Samford University has dedicated a new memorial to honor the many contributions of the African Americans who built and sustain the institution’s mission, including a legendary hero and a groundbreaking scholar. The memorial was scheduled to be dedicated on May 5 in conjunction with the spring meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees. Due to COVID-19, the dedication was postponed and trustees instead viewed a video of the monument, which was installed on campus May 4.
Consistent with Samford’s core values of integrity, honor, justice, accountability and service to God and the community, the etchings on the monument express the virtues of justice and righteousness and affirm the university’s mindful commitment to reconciliation.
The memorial, in the form of an ancient obelisk, is crafted from stainless steel and stands eight feet tall atop a granite base at the center of the circular garden at Divinity Hall on the west side of the university quadrangle. Its etchings recall the wrongs of slavery and the sins of the resulting violence and racism.
According to Cassandra Adams, former assistant dean of Samford’s Cumberland School of Law, the honesty of the inscription is very important. “True reconciliation begins with honesty. My heart is filled with joy and thanksgiving knowing that the memorial represents reconciliation, which is work that we are all called to do,” said Adams.
The memorial reads:
The memorial specifically honors the memory of Harry, a 23 year-old African American man who lived in slavery and died from injuries he received while waking the students at the burning of Howard College. Harry is known in Samford’s history for his bravery that saved lives and sustained the institution. Students from the college first memorialized Harry by placing a monument at his grave in Marion, Alabama in 1857. He has since been memorialized along the university’s Centennial Walk and a likeness of a young African American man representing Harry is engraved in the university’s ceremonial mace. More than 20 years ago, the Samford Student Government Association approved the naming of the food court coffee house venue in the Ralph Beeson University Center in Harry’s memory.
As the recent renovation of the university center was underway, several students and university leaders voiced a desire for Samford to find a more visible way to commemorate Harry’s memory and to visibly recognize the many contributions of African Americans throughout Samford’s history. In February of 2019, the year marking the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first slaves in this country, the board of trustees approved the placement of the memorial, “to commemorate Harry’s bravery that saved lives and sustained this institution and to recognize Samford University’s connection to slavery and the work of the Africans and African Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build this university, state and nation.”
The monument also honors the memory of Audrey Lattimore Gaston Howard, who in 1967 became the first African American student admitted to Samford University. In recognizing Mrs. Howard in her distinctive role crossing an unjust racial divide that wrongly existed at institutions across the nation, the university also recognizes the ongoing contributions of all African American students and alumni who followed her pioneering path.
Jewel Littleton-Williams ’05, president of the Samford University Black Alumni Association, shared her reflections on the memorial, "This memorial commemorates the important contributions of African Americans to Samford's legacy and is an immeasurable honor. From the bravery of Harry to the trailblazing character of Audrey Gaston Howard, Samford continues to benefit from the tireless and selfless service of numerous minorities as the years go by. I am thankful that Samford is making a permanent statement of appreciation and support for the contributions made by so many. The love of Christ continues to be exemplified in all that Samford does.”
Littleton-Williams and more than 50 individuals and groups representing a broad cross-section of university life engaged in conversations to craft the etchings on the memorial. Early in the planning, the university community embraced the importance of addressing the conditions of slavery and its aftermath in this remembrance of Harry.
“This monument stands as a testament to the fact that Samford University is an institution that recognizes reconciliation as a mandate of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” said Robert Holmes Jr., vice chair of the Samford University Board of Trustees. “I am proud to serve as a Trustee of this great University.”
“The etching on the memorial recalls the painful chapters of our past and the ongoing evils of racism that continue to resonate in our society. The etching also honors the historic sacrifices of many African Americans for the mission and vision of Samford University—even in days when their efforts were invisible or barely acknowledged,” said Samford President Andrew Westmoreland. “The specific wording on the memorial is the product of dozens of individual conversations with students, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees and friends of the university. Draft after draft was constructed and revised until the wording reflected the heart and soul of our people.”
According to Isaac Cooper ’12, founding president of the Samford Black Alumni Association, there will always be a need to draw inspiration and guidance from the past. “It is truly an honor to be a part of the Samford family for paying tribute in recognizing and celebrating the pivotal contributions by the African American community. This obelisk displays the fruit of God’s love in Harry’s courageous acts and Audrey’s resilience,” said Cooper.
Of the scripture inscribed on the memorial, Amos 5:24, Cecelia Walker, Samford University Board of Overseers member noted, “The scripture is very appropriate. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to this scripture in speeches and sermons often. It is a worthy hope and goal. The monument is a beautiful piece of art—it literally took my breath away. I am so proud of the leadership and witness that Samford is demonstrating. It is courageous, Christ-like and further distinguishes Samford as an exceptional beacon to our community and beyond.”
“As an African American woman who has benefited beyond my imagination from my Samford education, it makes my degree one of my most prized accomplishments,” Walker added.
“On behalf of all Samford alumni, I am grateful for this tangible symbol of reconciliation, as well as the acknowledgment of painful truths about our university's history,” said Samford University Alumni Association President Stephen Dillard ’92. “Every one of us has a role to play in atoning for the past and building a future for Samford that ensures all people made in the image of God can flourish. This monument to that worthy commitment and the lives of Harry and Audrey Lattimore Gaston Howard brings us closer to the fullness of that hope,” he added.
The monument was crafted in the studios of David Harber a world-renowned sculptor based in Oxfordshire, England. It is a companion piece to the Armillary Sphere mounted outside Reid Chapel which was commissioned from the artist to commemorate Samford’s 175th Anniversary in 2016.