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Joseph Vaughn Day: Reflecting on ‘uncommon courage’

Last updated January 28, 2022

By Tina Underwood

When Joseph Vaughn ’68 enrolled at Furman in 1965, he not only broke the color barrier, he ushered in other men and women like him who would go on to achieve great things. As the first Black undergraduate student to enroll at Furman University, Vaughn impacted generations.

The annual celebration of Joseph Vaughn Day is one of the many initiatives that emerged from Furman’s Seeking Abraham Project and the Task Force on Slavery and Justice, which together examine and contextualize the university’s historic ties to slavery and racial injustice.

This year, on Friday, Jan. 28, family members of Vaughn, students, faculty, staff, trustees and invited guests gathered for the third annual celebration at Daniel Memorial Chapel and the Joseph A. Vaughn Plaza to remember Vaughn and commemorate the beginning of belonging and inclusion at Furman.

Black woman in purple jacket, Lillian Brock Flemming

Lillian Brock Flemming ’71 M’75 H’14 opens the Joseph Vaughn Day ceremony at Daniel Chapel. Emma Tate (right) is first cousin of Joseph Vaughn.

Vaughn, who famously said, “Make sure you are a part of Furman’s greatness,” passed away in 1991 at age 45. He likely never imagined his legacy would inspire a life-size bronze statue that graces a plaza constructed in his honor, and a day set aside to reflect on his contributions.

At Friday’s ceremony, which opened at Daniel Chapel, Lillian Brock Flemming ’71 M’75 H’14 paid tribute to her close friend.

“He was a man that was full of life,” said Flemming. He knew his history and he was proud to be an African American. But he was more proud to be an American and to be a Greenville South Carolina American – to be a part of this program.

“He wanted his community to know how much he loved them and that [being the first Black man to enroll] was not a sacrifice. This was an honor. And he was going to do all he could do to make sure there would be other young people from his family and from everybody’s family – that they could come to Furman without fear and trepidation,” she added.

Then, guests embarked on a short “Walk of Honor” to Joseph Vaughn Plaza, where Furman President Elizabeth Davis welcomed attendees.

She told those assembled that Vaughn’s story is “worth repeating. It’s worth remembering. It’s worth celebrating.”

“I can imagine Joe today, inspiring and moving crowds with his passion, his intellect and his caring. And with his courage,” Davis said. “Imagine the courage it required, the internal fortitude, for Joe Vaughn to make that walk across campus for the first time. To be the first Black man at an all-white Southern university, in the 1960s. It required an uncommon courage.”

Davis echoed the theme of courage to introduce alumna Pearlie Harris M’83, a longtime educator who shaped untold lives. She taught in segregated schools in Beaufort and Greenville, South Carolina, before being assigned in 1968 to Crestone Elementary where she served as the only Black teacher. Read more about Pearlie Harris M’83 H22.

“Pearlie Harris, who embodies the highest ideals of an inclusive, educated society, has cultivated a love of learning in thousands of students, and has brought great honor to Furman,” Davis said.

And with that, Davis conferred upon Harris Furman’s highest honor, the Doctor of Humanities.

Black woman in center flanked by two white men

Vice President and Provost Ken Peterson (left) and chair of the Board of Trustees Ed Good ’67 (right) drape the hood on Pearlie Harris’s shoulders.

In her newly donned regalia hood, Harris came to the podium and thanked Davis, the Furman Board of Trustees, the family of Joseph Vaughn, and his friends and classmates. “I am moved. I am blessed and I am appreciative,” she said.

Already a teacher when Vaughn enrolled at Furman, Harris said she remembered him well. “Furman did a great job (bringing him to campus) and has done a great job with diversity and inclusion and equity among all people. They have students here are from everywhere and almost every country – that says something very, very good about Furman University.

“They have shown over the years that they are part of this community. They have given service to the community and almost every church and every community of Black people that you can think of. Thank you so much, Furman University, and for your students,” she added.

Following remarks by Harris, Asha Marie Larson-Baldwin ’22, closed the ceremony. She is the university’s second Black student body president and first in over 10 years.

“I was first introduced to Joe Vaughn through a local oratorical competition held in his memory,” Larson-Baldwin said. “In the speech I wrote as a 17-year-old, the charge that I want to leave you all with is similar. Today, I challenge you to confront your privileges. Ask yourself how you can make a difference within yourself, your family and friends, your community and the world. Stand for something. Speak up for something. Remember those who have come before you, thank them, and do your part.”

For more on Vaughn, visit “‘This is Him:’ The Life of Joseph Allen Vaughn.”

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