A Letter from the Provost’s Office:

I’m excited and humbled that Furman University is embarking on a journey to study our archival history and make a series of recommendations regarding our institutional connection with slavery. It’s a step taken already by many universities and, importantly, it is the right thing to do, especially as an academic institution that embraces its liberal arts ideals: reflection and understanding, innovative projects with communities, and a faith in ceaseless accuracy. I’ve commissioned a Task Force on Slavery and Justice to work over the 2017-2018 academic year to begin the process.

If you're familiar with the historical record of the university’s namesake as well as its first university president, you will know that they were leading advocates for slavery in South Carolina and U.S. Christianity. Richard Furman, who led the establishment of the Baptist Conventions, wrote a significant public letter to the Governor that embraced slavery and the education of slaves. His son, James C. Furman, argued for secession forcefully. Both Richard and James C. owned substantial numbers of slaves, and are remembered in journals and biographies for their sympathetic treatment of them. Most students at the time eventually fought with the Confederate States, despite some initial opposition.

That’s what we do know. There are also many unknowns. 

For example, it’s likely the first campuses were built, in part, by slaves or skilled African-American laborers, and with the profits from slave labor. But to the best of our knowledge, we have no university history that examined those records. What were the early practices of the school and its leaders in the antebellum South? Who built the school, what are their records, and what skills did they bring to create Furman University that have not been acknowledged? 

There are also unknowns about the legacy. Did the founders’ pro-slavery actions or viewpoints influence the university’s founding or its struggle to remain solvent in its early years? Were there impacts on Furman’s broad witness to the world? 

We have never reckoned seriously with these questions, and it is my hope that the Task Force will find at least some tentative answers to them. More importantly, this will energize the kind of undergraduate humanities scholarship that already defines Furman.

The Furman Advantage strategic vision calls on us to seriously pursue community equity and campus diversity. To do that, a firm, scholarly understanding of the past is a necessary foundation.

The Task Force includes historians, social scientists, students, alumni, and administrative staff with related expertise. I have given them full autonomy under this charge and have assured them that the university will publicize the history that is produced and work to implement the recommendations put forth.

In their initial meetings, they have: (a) appointed a history professor to full-time research and writing in the fall semester, (b) begun curating a series of speakers, programs, and consultants throughout the academic year, (c) joined the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium headquartered at the University of Virginia, and (d) begun planning ways to reach alumni and other stakeholders who will guide the project.

The Furman community, I believe, can be a leader in this area of historical justice, given both our considerable influence in slavery’s past and our consensual commitment to move forward in line with our institution’s values and The Furman Advantage. It will be a discomforting process at times, but I hope our shared commitment to truth and our shared value for dialogue will prevail. Only then can we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Sincerely,

George Shields
Furman University Provost

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