Emory Report

April 17, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 29

First Person:

Unboxing Emory's past

By Gary Hauk, secretary of the University

Emory may be the quintessentially representative American institution: like many American families, neighborhoods and towns--like the University's hometown, Atlanta--Emory has outstripped its memory of itself in the urgency of growth and change, until the stuff of memory was almost lost.

Apparently, fewer and fewer high school students can say within two or three decades when the Civil War was fought, so who could be surprised that Emory undergraduates know little about the man for whom White Hall is named, or why South Kilgo Circle looks more like a dead-end alley, or why a university without a dental school has a Dental School Building. The fault is not the undergraduates'. The institution itself has perpetuated this memory loss.

Among the more astonishing instances of institutional amnesia was the packing away of "The Triumph of Alexander," a magnificent plaster frieze that graced the original lobby of Candler Library for 40 years until the library was remodeled in the 1960s. The frieze lay stored out of sight in crates, but chance and the intuition of a couple librarians brought it to light again in 1997.

Who knows how many other Emory treasures--artifacts, stories, documents--are gone forever. Or, almost as bad, how much of Emory's history lies out of sight and mind in boxes in Special Collections, in Oxford attics or even in dozens of rented storage facilities around Atlanta?

Fortunately, the tide has been turning of late. The appointment of a full-time Uni-versity archivist several years ago and the decision to implement a regular records-management program will increase the likelihood that Emory will reclaim and hang onto its recorded history. More positively still, students, alumni, faculty and staff have evinced a growing interest in reviving traditions from Emory's past--or inventing new ones that draw on that past in important ways.

A presidentially appointed committee has completed its work of taking the pulse of the campus and alumni to listen to the University's narrative and recommend ways to make it fresh and alive for those who live and work here. Emory College is finding new ways to introduce first-year students to the heritage of Oxford. Long-dead practices-tree plantings by senior classes, Charter Day observances-are being revived. The past has become for many an important touchstone, making it possible to say that, at Emory, the past is not what it used to be. Thank goodness.

My own interest in Emory history goes back to my days as reference librarian at Pitts Theology Library, the first academic building on the Atlanta campus. The building is an architectural palimpsest in which the present literally overlays the past: visible behind the tiers of shelving erected in the late '70s in the Reference Room and the Periodicals Room are the walls and windows of the original structure--including the University's first chapel, Durham Chapel, with its still-beautiful wooden ceiling and its chancel, now turned into a niche for display cases. Working in this space, I could not help wondering what other glories of Emory's past have been layered over.

Some are not far to find. The facade of the old Alumni Memorial University Center (AMUC) now forms the eastern interior wall of the Dobbs Center, for instance, and later generations of Emory students can be grateful for the foresight of administrators who insisted that architect John Portman incorporate the old design into the new. But you will have a difficult time finding the little prayer chapel built decades ago in the AMUC--it was transformed two years ago into an office, its stained-glass window now covered over with Sheetrock.

Other vestiges of an older Emory survive in surprising ways. The East Palatka holly tree behind the McDonough Field stage at the corner of Asbury and Fraternity Row is a descendant of a holly that once grew on the Quadrangle, which itself was descended from a cutting of a bush that Antoinette (Mrs. Warren) Candler found growing in the crook of a live oak tree on St. Simons Island early this century. According to legend, John Wesley himself preached under that live oak during his two-year sojourn in Georgia in 1735­36. Okay, it's a tenuous connection to Methodism's founder, but the story of that holly calls us back to our roots. So to speak.

But a lot of Emory's history remains hidden and needs to be brought to light. The role of African Americans in the college's earliest history--the forgotten lives of the slaves of board members and presidents, the work of constructing buildings at Oxford, the influence of African American staff members in the early 20th century in shaping campus life at Oxford and Atlanta--has for the most part never been told.

Emory's relation to the Civil War has been told but needs to be retold with an eye on its implications (the Confederate cemetery at Oxford, the Union encampments at Lullwater and near the Quadrangle). The history of Emory's close relationship to its hometowns--both Oxford and Atlanta--has gotten unfortunate short shrift but is a story in which Emory can take pride.

Having spent my "off hours" over the last several years putting together a book of Emory history--poring over thousands of photographs and artifacts, talking to long-retired faculty members, reading as much as I could in Special Collections, walking through the town of Oxford and over every inch of the Druid Hills campus--I find myself left as much with an impression of Emory's continuities as with its changes.

Of course, the Methodist church connection, present at the beginning, remains strong and influential--more by the freedom the church permits than by any sectarian restraint. The ethos of service and attention to the moral dimensions of education, fostered by our faculty as well as by our students and staff, have flavored Emory life for decades. And, at least since the 1950s, there have been on the Atlanta campus public expressions of nostalgic longing for the close community that used to be and now no longer is.

Shame and pride, sophistication and parochialism, groundbreaking and retrenchment, surprise and the same old stuff--like the stories uncles and aunts used to regale the cousins with at family reunions--the history of Emory has it all. But we need to get it out of the boxes and into our hearts and minds.

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