The Transforming Community Project

Uncovering the Past, Looking to the Future
Experiencing a community dialogue at Emory
Kate Sweeney, Director, Educational Research, Emory College


Practicing Diversity in the Academy

Vol. 10 No. 2
October/November 2007

Return to Contents


Measuring Up
Quantifying the quality of an Emory education

Selected Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement

“Our goals are so complex that learning outcomes assessment will measure only a small part of what takes place while our students are with us.”

“I think it’s important for students to know a lot of facts [and] figures. . . . If you haven’t acquired that basic, empirical knowledge, the structure of reflection you build upon collapses.”


The New Curriculum
Medical student education in the twenty-first century


The Transforming Community Project

Practicing Diversity in the Academy
Uncovering and engaging Emory’s racial past and present

Uncovering the Past, Looking to the Future
Experiencing a community dialogue at Emory


Endnotes

The only physical reminder that part of Emory’s Atlanta campus was once a slave-owning plantation is a small graveyard tucked in a corner of the Clairmont campus. Hidden among the new buildings, this graveyard represents part of our unmarked and often unknown past.

Like our physical environment, much of Emory’s history has been removed or paved over. This erasure has left a general lack of understanding within our community of the past and its connection to the present. Like the graveyard on the Clairmont campus, however, there are often pieces of information that either remain in view or are not far from the surface. If we dedicate time to drawing out our history, the hidden past may inspire change. The Transforming Community Project (TCP) has helped reveal some of the history of our institution, allowing me to both acknowledge our past and strive for a greater understanding of it. I have been able to start the process of tracing those connections between Emory’s history and our current environment—physical and mental, positive and negative.

My own scholarship on social stratification and the systems that keep inequities in place led me to join a TCP Community Dialogue (CD) group in summer 2006. Having a group of faculty, staff, and students come together from a variety of academic and personal backgrounds and discuss race created a chance to reflect on my own position as a white female, administrator, instructor, and newly minted Ph.D. As a sociologist and race scholar, I am familiar with race as a social construct. Yet the experience of the CD made me think further about what this social construction means for me in particular and my interaction with the Emory community. It led me to investigate how I perpetuate stereotypical ideas about race through my daily actions—for instance, assuming the way I do things is the correct, best, and only way. Or not recognizing the many benefits I’m receiving in daily life by merely being white, like not having to wonder whether the people I work with will take me seriously when I bring up a concern.

Completing graduate school here at Emory and moving from student and part-time staff member to full-time administrator advanced my interest in how Emory as an educational institution perpetuates and dismantles disparities between groups. When the call came out from TCP for the summer faculty pedagogy seminar, I took advantage of the opportunity. The seminar brought together faculty from all areas of the university (several college departments, Oxford, the medical school, law school, and Grady) to learn about Emory’s history and discuss how best to incorporate the information into our own classes. While I had thought that our history must be linked to slavery—like that of most educational institutions at that time, particularly in the South—I didn’t know the specifics, nor had I looked for them. The day-to-day activities of university life often consume me, as I imagine they do most people on our campus. Dedicating the three hours a day for two weeks to the TCP seminar provided the time to dig further than I had before.

One question we explored is how unconscious racism bubbles through even work aimed at social equity. TCP introduced me to Andrew Sledd, a professor at Emory around the turn of the twentieth century. Sledd, a theologian, witnessed the lynching of Sam Hose, which led him to write an article, “The Negro: Another View,” for the Atlantic Monthly in 1902. The article condemned the treatment of African Americans in the South and later led then-president of the university James Dickey to ask for Sledd’s resignation. I found it important to learn about whites who challenged racism during their time, but I also recognized that Sledd’s actions were not completely commendable. While the article stressed that African Americans have inalienable rights, it also upheld white supremacist ideas and stereotypical images of black people as inferior to whites. Although this introduction to Sledd and other parts of our history removed a layer of dust, it also left me with unanswered questions about Emory’s racial past and present.

