Eugene Emory wants to write a book. It would be
a nonfiction book, one about his life. He doesn’t have a title
yet, or a publisher or a timetable to complete it. What he does
have, though, is the story.
Emory has been a college professor since 1979. He played basketball
while an undergraduate at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville,
Fla., and served as a physchology consultant for the NBA. He has
worked to preserve the cultural heritage of American Beach, a north
Florida resort area that has catered to a predominantly African-American
clientele since before World War II. Emory even is listed as holding
the American spear fishing record for the largest albacore caught—20
lbs., 6 oz. (He said it’s not true and doesn’t know
how he was credited with that catch. However, Emory is an avid boatsman
and fisherman, and he likes to talk about the 20-plus-pound amberjack
he did catch and had to drag out of the surf.)
But those are just brief chapters in Emory’s story. The easy
“I have all these ideas in my head,” said Emory, professor
of psychology. “I’m just not sure how to piece them
together. I’m not interested in writing some cathartic piece,
but I think there are some lessons to be learned from my experiences
that I’d like to share. But it’s not just about me.”
Emory leaned back in his chair thoughtfully.
“And then there’s the irony of me just being here,”
The fact that the professor shares a name with his place of employment
might make for a pleasant little feature in and of itself. Emory’s
story has a very dark side, though—one he was reluctant to
speak about publicly until the Year of Reconciliation in 2000–01.
Shortly after being recruited to teach at Emory in 1986, Emory did
some digging into his family history. He learned after researching
the state archives in Maryland that Bishop John T. Emory, the man
for whom the University is named, owned a slave in the 1830s also
named John T. Emory—Eugene Emory’s great-great-great
“Had I known that before would I have made the same decision
[to come to Emory]?” he said. “I’m not sure. I
don’t know what I would have done, but I’m glad I didn’t
For many years, Emory spoke little about the connection. Then in
fall 2000, in the midst of the Year of Reconciliation, Emory gave
a talk at the MARIAL Center about his family history.
In January 2001, he spoke in Cannon Chapel at the Atlanta opening
of “A Dream Deferred,” a project that told the previously
untold story of African Americans’ contribution to the building
of both Oxford and Emory. That evening, Emory not only discussed
his family connection, but he also read the names of his ancestors
who had been slaves.
“In the context of reconciliation, I really think it was the
appropriate thing to do,” Emory said. “I would hope
that those who heard me speak and thought about those things would
put reconciliation into practice. That’s what I am most interested
Emory’s family history doesn’t stop there, though. There
is much more to tell. Abandoned in Philadelphia by his mother as
a toddler, Emory lived in foster care until college; he was watched
over by the Women’s Christian Alliance. He bounced in and
out of several homes and shelters until he was 5, which is when
he was permanently placed. Emory has vivid memories of life before
his mother gave him up (although he never knew her), but the time
between his abandonment and his permanent placement is a blank.
“I remember sitting in the waiting room of the Women’s
Christian Alliance,” Emory said. “I don’t remember
that I was waiting to go to a foster home, but I remember sitting
on a large wooden bench and the floors creaking as people walked
on them. It must have been a great anticipation for a 5-year-old.
My next memory is driving to this new house. It seemed like the
wait was forever.”
Emory’s considers his foster family his own. His foster father
and brother have passed away, but he has two foster sisters, one
of whom takes care of their ailing mother. Emory helps out as well.
As with his biological family, Emory has not forgotten his past.
He now sits on the board of directors of the Women’s Christian
Alliance. “And there’s another irony,” Emory said.
With Emory’s childhood in mind perhaps it’s not surprising
that a great deal of his academic career has centered on the beginning
of life—both inside and outside the womb.
Most recently, Emory, a board member of the prestigious National
Academy of Sciences, teamed with researchers from the Morehouse
School of Medicine for a study that revealed maternal blood lead
levels have an adverse affect on infant intelligence. Since paint
containing a high content of lead is not uncommon in older, lower-income
dwellings, lower-income mothers could be at a higher risk for having
higher levels of lead in their blood. The study soon will be published
in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Some of Emory’s other recent work has included a study on
the effects of pregnancy massage on the mother and fetus, and a
research project on the effects of maternal depression on the fetus.
He currently is waiting to hear about grants to expand that maternal
depression study as well as other work focused on fetal brain response
to maternal vocalization—how a fetus reacts to the sound of
a mother’s voice.
When Emory entered graduate school (he has a master’s in educational
psychology and a doctorate in psychology, both from the University
of Florida) he studied with a neuropsychologist. Then he worked
with researchers who were interested in newborn infants.
“I sort of put them together and tried to find something new,”
Emory said. “I started studying the fetus, because few people
had done it.”
In the wide scheme of things, the bulk of Emory’s research
deals with the development of the nervous system, particularly the
brain, from pre-natal life into childhood. That brings him into
contact with a lot of pregnant women and babies.
Sometimes, the work can be unpleasant, like when Emory studied seizures
in newborns and respiratory distress. However, most of the time
the research—which is noninvasive—is bright.
“The women love it. Pregnant women, at least the ones we see,
are very interested in what’s going on with their fetus,”
Emory said. “Any time you can talk to them about prenatal
development, and conduct studies that are not invasive, they are
very willing to participate.
“I’ve always been interested in development,”
Emory continued. “I remember clearly, even when I was a teenager,
thinking that those babies knew more than people thought they knew.”
Considering Emory’s knowledge about his own life, this statement—like
many of his experiences—drips with irony.
“I’d see young children on their moms’ shoulders
and I’d tell myself, ‘They know what they’re doing.’”
Emory said. “I don’t know how that got me into psychology,
but I guess it’s come full circle.”