Emory University and Reparations

The city of Oxford, Georgia was created to be the site of Emory College in 1835. This small college would eventually become world famous Emory University, now located in Atlanta, Georgia. The university still maintains Oxford College as an affiliated undergraduate institution at the original site.

According to the History of Newton County Georgia (which I purchased from the Newton County Historical Society), there were over 6200 enslaved Africans in Newton County (the county in which Oxford is located) during the years 1835 – 1850. Further, many of the founders of Emory were enslavers. According to the historical analysis by Dr. Edward Davis, the way the many of the human-traffickers (sometimes called slave owners) were able to make “return” on their “investments” was through hiring out their “property” for labor. Davis notes

Charles Sanders, the first treasurer of Emory College, and a very large landholder in the county, set up an annuity for his wife by providing for the annual rental of his slaves. He said in his will, “I wish all my negroes (about 30) not hereby specifically conveyed, to be hired out annually for the support of my wife.”

and further

Slave women were valued for their reproductive capacities more than for their labor. The price of females in the local records was 75% that of males, but their rental value, as labor, was only 33% of that of males, for any children born belonged to the owner not the renter. In 3 out of 4 cases the first slave an owner acquired was a female. There were frequent instructions to the ex­ecutors of local wills to sell off a male slave and acquire a female for the heirs, and in no cases is the opposite suggested. Repro­duction was good business.

So many of the people enslaved in Oxford or by the Emory founders were put to work building Emory. The above link contains brief bios of enslaved persons, some of whom were enslaved on the Gaither plantation — the one on which my grandfather’s step father was enslaved.

Among those enslaved in Oxford prior to the Civil War were my grandfather’s family. The census lists Shelly Earl (my grandfather’s father) and his brothers and sisters as having been born in Oxford. Although I haven’t firmly established that Shelly’s parents labored to build the College, it’s highly likely, given that city was created to establish the college. My grandmother’s family was enslaved close by in Covington, on a plantation owned by the Wyatt family. Again, the economic model that was used to sustain slavery suggests that even on that side of the family, there were probably relatives forced into work on behalf of the college.

There are no doubt tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who are descended from people who were enslaved in Newton County.

What does present day Emory have to say about this. In 2011, they issued a statement of regret. But I’m not aware of a single relative receiving this notice. There was a conference, and there was a ceremony in Covington, GA where both sides of the family toiled, were brutalized and exploited, and laid to rest in unmarked graves. I’m sure it assuaged some of Emory University’s guilt. We didn’t receive an invitation. They are meeting to think it through. Two hundred years is a lot of pondering time.

Let’s further complicate this. To understand the founding of Emory, you have to also understand that it was founded as a Methodist university. That is, the founder of Methodism John Wesley — after whom my enslaved great grandfather was named by his owner/father (Dr. Davis alludes to how rape or non-consensual sex was also a profitable method of subjugation) — John Wesley of Oxford England came to the colony of Georgia hoping to convert the Muscogee nation to Christianity. The followers of Wesley, who arrived in the colony in the early 1700’s, were in principle opposed to enslavement.

The profits from the plantation economy, and the potential of more profits by using enslaved labor caused them to change their minds. In 1755, slavery was officially allowed in the Georgia colony. The existence of Muscogee people on lands that could be used to turn more profits for the colonizers lead to a series of illegal land grabs, that were manifest in a series of treaties in the early 1800s — most particularly the 1818 Treaty of the Creek Agency. John Quincy Adams attempted unsuccessfully to undo theses treaties, and a Muscogee leader, William McIntosh, was executed by the Muscogee for ceding these lands for personal gain. All that to say, that the very lands on which Emory College was founded were taken illegally. Georgia’s University of Georgia was also brought into existence through illegal theft of indigenous lands. There have been successful efforts at reclaiming Indigenous lands forcefully taken. This has to be applied to the how we find remedies for all those impacted by land grab universities

Meanwhile, to this day, Indigenous people remain largely absent from student populations, staff, faculty and curriculum.

From https://www.landgrabu.org/

So there is no Emory College, no Emory University without the theft of Muscogee lands, there is no Emory University without the enslavement of African people. An academic conference is not adequate to address the suffering inflicted upon so many, a suffering that exists to this day, evidenced by the economic disparities that remain between African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and those who claim inclusion in the settler colonialist identity that perpetrated the original crimes.

So what now? Columbia Theological Seminary, not far from Emory has set a standard. It too, benefited from years of racist policies. Columbia decided to offer free tuition to all African American students. Emory should listen.

Columbia Seminary understands reparations — how about Emory?

Here are my suggestions for how Emory should address reparations:

  1. Emory University should offer free tuition to all students of the African diaspora and all Indigenous students. As Walter Rodney documents in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the harms done by the enslavement of Black people in the America’s destroyed the economies of West and Central Africa. The impact upon humanity’s advancement is incalculable and should be acknowledged.
  2. All people of the African diaspora and all Indigenous people should receive free health services at the Emory associated hospitals. These are among the region’s best. The CDC offices are located on Emory’s campus. Beyond the academic impact, this would have immediate and lasting impact upon the lives of Georgia’s Black and Indigenous communities — communities that have suffered disproportionately in the COVID-19 crisis. The factors that contributed to their excess deaths and harms are rooted in the establishment of the university.
  3. Finally, all Black and Indigenous employees — or contractors — should receive a minimum wage of $20/hour. Again, given the persistent disparities in income that are rooted in the University’s founding, these are just actions.

So there it is. Very simple, very much tied to the harms done and the immense profits and benefits reaped through nearly 200 years of injustice.

Emory let’s make it right.

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