Every year Mercer students make a Pilgrimage to Penfield. This is an annual Student Government Association (SGA) sponsored event that takes students to the original home of Mercer University. However, there were a few changes made to the experience in order to acknowledge and more fully teach students about Mercer's complex history.
Anniston Nooks ‘23, the current Chair of Heritage Life (HLC) for SGA, said that Pilgrimage to Penfield is one of SGA’s large-scale events that she has been helping to plan since May. Nooks coordinated with Dean Pearson over the summer in order to outline the activities, plan the student gift and choose the speakers.
“I wanted to showcase female speakers more this year. So in all of our events, both minorities and female speakers, I want to give them a platform in my reign as HLC chair,” Nooks said.
The staff reflection was presented by Penny Elkins, Ph.D. She talked about her experiences in college and how one of her professors, Bobby Jones, Ph.D., changed her life. Jones was the first African American professor to earn tenure at Mercer University and eventually became head of the Education Department. Elkins also talked about her hopes for future generations and how she hoped to be able to provide people with the same message that was instilled in her.
“Don't you ever let anybody tell you that you cannot do something,” said Elkins.
The student reflection was provided by Savannah Lackey ‘23, who talked about her experience in college.
"My four years at Mercer have been nothing that I planned out to be," Lackey said. "I know it's mostly freshmen that come to the event. So when I was speaking, I really wanted to get across that having a plan for college and life is wonderful and amazing. And you should, but also being able to be adaptable and understanding that life is going to make its own version of you is great."
Nook stated that in the past, the students would be broken up into three different tour groups. These groups would be put into a rotation that would send them between lunch, the Penfield cemetery and the chapel. However, in the past year, this changed. While there were still three rotations, all three groups had lunch at the beginning and the new rotation included a tour of Billington Sanders’ house, the first president of Mercer University.
The tour of the cemetery was also different from previous years. The tour began in the main portion of the cemetery where Michael Williams ‘23 highlighted the people who were buried there, such as Jesse Mercer. This is where the tour would usually end for the cemetery, until recently.
A few years ago, Mary Angel Ekezie ‘21 and the Director of Campus Life, Carrie Ingoldsby, went to the president of SGA at the time, Lackey, and informed her of another section of the cemetery they had previously been unaware of.
Since Mercer University was founded in the early 1800s, the school originally relied on slave labor. Because of the time period, the cemetery was separated into two portions. In the 1950s, at the height of segregation, a wall was built around the African American portion. This led to many people being unable to visit the graves of their loved ones and inhibit them from being able to easily bury families together.
When the existence of this cemetery was brought to light, Lackey decided to go and visit it.
“At that time, the wall had not been knocked down,” Lackey said. “It was so emotion-evoking and angering, and made me sad and feel all kinds of things. I was like, well, we have to do something. What can I do?”
Lackey went to the Greene County African American Museum and started to gather research with Maime Hill, the head of the museum, as well as Douglas Thompson, Ph.D., a professor at Mercer University. She then went to President Bill Underwood in order to advocate for the removal of the wall and for the restoration of the cemetery. While they have not been able to purchase the African American Cemetery, they have been able to get a part of the wall taken down and work towards some form of restoration.
At Pilgrimage to Penfield this year, Thompson spoke more in-depth about the restoration process and how they are continuing to work and bring justice to these families. Students were also able to walk through a few parts of the cemetery.
“I think that showcasing and including the African American Cemetery as a part of Pilgrimage to Penfield diverged from the path that we've always taken,” said Nooks. “It asked the questions of and holds Mercer accountable for our past, but also sets the foundation for questions of, how can we be better?”
One of the most exciting parts about Pilgrimage to Penfield this year was the fact that Sam Oni made the journey. Oni was the first Black student to attend Mercer University. He had never been able to visit and see the history before, but this year, at the age of 81, he was able to make the trek.
Pilgrimage to Penfield teaches students the history of Mercer and continues to shape the beginning of their journeys.
“The most valuable takeaway, I think, is the fact that we do have a history," Lackey said. "And while we've done great things, and while we've done some not-so-great things, that our past is something that shapes us and helps us reflect and do better in the future.”