May 17, 2010
This year’s Commencement ceremony was especially poignant for Rudolph P. Byrd. The Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies learned that he was to receive the Thomas Jefferson Award just days before undergoing hip replacement surgery.
“President Wagner said to me, ‘be prepared to walk across the stage at Commencement to receive your citation’,” Byrd recalls. “And I said, ‘I’ll be there!’”
The Jefferson is the University’s premier award for significant service to the institution through personal activities, influence and leadership.
“I’m tremendously moved that my colleagues would honor me in this way,” he says. “I accept this award on behalf of all of my colleagues and the sense of community that we seek to build together.”
Since arriving at Emory in 1991 as director of African American studies, Byrd has been dedicated to the University’s growth in academic achievement and as a caring community.
He is the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies at Emory, focused on the modern civil rights movement. He has been a leading builder of Emory’s research library collections, the acquisition of the Alice Walker Archive providing a notable example.
Byrd says he approaches scholarship and teaching as one activity, each informing the other.
Larger projects, like establishing the Johnson Institute, are about collaboration and purpose.
“My starting point is always: What can I do to enhance the intellectual life of the university? What can I do to bring greater national attention to the excellent work we are doing here? And while it may start with a vision that I have, at every point along the way I work with colleagues across the university.”
With his vision, energy, dedication to teaching and scholarship, and commitment to excellence, Byrd has helped bring to Emory outstanding faculty, grants, symposia and academic collaborations in Atlanta and beyond.
Byrd’s commitment to service includes key roles with the Alice Walker Literary Society, the National Advisory Board for the Morehouse College Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Collection and the United Negro College Fund/Andrew W. Mellon Programs.
A noted literary scholar, Byrd has penned and edited several books. Just published is “The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker,” which Byrd notes is the first book drawn from the Alice Walker archives in its opening year at Emory.
“I believe that Emory is an institution where it is possible to have a positive impact on the intellectual life of the university,” he says. “That is what has kept me here and motivated me to do my best work.”