A Message from Dean Hicks in Celebration of MLK Day

January 17, 2022

Dear Oxford Students, Faculty, and Staff,Earlier today, you received an email and video from Emory President Greg Fenves asking us to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this day that celebrates not only the man, but the spirit he embodied and the work he called us to do.  I hope you will consider participating in some of the many King Week events, including Oxford’s own celebration featuring The Rev. Kim Jackson.  I will join her, along with Oxford’s chaplain Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace and Oxford’s MLK scholar, Hannah Bodus, at a Zoom event tomorrow evening at 7:30 p.m.  No registration is needed.

I’m writing to share with you what we at Oxford College are doing to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community—and to invite all of us to partner in further work.  Oxford is an extraordinary crossroads that brings people together from around the country and the world, with different experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds.  Oxford’s circle of inclusion continues to widen, and we must keep up our momentum if we are to realize what Dr. King envisioned as a beloved community.  

In the past five years, we have increased the demographic diversity of our student body, which now is approximately 50% domestic U.S. students of color, with a strong international presence as well.  The share of students from historically underrepresented groups continues to rise, approaching 20% of the student body as we redouble our recruiting efforts.  About one in ten students is a first-generation college student.  Last year, Oxford was recognized with a national award for our staff’s support of students and the quality of diverse student interactions in campus and residential life.

Our faculty and staff have become more diverse as well, through intentional efforts to broaden our hiring processes and applicant pools.  We know there is still work to do, especially in terms of increasing the number of Black faculty and others from underrepresented backgrounds in academia.  We have expanded the curricular areas that we regularly teach, with new faculty positions in African American Studies; Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; Latin American and Caribbean Studies; and Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies.  At present we have active faculty searches in African American arts and culture and African Studies that will further broaden our curriculum.

Student organizations and activism have long been a vital part of Oxford’s work toward equity and inclusion. Students have organized some 80 clubs and organizations, including those that promote diverse cultural expression and religious or spiritual beliefs and those that work for social justice.  Students have also contributed to discussions about creating a more inclusive curriculum, and their voices continue to be important in that work.  Many staff in Campus Life, including in Student Involvement and Leadership and International Student Programs, collaborate with student leaders in this work, and we are happy to announce that a new director of student diversity, equity, and inclusion will be joining the Campus Life team in the next few weeks. Oxford’s leadership takes seriously the calls to action that come to us from students, including concerns about course availability, housing, and more, and we will work in the new year to create opportunities for students to share their concerns.

As we honor Dr. King’s leadership and accomplishments, we must continue to reflect upon our history and acknowledge the painful parts of our past. The Oxford campus (like the Atlanta campus) is on land originally inhabited and stewarded by the Muskogee peoples.  As you know, Emory began here on the Oxford campus in 1836 with dreams to train clergy of the Methodist church to serve the world in ministry.  Yet as lofty as that vision was, it was tainted by what Lincoln called America’s original sin of slavery and racism.  The early trustees, presidents, and most faculty members owned enslaved persons.  All were deeply entangled in that institution of slavery. Emory University’s Board of Trustees issued an official statement of regret in 2011 for its actions and role in the institution of slavery, and Emory and Oxford have continued to recognize the shameful elements of our history, from the antebellum period extending into much of the twentieth century.  

Along with my Emory colleague The Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison II,I am co-chairing the Twin Memorials Working Group, which will honor the lives of enslaved individuals who helped build the Oxford campus.  I hope that you will all join in the upcoming community meetings to create the concepts for memorials to be constructed on the Oxford and Atlanta campuses that will have dynamic educational elements to them.  We updated the community last month, and in the coming days we will be inviting students, staff, faculty, and local descendants of enslaved persons to join in listening sessions.

On the Oxford campus, Phi Gamma Hall and Few Hall are the remaining academic buildings from the antebellum period, and they were likely constructed with the labor of enslaved people.  In 2018 we restored Phi Gamma Hall (built in 1851), and at the rededication we acknowledged the likely central part that enslaved laborers played.  Phi Gamma remains a space for meetings, debates, and discussions in our educational work to serve society.  Last year, with the approval of Emory’s Board of Trustees, we renamed Language Hall (built in 1874) to become Johnson Hall in honor of distinguished alum Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr., making this the most prominent naming of a space to honor an African American at Emory.  

Even as we plan for a new memorial and rededicate prominent spaces on campus, I recognize and understand that an additional site can make students or other community members uncomfortable—the soldiers’ cemetery in the woods west of the quad.  This campus was a hospital for the Confederacy in the battle of Atlanta near the end of the Civil War, and the Confederate men whose families could not travel to claim the bodies of the dead were buried here. The cemetery is protected by state and federal law.  We are working to create signage and educational opportunities so it can be understood within its historical context and in our own time, and we look forward to student participation in this process. 

These are some of the steps that Oxford College members are taking toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, with the ultimate goal of belonging for all community members. This is work that all of us can join in together.  We can and must do better to open our minds and hearts to the challenging parts of our history and to listen to and learn from the diverse, brilliant people who together comprise the Oxford College community. Thanks to every one of you for your commitment and your willingness to teach, learn, and serve here. 

Douglas A. Hicks
William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religion
Oxford College of Emory University