thus the events we were experiencing were isolated moments in an overall positive history of racial reform? In these discussions, I learned experientially of the ways in which community members often hold multiple meanings and contradictory knowledge of an ostensibly shared history. By the end of our year of discussion and debate, which included sharing data as well as experiences, the members of this group had all become part of the same broad library of knowledge, even if we weren’t all on the same page on what to do with that knowledge. We recognized that historically rooted racial inequities remained from the incomplete processes of racial integration and affirmative action efforts of the 1960s and the 1970s that had sought to create greater access and equity for African Americans. We also discussed new tensions that emerged as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-8576
Print ISSN
0272-3433
Pages
pp. 56-62
Launched on MUSE
2020-11-13
Open Access
No
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