Mercer to commission permanent sculpture honoring school history of integration

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Elizabeth Tammi

The statement was written and overwhelmingly supported by the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Mercer University.

Mercer University will commission a sculpture on campus to “permanently commemorate Mercer’s integration,” the school announced in a statement June 17. A committee has been appointed to recommend an artist, work with the artist to design the sculpture and choose its future location on campus.

“A number of these individuals on the sculpture committee were personally involved in the early years of our integration, and all have a deep appreciation for the historical significance of that era and the imperative of continuing to build on this legacy,” said Mercer President Bill Underwood. “I am confident that future generations will be inspired by the product of this collective Mercer effort.”

The announcement comes less than two months after the university sparked backlash from some members of the Mercer community by removing a Black history mural in Mercer Village. A petition asking Underwood to pay the original artist, Joerael Numina, as well as three to five Black American artists to paint a new mural inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement received more than 2,600 signatures. 

Larry Brumley, senior vice president for marketing communications and chief of staff for Mercer, said that there is no connection between the plans for the sculpture and the removal of the mural.

“President Underwood has been thinking about this for several years,” Brumley said.

Brumley said that the inspiration for Underwood’s idea came on a trip to Brown University several years ago, where Underwood’s son was an undergraduate. Brown had recently commissioned a sculpture addressing how the school benefited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and recognizing that enslaved people helped build the university.

Underwood “thought about Mercer’s integration in 1963—one of the first private universities in the Deep South to do so—and how students, faculty, staff and others who were involved in that historic step ensured that the University didn’t just ‘check a box’ on that transition, but fully embraced a commitment to provide opportunity and access to all, regardless of color,” Brumley said. “The decisions that were made in the 1960s in that regard are a major reason why Mercer today is one of the most diverse private universities in America.”

Mercer University was the first previously all-white college or university in the state of Georgia to voluntarily integrate during a period when many universities resisted it, some with violence and riots, according to Mercer’s Remembering the Civil Rights Movement oral history project. In 1963, Mercer President Rufus Harris made the decision to integrate, and a group of administrators implemented it. The first classes of Black students at Mercer faced intolerance from white students, although no violent conflicts occurred.

Brumley said that Underwood “believes it’s fitting to tell that story through permanent sculpture in a prominent location on campus to provide inspiration and a reminder that we still have much work to do in order to achieve racial justice. Now is the time to get this done.”

The committee tasked with selecting an artist and location for the sculpture includes University chancellor R. Kirby Godsey, Sam Oni, the first Black student to attend Mercer and Louis Sands, a federal judge who graduated in Mercer’s third integrated class and delivered the 2020 Founder’s Day address, among others. The Student Government Association will also select a student representative to serve on the committee, according to the release.