Just like the atypical circumstances of this annual celebration, the content of this Convocation differed from previous years. Although students in attendance still received the ‘typical’ advice given at the beginning of every academic year – the importance of attending office hours, utilizing your resources, etc. – this year’s festivities emphasized the importance of reconciling with the University’s past and building an inclusive community that upholds Furman’s vision, mission, and values.
In her opening remarks, President Elizabeth Davis celebrated the re-dedication of Furman Hall and renaming of the Clark Murphy Housing Complex. Both changes were recommended in the “Seeking Abraham” report, which was released by the Task Force on Slavery and Justice in July 2018, following a year-long investigation of the role of slavery in Furman’s early history. In the spirit of these changes, Davis advised everyone, “Don’t be afraid to seek and acknowledge truth, even if it’s sometimes painful or disappointing.”
Davis also delivered the following call to action: “Students, your university will prepare you to search for truth, to reflect on what you learn, and to develop your understanding of the world. How that happens is up to you.”
Student Body President, Asha Marie ’22, built upon this sentiment in her convocation address. Speaking about community at Furman, Marie shared her personal struggles at finding community and developing a sense of belonging her first year, sometimes even wondering whether “Furman was truly where I was meant to call home.” Despite her early challenges, Marie emphasized that all the students in attendance not only belong at Furman, but that everyone has a stake in the future of the university. “Know that this community is just as much yours as it is mine, and every other student's. So, shape it. Change it. Make it better than how you found it.” Marie encouraged, “Cultivate a sense of belonging in all of the places you find yourself.”
Next, a video explaining name changes for Furman Hall and Clark Murphy Housing Complex outlined not only the reasons for the changes, but also the significance for the Furman community. The video first featured Felicia Furman, descendant of James C. Furman – former university president, slave owner, and namesake of Furman Hall. Furman shared that, “we all have a role in moving forward the righting of a wrong that was made so clear by the ‘Seeking Abraham’ project.”
Former Chief Diversity Officer Michael Jennings emphasized the importance of acknowledging the painful parts of our history in order to see our growth as an institution. “It’s not a matter of excluding anything or anyone from our history,” Jennings shared. “We want the history to reflect accurately the inclusive nature of what Furman has become.”
Both Courtney Tollison ’99 and Deborah Allen, Center for Inclusive Communities Director, also shared the significance of the Clark Murphy Housing Complex in this tribute. Although the building is renamed for Clark Murphy, an African American man who served as a janitor, handyman, repairman, and gardener at the Greenville Women’s College in the late 1800s, Allen explains that this recognition means more for the Furman community. “While it is symbolic, it’s integral for our students, faculty, staff, and alumni to see themselves reflected in the landscape the University,” Allen elaborated. “To know that this is a place where they feel welcomed and belong.”
It is clear that this year’s Opening Convocation carried a deeper message. Our community has a place for every student, faculty, staff, and alumni. Because of this belonging, we should challenge ourselves – and each other – to improve Furman. An important way to do this is by seeking honest reconciliation with our history, to shape a more welcoming and inclusive community.