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April 29, 2002

Reverence, emotion run high at Sledd Symposium

By Eric Rangus


It began with a reverent discussion of a turn-of-the-century Emory professor’s nearly career-destroying efforts to bring racial justice to the south. It ended with that professor’s son denouncing the current U.S. presidential administration, its policies and a country where racism still lingers.

“Professing Justice: A Symposium on the Civil Rights Legacy of Professor Andrew Sledd,” brought together members of the Emory community as well as off-campus academics to discuss what moderator Douglas Gragg called “one of the darker moments in [Emory’s] history.”

Visitors to the Pitts Theology Library, where the April 22 symposium was held, may already have an idea of Sledd’s story, which for many years was lost amid more positive stories of Emory’s history. The exhibit “Protesting Racial Violence,” which focuses on Sledd, has been displayed in the Durham Reading Room since February.

“In the quest for truth, we are all recovering amnesiacs,” said Mark Auslander, assistant professor of anthropology at Oxford. He and his students were crucial to the rediscovery of Sledd’s legacy and the creation of the exhibit.

Sledd came to Emory in 1898 as a professor of Latin. He was Bishop Warren Candler’s son-in-law, but the two did not always see eye to eye. The often prickly relationship between Sledd and the powerful Candler family was a focus of the symposium’s keynote speech, delivered by Terry Matthews, senior pastor at North Carolina’s Mount Zion United Methodist Church and a Sledd scholar.

Matthews also outlined the incident that led Sledd to resign his professorship at Emory.

In 1902, while riding on a train passing through Covington, the engineer stopped to allow passengers to view the lynching of a black man named Sam Hose. Disgusted by the incident and the mutilation of Hose’s body after his death, Sledd wrote an essay, later published in Atlantic Monthly, denouncing lynching as well as Americans’ attitudes on race in both the north and south.

“Dad saw a great evil and saw that good, respectable people tolerated it,” said Andrew’s son James, professor emeritus of English from the University of Texas at Austin. “At the risk of his career and at the risk of his life, he spoke up.”

Matthews described the furor that followed: Many—including then-Emory President James Dickey, 17 members of the Board of Trustees and several members of the Candler family—called for Sledd’s resignation. He was even burned in effigy in the streets of Covington. After first considering a fight for his job, Sledd resigned.

“The media were told the action was voluntary and caused by fear of injuring Emory College,” said Matthews, who wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Emergence of a Prophet,” on Sledd.

Sledd eventually would return to Emory as a theology professor in 1914.

The symposium’s speakers were uniformly laudatory of Sledd. “The prophet is so far out in front of us that it takes us a long time to catch up to his truth,” said Gary Hauk, vice president and secretary of the University. Hauk touched on the Sledd affair in his book, A Legacy of Heart and Mind: Emory Since 1836.

The Sledd affair was a jumping-off point to a wider discussion of racial intolerance by Noel Erskine, associate professor of theology and ethics in the Candler School of Theology.

Erskine titled his address, “Where Do We Go From Here?” a line taken from the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, and he answered the question with his first sentence.

“The next step is emblazoned and embodied in one word: equality,” he said. Quoting liberally from King’s work, Erskine painted a starkly defined picture of the world African Americans inhabited prior to the civil rights movement.

“Black people were not regarded as human beings,” Erskine said. “I suspect that most people would have agreed with Andrew Sledd if he argued against the lynching of his neighbor’s dog.”

Erskine’s pointed comments were just an opening act for James Sledd’s address. After accepting a framed poetic tribute honoring his father’s, Sledd stepped to the podium.

“I’m an old man with a bit of a past and not much of a future,” said the 87-year-old Sledd in a strong voice that belied his fragile appearance. “Therefore, I have nothing to lose.”

Sledd then launched into an attack on President George W. Bush, his policies, the war on terrorism and an American society that he feels remains based on reactionary ideas of rigid class structure and racism.

The current war on terrorism, Sledd said, is one being fought not for just causes but to secure a “worldwide empire for rich, white folks.”