Furman University to rename James C. Furman Hall, erect statue of first black student

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

Furman University announced it will rename James C. Furman Hall and erect a statue of Joseph Vaughn, the first black student to attend the school, as part of a series of recommendations from its board.

The university’s board deliberated for months before announcing the actions it will take in an attempt to acknowledge the role slavery and racism had in the school’s history.

The board’s recommendations, which were announced on May 22, include:

  • Renaming James C. Furman Hall to Furman Hall.
  • Erecting a statue of Joseph Vaughn.
  • Naming the lakeside housing area the “Clark Murphy Housing Complex” in honor of the black groundskeeper who worked for decades at the Greenville Woman’s College before it merged with Furman University.
  • Naming the walkway to the Bell Tower the “Abraham Sims Plaza” — Sims was a slave who worked on campus and is the namesake of the report “Seeking Abraham.”
  • Honoring Lillian Brock-Fleming and Sarah Reese — Furman’s first black female students — with markers on campus and exploring naming programs after them.
  • Installing signs and markers across the campus to “honestly acknowledge the university’s history” and tell a more inclusive story.

In the fall, the university announced it would also expand its Joseph Vaughn Scholarship to $1 million per year — the need-based scholarship has been around since 1999 and is focused on black students from around the four communities where Furman’s campus has been located historically: Edgefield, the High Hills of Santee, Winnsboro, and Greenville.

The recommendations come almost a year after the release of the “Seeking Abraham” report by the school’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice last summer. The report highlighted the enslaved people who helped build the school, and it shined a light on James C. Furman — the first president of the school and a staunch supporter of slavery.

A stained glass window portrays James C. Furman in Furman University’s Administration Building. Photo by Will Crooks.

While many higher education institutions have been the subject of scrutiny in recent years for memorializing controversial figures on campus — the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill’s Confederate soldier statue called Silent Sam; Yale University’s Calhoun College, named after John C. Calhoun — Furman has attempted to come out in front of the outrage.

The school formed its Task Force on Slavery and Justice not long after a student wrote an op-ed calling on the university to acknowledge its history. The task force gave the school 19 recommendations, most of which were in the school’s official actions.

Furman’s board also formed a special committee to look into the feasibility of the changes before announcing the recommendations.

“The task force and the special committee approached this endeavor with a very clear understanding and appreciation of how important this matter is to Furman,” board member and committee chairman Baxter Wynn said. “And so they took time, probably more time than some folks wanted us to take, but we took time and great care, and [we] were dedicated and thoughtful and deliberate.”

Elizabeth Davis, president of Furman, said the process with which the board embraced the campus community’s concerns could be a model for other schools.

“We talked to experts from other universities that had already been through these kinds of processes to figure out what were best practices and what were worst practices,” Davis said. “Typically, there’s the groundswell from students, faculty, and staff to address these issues — that part is fairly similar. The way the board has engaged has been the unique part of this process.”

Davis said the university doesn’t have a timeline for the projects but will start on them immediately.

Shekinah Lightner, a rising senior and member of the task force, said she was pleased with the board’s recommendations.

“I am just ready to see things happening around campus. I think that will validate the work that we’ve done,” Lightner said. “I think it sets the stage for even greater change for Furman.”

Brandon Inabinet, associate professor of communication studies and co-chair of the task force, released a statement in support of the announcement.

“Our goal all along was to educate with a sense of belonging and justice for all Furman students, in line with the Furman Advantage, and the trustees’ tireless work to study each recommendation demonstrates the same transformational and educational experience we underwent in forming the recommendations,” Inabinet said in the statement. “Reconciliation and healing will be possible; we have some important work to do now to get there.”

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