Presentation by a member of the Seeking Abraham project

Task Force Voices

 

Learning from Archival Records

This article was written by Jeffery Makala and originally published on September 29, 2017.

As an archivist, I frequently receive questions from students, alumni/ae, and other researchers about many different aspects of Furman’s history. In most cases, I can point to a number of fairly authoritative and well-researched studies: for both citations to primary-source materials (often held here in the University Archives) and to comprehensive, nuanced interpretations by historians about the topics in question. But, when confronted with questions about some aspects of Furman’s origins: who built its early buildings; who helped finance the early university, and what was the source of that capital; how were questions of equal access to democratic processes like voting and civil rights issues taught and practiced by Furman people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; I often cannot point to well-researched sources, or to collections of original records in my care.

So, one of my hopes for this project is that we are able to build a better collection of documentary evidence and create a better and more authoritative narrative about the history of this university. We will create new digital collections of materials, and hopefully we as a faculty will then use them to teach our students about this history. And going forward, I hope that this process allows us, as a community made up of many constituent parts, to have a deeper understanding of our past, its legacy today, and what this new knowledge means to our community, as a result. I already know that Furman is a university where we regularly confront and discuss difficult questions; this work should be a part of many of those discussions as well, and will only serve to strengthen us as a community.

Creating a New Legacy

This article was written by Marian Baker and originally published on September 25, 2017.

The past is an awkward thing. Naturally, we want to be able to look at our forebears and say that they were all-around good people who worked tirelessly for the common good, espoused egalitarian ideals, and defined new legacies. However, the past is never so cut-and-dry. Human history is just that – human – and no human is perfect. Oftentimes, the same people we place on pedestals for creating our most beloved institutions also worked to perpetuate institutions that we no longer tolerate: slavery, for instance.

But what are you to do in those cases? Yes, our founders created the university we know and love today. But they also did so on the backs of those held in bondage.

For me, the work of this Task Force is about reconciling the past of our institution with its future. The United States, and indeed every nation that once granted slavery legal status, still suffers from the wounds that slavery inflicted upon us as a society. That’s right: we have not yet healed. There is still a racial divide that impacts us all, no matter our color. And the past will continue to influence us until we take a firm hold of that past and define a new legacy. Let us recognize its transgressions, reconcile what we can reconcile, and use those lessons to inform our future.

The Ghosts of the Past

This article was written by Brandon Inabinet and originally published on July 23, 2017.

One of the hats I wear at Furman is the advisor to a club named Quaternion. Its the oldest and most prestigious male honor society at Furman, started in 1903 (around the same time this picture was taken). The group was tasked with taking this dilapidated building and ensuring it was kept up. At Furman we call it “Old College,” and it’s the oldest surviving building–the first school room used in Greenville, built in 1850. James C. Furman taught in one half along with one other professor. It was the entire faculty of the university at the time. A wood stove in the middle gave heat to both classrooms (where the chimney still stands today).

Over 100 years later, I worked through the summer, sanding and painting the floors and buying some things to spruce it up. As I did, I wondered who built it, what labor went into it, and why I kept hearing strange noises (there are fun rumors about both this building and the Cherrydale house being haunted).

A decade ago, I had started down the path of knowing more about Furman’s past. I wrote and published an essay on the notorious Richard Furman pro-slavery letter, but it bothered me that my field (of rhetorical studies) sets its eyes only on those historical figures whose voices we have recorded. What if those walls could really talk? What essay would I write then?

So I’m on the Task Force to hopefully recover lost voices, assist in the “unfinished task” to see how they speak to us today, especially when the words are lost, about how we might be a more inclusive and equal community that accounts for its past.

The Built Landscape

This article was written by Brandon Inabinet and originally published on November 20, 2017.

The Fall semester is slowly coming to a close, and with it, the initial historical research to guide the Task Force. A series of meetings through the Spring semester will help us reflect and determine what courses of action are appropriate for the university to take. Many Furman stakeholders have wondered aloud to Task Force members if the eventual goal is scrubbing “Furman” off of the nameplate. No. However, what is more worth considering is how we contextualize and deploy that name and the many others on our highly-ranked campus.

One of our faculty members relayed a story to me worth sharing here. Her young daughter was enjoying the beautiful scenery around campus–the lake, the trees, and the various sculptures around our park-like campus. She saw the athletic fields and alumni house, the academic buildings, the areas around the dorms, and basically, all of our campus. Her three-year-old daughter stopped and hugged almost all the statues. Before they got into the car, her daughter said, “I want to be white.” The mom was surprised, as this was the first time her African-American daughter had ever really noticed race, and asked why. The daughter replied, “I really like those white people statues.” Stunned, the mother’s heart sank because she wished her daughter saw statues that reflected her beauty as well.

And of course, she’s right. While it’s fairly obvious that statues of our founders and donors might be white, the lack of variety elsewhere is striking. Almost every athletic team is represented with bronze players on our campus; none of them are non-white, despite our diverse teams. On our campus, a welcome place of retreat for all of Greenville, we have sculptures of children playing and chasing butterflies, a water nymph, a girl tying her shoe on her dad’s lap, a soldier–all represent happiness and success . . . in European ancestry.