Emory Report
September 8, 2008
Volume 61, Number 3



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8, 2008
Gathering the tools to explore past in new ways

Portia Allen is a program administrative assistant in the School of Medicine.

Have you ever dreamed of Africa at Emory — the connections, communities, and cultures? This past summer I did, while working on a research project to identify Emory’s first African students, a project that emerged out of a spring 2008 working group called Gathering the Tools.

Gathering the Tools is one of two major initiatives, the other being Community Dialogues, that embody Emory’s Transforming Community Project.

TCP is a five year, Emory- and Ford Foundation-funded project that seeks to mobilize Emory’s community in reflective, fact-driven discussions about the University’s racial history. In Gathering the Tools, participants are introduced to archival research, literary works relative to Emory’s racial past and methods to complete oral histories.

Community Dialogues provide unique opportunities to engage the Emory community in a series of open, honest and respectful conversations about the experiences of race at and beyond Emory.

William B. Harvey, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity at the University of Virginia, has commended TCP “for boldly taking Emory where few institutions of higher education have chosen to go.” Harvey noted also that “the significance of the project is underscored by the financial commitment from the highest levels of the University administration.”

I remember the early discussions in Gathering the Tools about the historical research we, the participants, planned to undertake. I expressed an interest in documenting Emory’s first African students, and realized quickly the enormity of the task. “First” implied so much to me: it suggested finding the first African students admitted into Emory College, Oxford College, the School of Medicine, School of Law and other schools. I had embarked on this topic for several reasons.

Primarily, I hoped the research would produce an untold history that linked Emory to the continent of Africa. Also, I was optimistic that the research would contribute to future discussions about race and complement Emory’s strategic goals.

The following questions guided my research: Who were the first African students at Emory? Were African students — black or white — admitted to Emory before the first African American students? After graduating from Emory, did these African students return to their countries to enter into key leadership roles?

I was defining black and white African students within a socio-historical context — country of residence as well as country of origin — with emphasis on the limitations of past and present perceptions of who are black and white Africans. This frame of reference served as a beginning reflection on the multifaceted and diverse approaches needed to investigate Emory’s first African students. Seeking answers to these questions led to more questions. Even after our Gathering the Tools experience ended, I sought extra time to continue this inquiry process.

TCP Co-Director Jody Usher and I began to discuss further my research idea and possible summer support. What occurred next seemed serendipitous: I was assigned an undergraduate partner, Iman S. Folayan, through TCP’s collaboration with SIRE (Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory), a 10-week summer program. Thus, the inaugural TCP Research Triad was born, an interdisciplinary, collaborative research effort between an Emory faculty member (Ellen G. Spears), an undergraduate student (Iman) and a staff member (me).

Our Triad breaks the traditional mold of academic research in that an Emory staff member has the opportunity to generate academic research. For me, the Triad was a bit of academic nirvana combined with a research dream come true.

As I reflect back, working with Ellen and Iman was most extraordinary. Ellen offered insight and detailed expertise about the historical research process and Iman demonstrated incredible persistence in searching through volumes of Emory student registers, directories, yearbooks and graduation programs to locate pertinent information such as names, pictures and dates.

With considerable guidance from staff members at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Iman started with archived materials from 1838 and worked her way up to the 1970s. She unearthed some exciting information.

For example, we learned that former Emory student, S.W. Saul, was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1906. Four decades later, Shwikar I. Elwan, from Cairo, Egypt, received her Master of Arts degree from Emory in 1962. Two more students from Egypt, Makram N. Kaiser and Fawzy S. Mansour, graduated from Emory in 1965 with their doctoral degrees.

Additional examples included students who attended Emory, starting in the late 1960s, from countries like Kenya, Morocco, Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire), Nigeria, Rwanda and Zambia. Their fields of study encompassed medicine, political science, education for librarianship, and theology.

While seeking to find the first African students at Emory, Iman noticed archived records about other international students. Very fascinating to me was the fact that non-European, international students (from places like China, Japan, Brazil and the Korean Peninsula) studied at Emory before the desegregation of higher education in the South. Given our research constraints and timeline, I stopped probing any further into this intriguing find. Still, one question eluded me: Why their early admittance at Emory and the late admittance of black Africans?

Overall, our summer research project energized and interconnected us across three different roles — faculty, student and staff. It began with an eight-session Gathering the Tools working group and continued through the TCP Research Triad. Together, we began the process of identifying some of Emory’s first African students.

There is still so much to be revealed and understood. I hope to find out more about these students, with particular focus on their time spent here at Emory, write a publishable paper about our research findings and produce an online documentary on these early Emory alumni.

In addition to the important lessons we can learn, there seems to be the possibility of sharing significant and untold Emory-African histories, exploring relative philosophies about our racial past, and perhaps most connecting, embracing the cultural change within our own individual and collective experience here at Emory.

For information about Gathering the Tools, visit: http://transform.emory.edu.