Furman University’s newest initiative — to acknowledge the role of slavery and racism in its history — shines a tarnished light on some of Felicia Furman’s ancestors.
But it’s a light Felicia Furman has been shining for years.
“Slavery has been in my family since before the Revolutionary War,” Felicia Furman said. “It’s very much a white story.”
Furman University announced Monday it will increase its Joseph A. Vaughn Scholarship for African American students from $164,000 in endowment funds to $1 million in total annual awards. The university added $3 million in endowment funds to ensure its continuation. Joseph A. Vaughn was the first black student to attend the university in 1965.
The decision comes after the school’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice released a report this summer on the university’s use of slaves through its early leadership. The report gave 19 recommendations intended to “reckon with the past, repair the harm, and create increasing justice in each generation.”
The report highlights a moral defense of slavery written by Richard Furman, the university’s namesake, in 1823, along with the pro-slavery ideology of his son, James C. Furman, who was also the school’s first president.
Elizabeth Davis, president of Furman University, said expanding the Joseph Vaughn Scholarship was a recommendation the administration could immediately act on without board approval, although the board of trustees endorsed the decision.
The need-based scholarship has been around since 1999 and is directed at African American students from near one of the four communities Furman’s campus has been located historically — Edgefield, the High Hills of Santee, Winnsboro, and Greenville. Only 16 students have received the scholarship so far, and the increased amount will be available to serve more students starting in fall of 2019.
Alec Taylor, chairman of Furman’s board, said the board has formed a special committee to look at all of the recommendations from the report that would require board approval, such as monuments and name changes.
“The process will be deliberate, it will be thoughtful, and it will be transparent,” Taylor said.
The committee is set to report to the board its conclusions on the recommendations in May.
For Felicia Furman, a direct descendant of Richard and James C. Furman, this atonement has been a long time coming.
“We don’t know how many people were enslaved here, but I think they will eventually find that in historic record,” Felicia Furman said. “They are a group of human beings who made this university possible.”
Felicia Furman is a member of Coming to the Table, a Virginia-based nonprofit that takes its name from a segment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
The organization’s initial goal was to bring descendants of slave owners together with descendants of those slaves. Now, its focus is primarily on racial healing through community discussions.
Felicia Furman attended the scholarship announcement at Furman on Monday, as did Mark Rumph, who is a descendant of slaves who worked under Felicia Furman’s maternal ancestors.
Felicia Furman made a documentary that aired on PBS more than a decade ago, called “Shared History,” about her maternal ancestors and their slaves.
“I feel shame about my ancestors’ connection to slavery,” Furman said. “But through an organization called ‘Coming to the Table,’ I have learned to make that shame work towards equality for all.”
Felicia Furman said she’s received some pushback, but she’s glad Furman has decided to acknowledge its past.
“It’s true that the truth shall set you free, and without the kind of research that Furman scholars have done — revealing the connection to slavery — we would continue in this darkness of simply always having slavery in the background,” Felicia Furman said. “Now it’s in the forefront. We know it happened. We’re looking for people who it affected, and they’re taking actual steps to address the harm that was done.”