What struck me most during our discussions was that the stories we choose to tell perhaps reveal more about how we wish to remember the past than the actual events. The story of Kitty, which we discussed with anthropologist Mark Auslander during our visit to Oxford College, illustrates this phenomenon. Kitty was enslaved by Bishop Andrew, a supposed unwilling slave holder who inherited her when she was twelve. Historical records and folklore passed down through generations in the small town make it clear that she had some special status, but the meaning of that status is disputed. Two specific landmarks memorialize Kitty in the white Oxford community. One is “Kitty’s Cottage,” and the other is a cemetery stone strategically located in the racially segregated Oxford cemetery. The building named Kitty’s Cottage is actually a re-created slave living quarters with what appears to be little attempt at historical accuracy. It consists of two rooms—which, as the historians in the group pointed out, is much larger than any slave home would have been at that time for a family, let alone one person—with a mis-match of furniture from various historical periods, and white siding and shutters on the exterior. (It is unclear whether the structure was actually ever her home.) In addition to the cottage, a large stone was placed at the entrance of the white portion of the Oxford cemetery in the late 1930s with the story of Kitty engraved on it. It recounts the same story that is on a plaque in front of the cottage, which is the legend that whites in Oxford tell—the same story told in Gary Hauk’s coffee table book, A Legacy of Heart and Mind: Emory Since 1836, distributed across Emory as the history of the university. The story states that Bishop Andrew had Kitty as a slave by default and that she was given the option to go to Liberia or stay with the Andrew family. She “chose” to stay in Oxford with the Andrew family in 1841, and, according to folklore, lived as if she were free. Even if she had been given these two options, however, there would have been little actual choice between moving to a country where she knew no one or staying with her friends and family in Oxford. In addition, the idea that Bishop Andrew was a reluctant slave owner neglects the fact that he was indeed a slave owner: while the memorials of Kitty portray her as living as if she were free, she was still an enslaved person without the rights of a free person. Kitty became a symbol used to uphold a romanticized view of slavery, loyalty, and family values. While I cannot possibly do this story or the history behind it justice, multiple sources show that version of Kitty’s story displayed in the graveyard and at her cottage and the meaning behind it is disputed (see Mark Auslander’s working paper, January 2001, Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, www.marial.emory.edu/pdfskittydoc.pdf).

I continue to be struck by the legends that we as institutions, communities, and individuals tell. What are our other Kitty stories, and why do we tell them? Why do we work so hard to keep them alive? How does the history on the surface and the hidden past influence us today on the Atlanta campus? While the Oxford cemetery and the stories of Kitty are a part of our history, they are kept at a distance—part of Oxford’s history that has been neatly separated from our own here in Atlanta. Yet the history of Oxford and our ties to it continue to influence us, because our history shapes who we are today as a community and institution. As an institution we are connected to a disgraceful history and a record of often-misplaced academic endeavors. The TCP process for me has emphasized the need to acknowledge our past as a starting point to discuss, confront, and challenge our present.

Where do we go from here? I left the TCP seminar with more questions than I went in with, but also with an enthusiasm to discover the answers. The fact that racial inequality and social inequities stem from such an extensive, complex history often interferes with attempts to change systems within our own communities and institutions. TCP is one way to document our history while dispelling myths, providing knowledge, challenging ideas, and sparking change on at least the individual level. Following the lead of the TCP seminar, I will incorporate the history of our own institution into the courses I teach. Whether students are learning about race relations, medicine, identity, or language, it is important for them to know the history behind current circumstances. Recent incidents at our own campus and across the country indicate that many students do not know the history behind blackface or why affirmative action was implemented. With individual efforts in the classroom, continued dialogue in the public arena, and additional support and resources at the institutional level, I think Emory has the opportunity to use our position as an educational leader to uncover our history, link it to our present, and use it to construct a path towards increased recognition in the future.