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Work begins on memorial to enslaved who helped build Oxford campus
Emory Oxford entrance

OXFORD, Ga. — Work has begun to develop two memorials to honor the lives of enslaved individuals who helped build Emory University’s original campus in Oxford and others who have historic ties to the community.

The Twin Memorials Working Group is committed to finding “inspired ways to articulate and connect the shared histories of the two Emory campuses” in Oxford and Atlanta, a news release stated. 

Co-chaired by Oxford College Dean Douglas Hicks; William R. Kenan Jr., professor of religion; and Gregory C. Ellison II, associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology, the working group “brings together faculty, staff, students, administrators and alumni to catalyze the university’s commitment to acknowledge the labor of enslaved persons who built Emory’s original campus,” Hicks said. 

“We will seek input from the Emory community on the Atlanta and Oxford campuses as well as members of the descendant community,” he said.

“We are energized to honor people who deserve recognition and, more so, to educate current and future generations about Emory’s quest to become an even more equitable and inclusive institution.”

The idea for the memorials was first included in the recommendations of the Task Force on Untold Stories and Disenfranchised Populations, which sent its report to Emory President Gregory Fenves April 1.

In a letter to the Emory community on June 28, Fenves announced the creation of the Twin Memorials Working Group, which he charged with implementing a plan for the memorials and associated programming. 

Ellison — who, like Hicks, served on the task force — convened the working group for the first time recently and observed that they think of the group as the “dream team.” 

More than a playful nod to the U.S. men’s basketball team of the 1996 Olympic Games, the working group spent its first hours sharing “dreams” for what their work can achieve.

According to Ellison and Hicks, those dreams include telling the fuller story of, and truly honoring, those who will be acknowledged; making the resultant memorials part of the curriculum; establishing even deeper ties between the two campuses; demonstrating that Emory is a welcoming, safe space for area residents and students beyond its walls; helping Emory students have a deeper appreciation of the university’s past; turning deserved attention to current campus workers, especially the hourly staff; and not only creating this as a living memorial but enjoying to the fullest the shared experience of doing so together.

By taking advantage of relevant scholarship, learning more about similar initiatives at peer institutions and building on the aims stated in the task force report, the Twin Memorials Working Group will draft requests-for-proposal (RFPs) for architectural firms to design and construct the twin memorials.

In addition, the group will develop plans for annual events, university-wide programming and orientation for new students — all designed not only to memorialize enslaved laborers and their descendants but also to recognize those who continued to work on both campuses following emancipation.

A key part of the working group’s ambitious agenda is coordinating community input to ensure that what is created, both for the memorials themselves and the related programming, reflects the diverse stakeholders who will engage with it.

“We look forward to presenting the stories and legacy of these individuals who are so central to our history,” Ellison said. “Our job is to dream together and to gather the collective dreams of our community — and that means not just Emory but the larger metro Atlanta community. 

“Once the memorials are established, we are eager for our own community, as well as visitors to our Atlanta and Oxford campuses, to learn more not just about Emory but about themselves.”

In a related action, Fenves said in a statement Sept. 27 that the Emory Board of Trustees had approved an official “Land Acknowledgment” for Emory University.

“This statement is a recognition of the Muscogee (Creek) and other indigenous nations who were displaced in the years before Emory’s founding,” Fenves said. 

Fenves said a group of Emory leaders, historians and experts from across the university composed the Land Acknowledgement “building upon years of work undertaken by faculty, staff, and students to recognize the legacy of native and indigenous dispossession on the lands of Emory’s campuses. 

“This statement is about accountability as much as it is about understanding our past. And my hope is that it will inspire powerful conversations on our campuses as well as action and engagement. 

He announced the formation of a working group to plan development of a Language Path on the Emory campuses to honor the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and highlight the Muscogee language and culture.

”The university has also begun taking steps to establish a stronger connection with the Muscogee Nation. We are linked through our history, and it is my hope that we can work together and be a part of each other’s present and future for the benefit of our communities.”