Unearthing the past: Furman reckons with its early leadership

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Senior Chelsea McKelvey (left) is one of the students on Furman University's Task Force on Slavery and Justice, which was started by Provost George Shields (right).

It was Dec. 19, 1860, when a young student at Furman University gathered with a group of friends who called themselves “The Invisibles” to torment a Jewish man before running him out of town.

As he wept, they shaved his head, cut his ear, and told him to leave Greenville.

“He cried like a baby the whole time, and the whole recurrence was quite amusing,” the student later wrote about the incident.

Photocopies of a few of the tattered, yellowing pages of the student’s diary sit encased at Furman University’s Special Collections and Archives.

Scrawled in wispy handwriting, the diary described its owner’s days while a student at the school — how much his uncle’s slave sold for, and how his professor, James C. Furman, let his class out early so they could witness a hanging.

The macabre text sits in Furman’s archives in a collection of documents and photographs that reveal much about the university’s beginnings and the role slaves played in it, as well as some hard truths about the school’s early leadership.

Furman’s introspection is intentional — it started two years ago when a rising senior wrote an op-ed in the student newspaper with the headline “Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation: What is the Furman Legacy?” calling on the school to acknowledge its past use of slaves and the blemished aspects of the founder and first president’s legacy.

An 1890 photo of James C. Furman’s Cherrydale House. Abraham Sims can be seen standing between the bushes at the side of the porch. Photo provided by Furman University.

George Shields, who had just been named provost four months prior, read the op-ed and within a year, the school formed its Task Force on Slavery and Justice.

Reflection is a large part of the purpose of the task force — to magnify segments of the university’s past that were once overlooked.

“My philosophy is we should be as transparent as possible,” Shields said. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

“Kicking and screaming”

Chelsea McKelvey, a senior at Furman who is on the school’s task force, said she’s proud of the university for exposing its history and making an effort to provide some semblance of justice for past wrongs.

“Reflection is what this entire report is based upon,” McKelvey said. “And since we have the collaboration of the faculty and the staff and the students and the administration, I think we’re all getting a chance to reflect on what the university was about then, what it’s about now, and what it will be about in the future.”

Chelsea McKelvey is a senior at Furman University who was on the school’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice.

In contrast to Furman’s initiative, a nearly commonplace pattern has emerged in academia — students and occasionally faculty decry a controversial figure memorialized on campus, the institution’s officials seem to turn a blind eye publicly, and students continue to protest until the school takes action. Sometimes, students take matters into their own hands.

Two recent examples include the student-led toppling of Silent Sam at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in August, and Yale University’s decision last year to drop the name “Calhoun College” in favor of “Hopper College” after years of broken stained-glass windows and clashes with its student body.

John C. Calhoun and Silent Sam are just two figures linked to periods of strife in the nation — Calhoun a staunch supporter of slavery who died a decade before the Civil War, and Silent Sam a bronze representation of a Confederate soldier.

“I’ve always thought we do a terrible job of teaching history in this country,” Shields said. “In middle school, in social studies, they gloss over the fact that we exterminated most of the Native American Indians, and we gloss over slavery and the consequences of that long period after slavery ended before the Civil Rights Movement.”

Those two stains on American history are important to understanding the world today, Shields said.

“If we don’t address them and think hard about them, we could end up making the same kind of mistakes later on,” he said.

According to Shields, the biggest mistake school officials can make when students start looking into an institution’s tarnished past is to dig their heels in.

“They’re protesting, and they’re dragging the administration kicking and screaming into dealing with their past,” Shields said.

“A false opinion”

While Richard Furman, the university’s namesake, is a controversial figure in the school’s history — he wrote a moral defense of slavery for the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1823 — perhaps more cloaked in racist rhetoric was his son, James C. Furman.

A stained glass window portrays James C. Furman, Furman University’s first president, in the Administration Building.

