October 21, 2011

Emory community mourns Rudolph Byrd

Rudolph P. Byrd

Update: A resurrection mass will be held on Friday, Oct. 28 at 10 a.m. at the Cathedral of Christ The King, 2699 Peachtree Rd. N.E., Atlanta, Ga 30305, 404.233.2145.

Dear Colleagues:

I am saddened to write that this morning our friend and colleague Rudolph Byrd lost his fierce and long battle with cancer.  For many of us Rudolph was not only a symbol of dignity, propriety, determination, elegance and stamina, he embodied what it meant to live with purposefulness and grace, even to the very end. As others have said more than once in the last few weeks, Rudolph remained the consummate teacher: he taught us to live and how to die.

Rudolph accepted his appointment to join the Emory faculty in 1991, after appointments at Carleton College and the University of Delaware. During his two-decade long engagement with this university he became an institution builder, a concept he coined and a position he honored daily. He did so first as a scholar, authoring or editing eleven books in the fields of African American Studies, literature, sexuality, and difference. Inside the academy he understood that credit originated from scholarly production and as a result he deeply valued being honored with a Goodrich C. White Professorship. But Rudolph found individual production an incomplete definition of scholarship and institution building. He understood all too well that advances in a field would stagnate if we ignored the next generation. As a result he helped develop and sustain the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program on the Emory campus and beyond. This program was created to produce the next generation of scholars prepared to join the professoriate. 

After stints as chair of what became the Department of African American Studies, Rudolph imagined and founded the James Weldon Johnson Institute, which recently was renamed the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference. That Institute focuses on the history and enduring legacy of the fight for civil and human rights. Most recently he helped inaugurate a partnership among Emory University, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and CNN, by formulating a community forum program on contemporary civic issues called CNN Dialogues. Through these myriad efforts, Rudolph sought to fuse his abiding belief that universities helped build civil societies by engaging broadly and vigorously. Inside and outside of Emory he pursued institution building.

He was the founding co-chair of the Alice Walker Literary Society with Beverly Guy Sheftall of Spelman College. His several awards and fellowships include the Thomas Jefferson Award from Emory University; the Governor's Award in the Humanities; the Dick Bathrick Activist Award from Men Stopping Violence of Atlanta, GA; Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at Harvard University; the Dorothy Danforth Compton Fellowship at Yale University; and Visiting Scholar at the Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy.

Details of funeral and memorial services will follow in the next few days. As we await those announcements, we will find occasion to both mourn and celebrate the life that was Rudolph P. Byrd. Both are emotions that honor Rudolph.


Earl Lewis
Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies
Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost

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