Task Force on Slavery and Justice

The Furman Bell Tower

The Furman Bell Tower on the downtown Greenville
campus, which was built with leased labor, enslaved and free.

After more than a year of study, the Furman University Task Force on Slavery and Justice presents its findings in the report linked below. The report includes the Task Force’s values and process, a presentation of the history of Furman’s early ties to slavery, a number of short vignettes by individual Task Force members, and a number of recommendations for the university to address.

Members of the Task Force represent diverse students and alumni, as well as faculty and staff. The report is the result of commissioning a history, activating student research projects, hosting scholars who consulted with the Task Force, creating oral histories and curating viewpoints, and attending Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium headquartered at the University of Virginia with more than 40 international colleges and universities.

The university has made a commitment to serious consideration of the entire report. The Board of Trustees endorsed the report and approved this resolution, during their Oct. 27 meeting. The university announced its next steps to the campus community Oct. 29. Comments or questions may be shared at slavery.justice@furman.edu.

Download “Seeking Abraham”as a PDF.

Cherrydale Mansion, black and white

Seeking Abraham

Seeking Abraham represents the findings of the Task Force’s work over the past year and their recommendations for moving forward.

Read the report

Task Force Announcements

July 2018

Last April, in concurrence with President Elizabeth Davis and the Furman Board of Trustees, I formed a Task Force on Slavery and Justice to examine the questions raised by a student, Marian Baker, in her opinion piece in the student newspaper. The report, “Seeking Abraham,” represents the findings of the Task Force’s work over the past year and their recommendations for moving forward.

I would like to sincerely thank the Task Force members for their diligent efforts and open deliberation process. This work of collecting evidence, reviewing our values and history, consulting with students, staff, faculty, and alumni is truly in line with the serious academic endeavor represented by The Furman Advantage. Beginning with a survey of students’ opinions last fall, attending multiple conferences (including the Universities Studying Slavery consortium, of which Furman is a proud member), hosting numerous academic and alumni speakers, and consulting with the nation’s foremost experts, the Task Force’s process has been a model for other institutions.

Many colleges and universities have taken on similar projects looking at their pasts. This project goes further by delving deep into an overwhelmingly southern, pro-slavery history and then confronting apathy with a proportional energy and redress. New campus rituals, landscape changes, and university commitments are holistic, sweeping, and minimally needed to make the pivot. This is something that our nation needs to do, and institutions of higher learning can lead the way.

Given the findings of this report, our work as an institution will not be done until every member of our community — academic and regional — has undergone a similar process. I hope we can give this the full attention and support it deserves. The ongoing process of “Seeking Abraham” and justice is the sort of work that is central to the liberal arts and sciences.

We must acknowledge and seriously wrestle with ways to address the disadvantages created by our past. We will do everything we can to ensure this report and its recommendations remain one of the highest priorities of our university.

Sincerely,

George Shields
Furman University Provost

April 2017

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

Task Force on Slavery & Justice

The Task Force on Slavery & Justice researches Furman's past and makes recommendations that help imagine a more just acknowledgment of that past.

Meet the Task Force Members

The Seeking Abraham Project

Inspired by Abraham, a former slave of James C. Furman, the Seeking Abraham Project will investigate the university's historical connections with slavery.

Visit the Seeking Abraham site