April 14, 2003

The irony of Emory

By Eric Rangus

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 ones.

“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,” he said.

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 grandfather.

“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 know.”

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 in seeing.”

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.”