GREENVILLE, S.C. (courtesy furman.edu) — Hundreds of people gathered around the steps of James B. Duke Library late January as the Furman University Gospel Ensemble filled the crisp winter air with harmonies to begin Joseph Vaughn Day, honoring the first African American undergraduate student who strode the same steps 55 years earlier.
Vaughn ’68 died in 1991, but his legacy lives on through a scholarship and, now and forever, each Jan. 29, a day of remembrance, celebration and hope.
After a brief, emotion-packed speech by Deborah Allen, director of the Center for Inclusive Communities who organized the event, more than 30 members of Vaughn’s family marched toward Daniel Chapel, the crowd streaming behind them, filling the sidewalk and stretching the distance of Milford Mall.
Comments from students who gathered
Adare Smith ’20 didn’t have to say a word when asked what the Joseph Vaughn Day Commemoration ceremony meant to her. Eyes welling with tears spoke clearly.
“It’s a big deal. I’m sorry. I’m getting emotional,” she said, wiping her cheek. “I remember when (Joseph Vaughn Day) was just a little idea. Maybe we could do a CLP about it, or maybe an organization. But it’s campus-wide now, and it means a lot to me as a student. I know that it’s probably going to mean so much to the family, and all of the other people who are impacted by his legacy.”
Furman’s official designation of an annual Joseph Vaughn Day is especially personal to Smith, who like Vaughn is majoring in English, after she spent much of last year organizing a student effort to honor Vaughn on the date he took his first class in 1965. Many of the people walking on and around the same steps where Vaughn was standing in a black-and-white photograph that has become symbolic of that pivotal moment in the university’s history were students, including Nicaella Fogle ’20.
A Greenville native soon to graduate with a neuroscience degree, she said a recognition of Vaughn ripples in positive ways throughout the black community.
“Not to be a little radical, but African Americans, we built this country,” Fogle said while handing out purple “Joseph Vaughn Day” pins. “We were the slaves. We were on the railroads. We went to the wars … so recognizing that piece of our integral part of building this country is very important.”
“It means something that the school that I go to is transparent about its problems,” Jordan Harris ’21, of Atlanta, an urban studies and politics and international affairs double major who is also an offensive lineman on the football team, added. “It shows a commitment to its black students, and it shows a commitment towards its history.”
Spencer Richardson ’20 and Mary Pauline Sheridan-Rabideau ’20 were there to share in that commitment as well. As white students, both think it is important for Joseph Vaughn Day to be celebrated by everyone on campus.
“The Furman community needs to come together and support each other, so that we can then learn about the past, the good, the bad and the ugly,” Richardson, a politics and international affairs and history double major minoring in African American studies, said. “I’ve never been in any situation that would come close to something like (Vaughn’s experience). The closest that I think I can do as a white student is learn and hear from people who went through those experiences.”
“I think it’s vital to be an ally in some way or another, and this is a way that I’m trying to show up to do that,” she said.
From speeches in the chapel
“Today’s event will lay the foundation for ongoing programming and initiatives, celebrating a paramount time in the university’s history that started us on a journey toward becoming a more inclusive, equitable and just community,” Furman University President Elizabeth Davis said. “It is important that we continue this journey, and part of that is telling the full story of the contributions of brave pioneers like Joseph Vaughn, along with Henry Adair, William Bowling, and James Kibler, who integrated the Education program as graduate students in 1965, the same year as Vaughn.”
Alec Taylor ’75, chair of the Board of Trustees, commended the Task Force on Slavery and Justice “for the thoughtful and deliberate process that produced the ‘Seeking Abraham’ report. And I am proud of the Board of Trustees for its careful and deliberate consideration of the report’s recommendations,” which led to creating Joseph Vaughn Day and other actions that will unfold across campus.
Marcus Tate, Joseph Vaughn’s third cousin, spoke for the family.
“The family is extremely proud and grateful with having a day of remembrance for an individual that exhibited such greatness in his short time on earth,” he said.”One can only imagine what he would have accomplished if he was still with us today.”
Vaughn “excelled in his education and understood the importance of investing in others, to fight for others, to bind others together for a greater cause larger than themselves,” Tate said.
Lillian Brock Fleming ’71, one of the first three African American women to attend Furman and a longtime Greenville City Council member, remembered Vaughn, her close friend and neighbor, and read excerpts for a proclamation signed by Greenville’s mayor, Knox White.
In closing remarks, Steve O’Neill ’82, professor of history, spoke specifically to the students in attendance when he said, “it is important that you know (that) events like this, and projects like Seeking Abraham, are just the beginning of a redefinition of Furman’s heritage going forward.
“Heritage is not merely the past, but it is what communities in the present make of their past,” O’Neill said. “Real change at Furman will come … in the classroom, on the ball fields, in your sororities and your fraternities, and in student organizations. … You, collectively as students and individually, can foster change at Furman in small but important ways every day.”