Inspired by Abraham, a former slave of James C. Furman (the university’s first president), the “Seeking Abraham” project investigates Furman University’s historical connections with slavery. The University Provost, George Shields, appointed the Task Force of professional historians, archivists, faculty, staff, alumni, and students to conduct research on Furman’s past and make recommendations that help imagine a more just acknowledgment of that past. The hope is that this project will educate students, and the world more broadly, that the work of historical remembrance, especially regarding race relations, is an opportunity for understanding and community advancement. As Furman grows to become an even more public-serving community partner, we move away from ignorance or indifference, to put truth, understanding, and repair as our preeminent values.
The media below provide several ways into understanding this project better.
Felicia Furman, Mark Rumph, and Bobby Donaldson discuss their perceptions of the Seeking Abraham project.
Baptists and the Bible, Slavery and the Lost Cause: Inseparable Hermeneutics of Racism
At the Daniel Chapel, Dr. Leonard reads from Richard Furman and condemns Baptists’ Biblical exegesis, whenever and wherever it prevents the beloved community.
Furman University's campus used to be located on the Reedy River, right in the heart of downtown Greenville, with "Old Main" and its belltower being built in 1852. In our initial work, we've found that slaves were likely to have mixed the mortar for the downtown buildings, literally making the binding of the university possible.
This is an 1890 photograph of James C. Furman's Cherrydale house, that functioned as a 1200-acre plantation with around 30 slaves until 1865. Abraham is standing between the shrubs under the home's portico. We have only this one photograph so far as a representation of the lives of the 30 or so enslaved, while we know considerably more about the Furman family members beside the carriage and seated under the tree.
Frequently Asked Questions
For most students, who feel “old” at 18-21, 150 years seems like an eternity away. And indeed, we are living almost six generations after slavery’s official end.
First is a Furman-specific answer: we did this because our university has never learned from its early history. For many alumni, the university’s past in slavery was “that which shall not be named,” given we lacked a vocabulary to discuss it or a consequential examination of it. An easy answer was that “they were living in their times,” which inevitably is a kind of excuse for the kind of extreme advocacy undertaken by our founders in the Baptist churches and the university.
Second, in terms of our own times, knowledge of history and attendant race relations have deteriorated in the United States in the twenty-first century. The murder of the Charleston nine and shootings of unarmed black men have awoken the nation to contemporary injustices. Our new media landscape allows immediate circulation of images that were previously carefully distributed by major media outlets. We are a more reactive culture, for both good and ill. We hope to illustrate how careful historical work and slow deliberative process can repair historical harms, while also knowing that “waiting until calmer times” is no solution at all.
Third, the history didn’t just end with the Emancipation Proclamation or Appomattox. James C. Furman, the first university president, fundraised for the college on a “Southern civil rights” platform–closing the school to encourage students to fight for the Confederacy and then positing the university as the only protection from losing white dominance. It took almost 100 years just to correct even that one mistaken belief, when it desegregated following the Civil Rights Act, in 1965. Like every other American university, we continue to have racially motivated incidences and threats.
To our knowledge, Furman University is one of the first liberal arts colleges to designate a group to study its history regarding slavery. Large universities have completed similar tasks before us (starting with Brown in 2006), and given rise to a movement to investigate universities as a primary center of slavery’s support and expansion. Other colleges began to undertake these efforts, usually in regard to a specific agenda item, such as the selling of slaves at Georgetown or the name of buildings at Yale. Brown serves as the most complete model, and since then, many schools are following its lead. Similar efforts in the U.S. South have often been suppressed by trustees, administration, or athletic donors, even while Ole Miss and the University of South Carolina have been recent models. Furman has energized similar efforts at southern and liberal arts colleges, and will host faculty from prestigious liberal arts colleges this summer to discuss the slavery research and reckonings in liberal arts contexts. We were one of the earliest participants in the Universities Studying Slavery consortium as well. Participation and conversation with other scholarly communities is an important part of scholarship itself and of doing this well.
These questions are often motivated by a sense that one political party or social group must be a scapegoat or do all the atoning. None of the terms in this question have occurred to us as appropriate descriptors of what the Task Force, composed of professional historians and diverse alumni, students, and staff, is charged with doing. Task Force members have no interest in speaking more delicately or civilly in order to hide the truth; in fact, uncovering the past and speaking about it often incurs risk and courage.
The second component of this question is the slippery slope problem of “where does this eventually lead us?” One of the frequent refrains in South Carolina during desegregation was “give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a yard.” This assumes that the work of equality is the work of one group or one partisan ideology, and a small victory will lead to greater victories in the future as if the goal must always be the erasure of somebody’s past. But, of course, much of this effort is to conserve a shared past for everybody, but to recover a past that was already erased, and to be able to celebrate and discuss, in full, the complicated past and the contributions of everybody’s ancestors.
Guilt is often an unhelpful political emotion, as opposed to opening a door for serious and open dialogue. Truth in knowing the past, understanding and listening to those who have been harmed, and restorative action are the preeminent values of the Task Force. In other words, “feeling bad” about the past is not in our scope of duties, even as we understand this may be a side effect of examining discomforting histories.
The Task Force can only begin to consider recommendations once we know the history more completely, a history currently being written by a professional historian and student researchers serving the Task Force. A speaker series of experts in this process and area of study will come to campus. Further, we aim to make the process inclusive, with opinions from various and diverse stakeholders, including focus groups and surveys. We are especially attentive to the voices of those whose everyday life continues to be affected by the legacies of slavery but hope the entire Furman community goes through the redemptive work of healing wounds and celebrating what we can achieve together.