James C. Furman was a student at the college and later a professor before becoming its first president. He and the school’s board, along with the South Carolina Baptist Convention, were a big part of the decision to move Furman from Winnsboro to Greenville in 1851, a year after U.S. census data shows he owned 56 slaves.

Richard Furman’s moral justification for slavery in the early 1800s was a reversal of his original anti-slavery views, and it was the main defense religious leaders pointed to in their arguments against abolition. In his letter on behalf of the convention, he said slavery was justified in the Bible and that it was in the “religious interests of Negroes.”

Letters written by James C. Furman just before South Carolina seceded showed harsher, more jarring views on black lives and slavery.

“A false opinion, that contradicts common sense, contradicts all history, contradicts the Bible, has rooted itself into the Northern mind,” James C. Furman wrote in a letter to Greenville residents on Nov. 22, 1860. “That false opinion is, that every man is born free and equal.”

James C. warned that abolishing slavery would lead to “the marriage of your daughters to black husbands,” “hordes of marauders,” and scenes of “brutal lust.”

Early financial records show the school’s leadership relied on slaves — not only to build many of its facilities and pick cotton to increase its earnings, but also to keep watch over its women’s college.

Hidden figures

The cover of the task force’s report is a grainy photo of Abraham Sims, who was once a slave at James C. Furman’s Cherrydale House.

The cover of the report done by Furman University’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice.

Sims was tucked in the background of the original photo of the Cherrydale House and blown up as the focal point for the task force’s report.

There are few records not only of Sims’ life, but of any of the slaves who were fundamental to the school’s existence.

This semester, the task force’s report has become a presence across the campus — student and faculty forums have been held to discuss its findings, and one of the university’s freshman writing seminar classes has chosen to use it for archival research.

The students have started uncovering more about Sims’ life than even the report unveiled.

Emily Little, a freshman in the writing seminar class, discovered his death certificate and definitive birth year — which was five years off in the task force’s report.

“It makes you want to find out more,” Little said. “I want to find out more about Abraham, but to find out more about him, I have to go through his kids.”

The purpose of the class isn’t to fact check the report, but to examine aspects of the school’s shrouded history and search for any information on its once-hidden figures.

Righting wrongs

In the university’s quest to reflect and atone for its early leadership’s injustices, the task force came up with 19 recommendations to “reckon with the past, repair the harm, and create increasing justice in each generation.”

There are four primary types of recommendations in the report — ones to change the physical landscape, such as a statue of the first black student; financial investments, such as scholarships for minority students; educational practices, such as implementing the report in classrooms; and community awareness, such as events promoting the erased history of the school’s former slaves.

Joseph Vaughn, Furman University’s first black student, walks on campus in 1965. Photo provided by Furman University.

Shields said the university is on board with the recommendations — if all of them aren’t accomplished, he’s certain the spirit of them will be met.

“Now that we have the report, I don’t want this to be a document that just goes on a shelf,” Shields said. “I want us to keep using it.”

Adding more money to minority scholarships in place of a physical plaque would be an example, Shields said, of honoring the spirit of the requests, if not the letter.

But ultimately, it’s up to Furman’s board of trustees to determine if most of the recommendations will be implemented.

It’s not lost on administrators that the report comes from a university with historically low enrollment for black students. Last fall, 8.1 percent of the university’s 703 freshmen students were black. This fall, the rate dropped to 6.3 percent of 711 freshmen students.

“When we desegregated in 1965, we haven’t really made the campus look like it’s a diverse campus. So we have no statues of black people,” Shields said. “So reckoning with this is saying, how do we make sure we’re more inclusive as a community?”

Diversifying the university’s students and faculty is a priority, Shields said — although the college’s African-American enrollment has remained relatively low, its total nonwhite enrollment has jumped in recent years to more than 21 percent.

“We’re making good strides there, trying to have what we call ‘inclusive excellence,’ where we welcome everybody and try to be the best place we can be and give the support that everybody needs to be successful,” Shields said.

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