Last Friday I had the privilege of meeting a descendant of one the makers of Emory history whom we celebrated during the university’s 175th anniversary observance in 2011.
Rebecca Sledd Williams 95C had emailed me weeks earlier to say that her son was looking at colleges and wanted to visit Emory. They would like to meet and hear a bit about the history of the place. Incidentally, she said, she is the great-granddaughter of Andrew Sledd and the granddaughter of James Sledd, Emory College Class of 1936.
The Emory career of Andrew Sledd offers a fascinating study of the risks inherent in the unfettered search for truth.
A graduate of Randolph-Macon College, in his native Virginia, Sledd came to Emory in 1898 with a master’s degree from Harvard. The next year he married Annie Florence “Foncie” Candler, daughter of former Emory president Warren Candler.
No doubt all would have gone smoothly in Sledd’s career had it not been for a particularly gruesome lynching near Newnan, Georgia. The story of mob violence against Sam Hose is told in horrific detail by Edwin T. Arnold in What Virtue There Is in Fire (University of Georgia Press, 2009) and in brief at the “New Georgia Encyclopedia” article on lynching.
The sheer barbarity of the incident outraged Sledd, who recognized lynching as a symptom of a wider disregard for the rights of African Americans under the law. In an article published in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1902, Sledd upbraided both northerners and southerners for their attitudes toward African Americans. But he leveled a broadside particularly against southern customs and laws, which effectively dehumanized African Americans. He denounced lynching as the lowest form of immorality and a complete abrogation of humanity.
Such a public stand took courage, and it incurred a swift penalty. Spurred on by Rebecca Latimer Felton, Georgia newspapers and citizens called with self-righteous fury for Sledd’s dismissal from Emory. Sledd sought to save the college’s reputation by resigning. To their everlasting shame, the trustees accepted his resignation. Historian Terry L. Matthews tells the full story here.
Sledd went on, the next year, to complete his PhD degree in classics at Yale, then became the founding president of the University of Florida (1904–1909) and, from 1910 to 1914, president of Southern University in Alabama.
Emory had an opportunity to redeem itself with respect to Professor Sledd, for when the Candler School of Theology was established in 1914, Sledd was among the first persons appointed to its faculty. As a professor of New Testament studies, he was a vital part of the theological modernism changing Southern Methodism in the 1920s—a liberal perspective that fostered critical thinking about the Bible in the historical context of its writing. When Biblical literalists took him and other Candler faculty to task for their views, the faculty found a defender in none other than Bishop Warren Candler, who was the chancellor of Emory University and as stalwart a bastion of “tradition” as there ever was. It may have helped Sledd that Candler was his father-in-law.
Sledd taught at Candler until his death from a heart attack in 1939. Eight of his nine children graduated from Emory–seven of them with Phi Beta Kappa keys–and two sons went on to academic careers of their own. James Sledd, who would teach English at the University of Chicago and the University of Texas, was one of Emory’s twenty Rhodes Scholars. A couple of letters from him to Professor Thomas H. English, his mentor at Emory, are part of the Thomas English Papers in the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.
Bill Chace, president emeritus of Emory, has reminded me that James Sledd also taught at the University of California, Berkeley, where one of his doctoral students was JoAn Chace, a future first lady of Emory and faculty member in the Emory English Department.
James was the grandfather of Rebecca Sledd Williams, who traveled from California with her son to see where her grandfather — whom she called the smartest man she ever knew — and her great-grandfather had lived the life of the mind, imbued by the liberal arts, to such a great and lasting impact.