The Loss of Rudolph Byrd Creates a Personal and Professional Void

May 25, 2012

Rudolph ByrdLast winter, about 900 professors, students and local residents assembled in an Emory auditorium to hear a panel of journalists and activists discus the political uprisings in the Arab world. Conspicuously absent was Rudolph Byrd, the man who conceived and organized the gathering and others like it during his two decades with Emory. He had died four months earlier at age 58.

Byrd had been the Goodrich C. White Professor of African American Studies, and was the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the study of Race and Difference.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reflected on Professor Byrd’s legacy and the impact his death has had his department, his colleagues and students, and the University.  

“When death comes to a department, it is always disruptive,” said the article. “Sorrowful colleagues are left to grieve while finding a way to keep doing their jobs in an environment that constantly reminds them of their loss. And like any personnel change, the personality of a department shifts whenever a new member arrives, quite possibly with scholarship or a teaching style that doesn’t mirror that of the predecessor. But when a star like Mr. Byrd dies, the shifts in departmental dynamics are likely to be even more pronounced.”  

A partial short list of his achievements suggest why that is so: Author or  editor of eleven books, including a critical edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, released last year; hired in 1991 to direct what was then an African-American-studies program at Emory; credited with hiring top faculty members; redesigning the undergraduate curriculum; creating study-abroad opportunities; paving the way for the program’s transition to a full-fledged department; and of course founding the James Weldon Johnson Institute.

The article also quoted colleagues and former students, like Jeffrey Leak, Professor Byrd’s first graduate student and now an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte: “He operated with a laserlike intensity on his scholarship, but also in terms of having Emory institutionalize African-American studies. That’s his legacy. You really can’t imitate him.”

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