ATLANTA – Rudolph Byrd was known among academic colleagues as an excellent scholar who believed that the key to change was education.
The Emory University professor and African-American studies expert was a founding co-chair of the Alice Walker Literary Society with Beverly Guy-Sheftall of Spelman College and helped bring the literary archive of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and his personal friend to Emory’s library.
Byrd died Friday from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells, Emory spokesman Ron Sauder said. Byrd was 58.
Emory Provost Earl Lewis said Byrd recognized the importance of fostering connections between the university and the broader Atlanta community.
“He was an individual with an enormous spirit and commitment to educating both undergraduate and graduate students,” Lewis said. “He understood that through education you can transform the world.”
Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Byrd was one of his best friends. The two had been collaborating on an anthology of African-American poetry.
“Of all the people who write about African-American literature and culture, there is no one that I admired more, and whose work I valued more,” Gates told the newspaper.
Byrd also founded the university’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference, a residency program that brings together scholars to study the modern civil rights era.
His research interests included American and African-American literature, folklore, philosophy, gender studies, sexuality and photography.
Byrd is also the author and editor of 11 books, including a new critical edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane‘ published earlier this year with Gates.
Byrd joined the faculty at Emory in 1991. He previously worked at the University of Delaware and Carleton College in Minnesota. He was educated at Lewis & Clark College and Yale University.