Joseph Vaughn Plaza

Seeking Abraham at Furman University

Joseph Vaughn Plaza

Greenville, South Carolina 29617, United States

Created By: Brandon Inabinet


One member of our faculty's five-year-old daughter was taking a fun day with campus daycare, going to play around all the sculptures on campus. Although the faculty member had never talked about race with her daughter, the daughter said, "Mom, when I grow up, I want to be white so I can have a sculpture made of me." In 2018, when this happened, Furman had no African-American scultures, portraits, or other honorific representations.

Now she has a counterexample, a place of centrality and significance. Joseph Vaughn Plaza is now named for the first Black undergraduate student at Furman. He was also the sole Black student for a year-and-a-half, until three Black women were admitted. You can learn more about him in this video.

The 50th anniversary of desegregation was only a few years ago in 2015. The traditional narrative is that Furman leaders like Francis Bonner, Dean at the time, fought hard for desegregation, even though the SC Baptist Board was strongly opposed, and that the incoming President, Gordon Blackwell, would only come to Furman from Florida State if Furman desegregated. These facts are true! But the Committee to Commemorate Desegregation (2015) also pointed out a few discomforting facts for the university:

-More in the realm of technicalities, but the first students to desegregate were actually graduate students in education. Further, if we're going to celebrate Joseph Vaughn, we also need to celebrate women of color who didn't came to campus for the first time until 1967.

-Furman wasn't particularly early among colleges to desegregate. In fact "with all deliberate speed" would likely mean the courts would force the university to desegregate around the time, had it not done so in 1965. So should Furman "celebrate" its leaders' moves toward desegregration, rather than Vaughn's courage?

-Trustees minutes revealed explicitly racist claims, including that Blacks were an inferior race and would never excel at a school of the academic caliber of Furman.

-Joseph Vaughn had a significant burden placed on him--and while he excelled at Furman and beyond, his public persona would forever need to align with Furman's need for a hero. Vaughn was courageous enough to continue to push Furman toward "social justice." He was active in protests against white supremacy, like the protests after the Orangeburg Massacre. He left the Baptist faith to become a Baha'i. Depicting Vaughn as simply a "good student" limits his potential to radically change us.

Reflection Questions:

-See the iconic photograph of Vaughn's first day. Notice he is walking toward the library instead of away--any discussion about what that shift might mean?

-Notice the quotations. How do you interpret them? Do they embody Vaughn's radicalism?

-Notice the bricks, and how the classical lines and columns might represent Western views, and then how the darker bricks are positioned around Vaughn and extend out, suggesting his influence. What or who might these blocks symbolize to you?

This point of interest is part of the tour: Seeking Abraham at Furman University


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