President Dickey and the "Sledd Affair"

Lynching, Academic Freedom, and the Old "New South"

By Thomas H. Jackson Jr.
Descendant of former Emory President James Edward Dickey

On July 8, 1902, James Edward Dickey, age thirty-eight, became the twelfth president of Emory College. Less than two weeks earlier, the Atlantic Monthly, a national journal published in Boston, had run an article modestly titled "The Negro: Another View." The author was Andrew Sledd, a Harvard-educated Virginian who had joined the Emory faculty four years earlier. Besides being perhaps the strongest scholar at the little college, he also was its most outspoken.

Stopping to Watch a Lynching

The coming-together of Dickey and Sledd in the summer of 1902 would lead to one of the more memorable and controversial crises in Emory's history. The precipitating event was the happenstance of Sledd's being on a train bound for Covington in 1899 -- a train that stopped near Palmetto, Georgia, southwest of Atlanta, so the passengers could view (and some participate in) the lynching of Sam Hose, an African American.

On April 12, 1899, Coweta County farmer Alfred Crandall was alleged to have been brutally murdered by Hose. Mrs. Crandall alleged that Hose raped her beside the body of her dead husband. Authorities offered large rewards for Hose's capture; newspapers fanned the flames, leading to a vigilante mentality; posses formed.

Ten days after the murder, Hose was captured and jailed. The next morning, a mob took him from the jail to the countryside, where "he was emasculated and then burned alive. When the fire subsided, men pulled grisly souvenirs from the coals." As this grotesque scene unfolded, the train bearing Professor Andrew Sledd of Emory College happened past and stopped, the passengers being given the opportunity to step from the train to view the horrible sight, or even participate.

Even to historians proficient in the period, the racial attitudes and atmosphere of Georgia at the dawn of the 20th century are almost beyond comprehension in their ferocity and baseness. Any discussion of race began with the assumption on both sides of the argument, liberal and conservative, that "the Negro" was inferior. To almost the entire white populace, comingling of the races in public accommodations was unthinkable, and in sexual relations or marriage was abhorrent.

It was an atmosphere reveled in and fed by Rebecca Latimer Felton, wife of Methodist minister, former Georgia legislator, and U.S. Congressman Dr. William H. Felton. She thrived on her reputation as a firebrand. She openly defended lynching, most famously in an 1897 address to the State Agricultural Society at Tybee Island: "If it takes lynching to protect woman's dearest possession from the drunken, ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand a week if necessary."

Almost as famously, Mrs. Felton for years carried on a public clash with Emory President, and later Methodist Bishop, Warren Candler. Perhaps it was rooted in Candler's dismissal of her son from college as "a vagabond and drunkard." She was known to keep lists of enemies, and she carried out her battles with Candler for decades over a wide range of issues. Whether because Sledd was Candler's son-in-law, or because of her racist views, or both, Felton's ire was sparked by Sledd's article.

"The Negro Problem in the South"

In the article Sledd undertook to add to the public discussion of "the negro problem in the South." Noting that "partisan and sectional discussion cannot fail to be alike bitter and unfruitful," Sledd said the South regarded the issue as a local matter, and "met any suggestions and offers of outside help with a surly invitation to 'mind your own business.' The North, on the other hand . . . has approached it from the side of preformed theories, rather than of actual facts." Sledd decried those on both sides who offered opinion while ignorant of the facts, and then proceeded to lay out his two fundamental assumptions: "(1) The negro belongs to an inferior race. . . . (2) But the negro has inalienable rights." Sledd argued that most lynchings were not connected to rape, and were simply acts of calculated mob violence. The rule of law needed to be asserted over the rule of mob violence, he said, and he called his region of the country to task.

Sledd's article appalled his Northern audience for the brutality it described. He himself recognized that it would be read in the South as "disloyal and absurd," even incendiary and seditious. But the Atlantic Monthly was not well read in the South, so it took a while for word of the publication to spread and for the reaction to set in.

J. W. Renfroe, a former state treasurer of Georgia, wrote Rebecca Felton to make her aware of the article, and on July 11, the Atlanta Constitution tackled the Sledd article, publishing a highly critical editorial. It is likely that Felton or Renfroe prompted the newspaper's editors.

Felton herself unloaded all guns at Sledd. In a vitriolic column published on August 3, she proposed to run Sledd out of town on the proverbial rail: "If left to a vote in Georgia . . . the slanderer would be made to retire, and he may yet be thankful to get off without an extra application of tar and feathers."

The Georgia public in the summer of 1902 applauded, but Sledd was horrified by Felton's "tirade and libel." He later wrote that the experience led him to believe "that an expression of unorthodoxy (meaning any difference in opinion from the prevailing opinion in the South) on the negro question is sufficient to jeopardize a man's career, if not his life."

An Early Stand for Academic Freedom

In the first five days following the publication of Felton's column, seventeen trustees contacted President Dickey, calling for Sledd's departure. As Dickey later told Bishop Candler, all believed that Sledd's continued service on the faculty would hurt the College. Letters arrived from around the state calling for Sledd's dismissal.

In less than a week, the newspapers reported dutifully: "Sledd Is To Leave Emory." The article closed with this editorial comment: "The action of the executive committee . . . is final and will doubtless bring to a close the discussion of this unfortunate affair, which has caused Professor Sledd to give up his position and Emory college to lose one of the best men on its faculty."

In those early days of the Progressive Era, the concept of academic freedom was just emerging. The notion of a faculty member as an employee who serves at the pleasure of the employer still held sway, and embarrassing one's president, trustees, and institution bought a quick ticket out the door at any number of institutions in the North and Midwest as well as the South.

Sledd departed for Yale in September and finished his Ph.D. in nine months. He returned South, joining the faculty of Southern University in Alabama in 1904, and moving soon to become the first president of the University of Florida, from 1904 to 1909. After a brief stint as pastor of a Methodist church of Jacksonville, Sledd returned to Southern University, this time as president.

Students Honor Sledd's Influence

In 1914, when his wife's uncle, Asa G. Candler, gave one million dollars to build a new campus for Emory University in Atlanta, Bishop Warren Candler became the new university's chancellor. Sledd joined the faculty as professor of Greek and New Testament in the new School of Theology. For the next 25 years, he wielded great influence in training a generation of Methodist preachers, inculcating a philosophy of racial tolerance and justice until his death in 1939. The late Bishop Kenneth Goodson, who was Methodist Bishop in Alabama when a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham killed four Black children, recalls that the small, brave core of his ministers who helped calm the situation by courageously attending an interracial memorial service were "almost to a man, students of Andrew Sledd."