A Student Of Humanity

First Georgia Southern African-American art department graduate returns to Statesboro

Abner Cope (’74) has a love and a fascination for people. It’s a trait that led him to an award-winning career as a portrait painter and teacher — and helped him navigate the early years of desegregation in Georgia.

Cope was the first African-American student to graduate with a fine arts degree from Georgia Southern, and he was among the early groups of black students at the University. In 1970, his freshman class brought the black student population to about 75 — out of a total of nearly 5,500 students when he arrived — a culture shock for Cope, a native of Savannah, Georgia.

“It wasn’t that there were so many whites there,” he said. “It was that there were so few blacks.”

What he found at Georgia Southern was a largely welcome atmosphere, especially from the faculty, staff and, for the most part, the students. While there was never any overt racism from the students on campus or in his dorm, he often found racial epithets scrawled on the bathroom walls.

“Some of it was pretty vicious,” he said. “But as for racist attitudes and comments, I never experienced that in the dormitories. Those guys were very receptive in the dorms. We were friends.”

Despite his friendships, Cope intended to transfer to Morris Brown, a historically black college in Atlanta. But it was a special friendship — more than a friendship — that kept him at Georgia Southern. During a small get-together on campus, Cope met Sandra Riley (’75), a business education major. The two were married their junior year.

“After meeting my wife there, that was the end of my notions about transferring,” he said. “She wasn’t going anywhere and neither was I.”

Cope studied painting under Roxie Remley and printmaking under Bernard Solomon, both of whom had a significant influence on his education and career, and were among the many professors who encouraged him to continue his education in a master’s program, which ultimately led him into teaching.

“When you’re impressed by a teacher, you want to do what they do,” he said. “That was a big influence on me.”

After leaving Georgia Southern with a B.F.A. in 1974, Cope earned his Master of Fine Arts from Eastern Michigan University in 1980 and went on to teach at Central State University, a historically black university in Wilberforce, Ohio. In 2010, he moved back to Georgia. Cope and his work have been featured in several publications, including International Artist, which features accomplished artists from around the world. His award-winning artwork is featured in private and corporate collections throughout the Midwest, and a mural he painted hangs in the Hallie Q. Brown Library at Central State.

In January of this year, he returned to Statesboro for the first local showing of his work since his graduation. He was able to reconnect with old friends, meet new admirers of his work and give his former professors the chance to see the fruition of his lifelong study of people.

“I was amazed at seeing the work that he does right now,” said Remley, now 97. “He’s done beautifully. I was impressed all the way.”

For Cope, it was a pleasant reminder of the impact of his alma mater, and the inspiration it provided to a very impressionable young man.

“I felt inspired to stay with art, and was convinced that it was for me,” he said. “So I credit Georgia Southern for that inspiration.” — Doy Cave

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