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Joseph Vaughn Day celebrates courage, purpose and resilience

Merl Code speaks to a crowd after receiving an honorary degree during the Joseph Vaughn Day ceremony on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

Last updated January 27, 2023

By Furman News

“What a wonderful day for a walk,” said Furman President Elizabeth Davis from the steps of the James B. Duke Library. “And it’s an even better day for a walk with purpose.”

Furman President Elizabeth Davis speaks in front of the James B. Duke Library during the Joseph Vaughn Day ceremony on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

Alongside members of the Furman and Greenville, South Carolina, communities, Davis had just traveled about 280 paces from Daniel Chapel across Furman Mall to the library. The Walk of Honor in the early afternoon of Jan. 27 was part of the ceremony to commemorate Joseph Allen Vaughn ’68, Furman’s first Black undergraduate student.

Joseph Vaughn Day, which arose from the “Seeking Abraham” report by Furman’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice, celebrates the anniversary of Vaughn’s enrollment on Jan. 29, 1965. Davis and others spoke at Joseph Vaughn Plaza, which was completed in April 2021 and features a statue recreating a photo of Vaughn climbing the library steps in 1965.

The ceremony began at Daniel Chapel with a welcome by Franklin Ellis, associate dean and director of the university’s Center for Inclusive Communities. For Ellis, Vaughn’s legacy brought one particular word to mind.

“Jegna is an Ethiopian word, concept and title of distinction that, when translated into English, means ‘hero, warrior, soldier, courage, strength and protector of culture, land and people,’” he said.

Joseph Vaughn exhibited every trait necessary to gain that prestigious title, said Ellis.

“The path to being a jegna is arduous,” he said. “And as we take the Walk of Honor today, I implore you to take time to remember those who walk before you, those who have the hardest job of being first, of having to remove the debris to forge a path for others to follow.”

Ellis also urged the crowd of students, staff and faculty and others to “take a moment to acknowledge those walking beside you today, who are laying the foundation for tomorrow,” he said. “Remember what it takes to be the first, both the pride and the pain, so none of the steps … will be taken in vain.”

At Furman, Vaughn was a member of the Baptist Student Union, ROTC, the Collegiate Educational Service Corps, the Southern Student Organizing Committee and the cheerleading squad. President of the Greenville and Southeast NAACP Youth Chapters, he led civil rights demonstrations in downtown Greenville. After graduating cum laude, he began a career as a teacher in the Greenville schools.

Plans are underway to honor others who helped make Furman what it is today, including Sarah Reese ’71 H’14 and Lillian Brock Flemming ’71 M’75 H’14.

“I hope that our students of color look at this statue of Joseph Vaughn, and the portraits that will soon be hanging of Lillian and Sarah, and see themselves, and realize that they, too, can live lives of distinction,” Davis said.

‘A shining light on the hill’

The day’s guest of honor, Furman Trustee Emeritus Merl Code, also knew what it takes to be first, Davis noted in her introduction. As the first African American chair of the Greenville County United Way and the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce and as Greenville’s first African American municipal court judge, the businessman, civil rights advocate, community activist and retired football player has had “a lifetime of being first,” she said.

Code, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, praised Furman, calling The Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative one of the premier programs in the country for diversity.

“I thank this university for sharing what you do with us,” he said. “This is the shining light on the hill, which has now decided to focus its light around itself and draw in others to its warmth and light.”

‘It’s time, Furman’

Edith Olivera-Bautista ’23, president of the Student Diversity Council, speaks during the Joseph Vaughn Day ceremony on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

Edith Olivera-Bautista ’23, president of the Student Diversity Council, said she was proud to walk the same path Vaughn did.

“Whether he realized it or not, his presence on this campus has and always will encourage others like me to strive for what they believe in,” she said.

Vaughn “did not back down from the adversities caused by systemic racism,” Olivera-Bautista said, “but instead used courage, resilience and love to withstand it all.”

But 58 years later, her generation continues to face the same adversities, she said, closing the day’s events with a call to action.

“It’s time, Furman,” she said. “What are we doing as an institution to welcome students of all backgrounds?”

Joseph Vaughn’s purposeful walk is a challenge to advocate for others, the student said.

“By being here today, you are acknowledging the importance of equality, justice and true inclusion,” she said. “My hope today is that we start to be a part of Furman’s greatness and welcome all, as Joe would have done.”

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