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Joseph Vaughn statue, a permanent monument to a legacy of change, unveiled

Last updated April 16, 2021

By Jerry Salley ’90

View the ceremony livestream and video reflections.

Joseph Allen Vaughn ’68 wanted to be just another student. But that was never going to happen.

A popular figure on campus, the Greenville native stood out as a member of the Baptist Student Union, ROTC, the Collegiate Educational Service Corps, the Southern Student Organizing Committee and the cheerleading squad. He excelled academically and graduated cum laude with degrees in French and English.

He was also, when he enrolled in January 1965, Furman’s first Black student. And now his statue is the first likeness of a person of color represented prominently on campus, the focal point of the new Joseph Vaughn Plaza in front of the James B. Duke Library. The statue depicts Vaughn as he appeared in a photo at that time, as his classmates often saw him: walking down the library steps, books tucked under his arm.

“We very purposefully placed it here, in the center of campus, the most prominent and heavily trafficked part of Furman,” said Furman President Elizabeth Davis at the statue’s unveiling on April 16. “It’s facing outward, welcoming everyone, as Joe would have done.”

More than 100 guests attended the Friday afternoon unveiling, taking their seats to the sounds of the Greenville Baha’i Community Drummers, honoring the faith Vaughn observed up to his death in 1991. The statue’s creator, sculptor Steven Whyte, watched live from his studio in Carmel, California. Hundreds of students, faculty and staff joined around the mall.

After Davis welcomed the guests – including members of Vaughn’s family, whom she thanked for “sharing your loved one with Furman” – other speakers stepped to the podium to remember the student and honor his legacy.

“There could not have been a more perfect pioneer than Joe Vaughn,” said Ed Good ’67, chair of Furman’s Board of Trustees, who was in his second year on campus when Vaughn arrived. “But this statue does more than celebrate Joe Vaughn. It represents a turning point in civil rights and racial justice – for Furman, for Greenville and the Upstate, and for South Carolina.”

Many in the state were not ready for integration, said Good, who remembered that Vaughn found a noose on his residence hall room door.

“This statue is a rebuke of old notions and a promise that we will not return,” Good said. “It is a symbol that Furman, now and forever, values diversity and inclusion.”

After graduating, Vaughn began a long career teaching English in the Greenville County school system in 1969. After his retirement in 1982, colleagues remembered his tireless efforts to help his students and advocate for his fellow teachers, as president of the Greenville County Association of Teachers and the South Carolina Education Association.

Meanwhile, the work that began with Furman’s integration in 1965 continued into the 21st century, with the creation of the university’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice. Among the task force’s recommendations were the construction of Joseph Vaughn Plaza and the establishment of Joseph Vaugh Day on Jan. 21.

Enrolling at Furman was “the fulfillment of his dream” to get the best education possible, Vaughn told The Paladin student newspaper in 1965. The dream resonates today for a diverse array of students.  “When I think of Joseph Vaughn, I see a man who fought to defend the lives of others – a man who dedicated his life to service,” said Qwameek Bethea ’21, president of Furman’s NAACP chapter. Bethea lauded Vaughn’s service as president of the Greenville and Southeastern NAACP chapters, as well as his leadership of peaceful protests against racial injustice in Greenville.

“The Furman University that stood in the 1960s is not the Furman University that stands here today,” Bethea said. “But we must not let his legacy of change go unanswered.”

Marcus Tate (video reflection), a cousin of Joseph Vaughn who attended Furman, agreed that the plaza and statue are a reminder of where Furman has been – and how far it has come.

“During my time here at Furman we have had countless events to raise awareness, but only for an hour, maybe a day, then shuffled this piece of history back into the archives,” said Tate. “Now, there is a statue and plaza representing Furman’s consistent move forward in emphasizing that the only color that matters here on this campus is purple. Today is a testament that while no longer here, Joseph’s work of equality and inspiring others to reach their full potential continues now and for the years to come.”

Furman Chief Diversity Officer Michael Jennings (video reflection) had a special message of gratitude.

“Most of all, I would like to thank Greenville’s Black community,” he said. “This is the community that nurtured Joseph Vaughn, that educated Joseph Vaughn and that inspired Joseph Vaughn to be who he was. In doing this, Greenville’s Black community has given Furman a gift whose legacy will endure across time.”

On Friday afternoon, as the crowd counted down, Davis and Tate removed the purple drape from the statue, which will remain, as Davis noted, as “a beacon to everyone, but especially to people of color, people who might feel marginalized, people who, like Joe, might at times feel like a majority of one.”

“May they see Joe Vaughn’s statue and know that they are welcome at Furman,” she said. “May they also realize the courage required of Joe to be the first, and be reminded that courage lies within each and every one of us. Let us all feel inspired to do great and courageous things, as Joseph Vaughn did.”

After the speeches were over and the Baha’i drums echoed, smiling students began lining up to take selfies with the new statue – welcoming Joseph Allen Vaughn to Furman once again.

Joseph Vaughn ’68 as a student at Furman.

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