A Research Summary on Slavery and Race
at the University of the South and in the Community of Sewanee
The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation at the University of the South is a six-year initiative begun in 2017 to investigate the University’s historical entanglements with slavery, its legacies, and white supremacy. The project’s name memorializes Houston Bryan Roberson, the late professor of history and Sewanee’s first tenured African American faculty member.
The authors of the Research Summary are Dr. Woody Register, C’80, Francis S. Houghteling Professor of American History and director of the Roberson Project; and the Rev. Dr. Benjamin King, professor of Christian History. The Roberson Project Working Group, composed of Sewanee students, faculty, and staff, also contributed to these findings.
While this research is continuing, the evidence gathered makes clear several essential facts about the University’s past:
- The University was the only institution of higher education designed from the start to represent, protect, and promote the South’s civilization of bondage; and launched expressly for the slaveholding society of the South.
- A primary justification for the University’s founding asserted that the white men of the South were positioned better than any other to make the highest contributions to world civilization because slavery allowed them to devote themselves to higher attainments. The organizational blueprint for the institution indicates the founders envisioned the University as a leading center of scientific scholarship proving white racial superiority and the “aptitude” of people of African descent for enslavement.
- In Sewanee’s first several decades after the Civil War, its identity as “a child of the Confederacy” emerged in many ways: Those who held key leadership roles typically had been slave owners, defenders of slavery and secession, and Confederate military leaders; and some of the most consequential donors had been the owners or beneficiaries of some of the largest slavery-based plantations in the antebellum South.
- For a significant portion of the 20th century, policies and practices on campus perpetuated Jim Crow, white supremacy, and mythologies about the honorable causes represented by the Confederacy.
- There remain many buildings and monuments on Sewanee’s campus that memorialize slaveholders or supporters of the Confederacy, articulators of scientific and other theories of white supremacy, and defenders of Jim Crow segregation. Many of these memorials promote the “Lost Cause” mythologies about the religious and constitutional righteousness of the Confederacy, the virtuous motivations of the white men who fought for it, and the insignificance of slavery in the founding of the southern nation.
The Research Summary below provides a detailed overview of these and other project findings thus far.
In 1860, when a crowd of several thousand gathered on the Cumberland Plateau to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the Episcopal Church’s University of the South, more than 200 colleges already were in operation in the United States. With the exception of a handful, all of them benefited to a greater or lesser extent from the wealth generated by the nation’s slavery-based plantation economy. Moreover, the academy stood together with church and state as a critical base of support for slavery, in historian Craig Steven Wilder’s words, “the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.” The new University of the South was to be a contributing part of this “third pillar,” but it stood out in the crowd of contemporary colleges for this reason: It was the only institution of higher education designed from the start to represent, protect, and promote the South’s civilization of bondage—the beloved “land of the sun and the slave,” as its founders called the region they laid claim to educating and defending. Other universities from Virginia west to Texas had been built in a slaveholding society. Only the University of the South was created expressly for the slaveholding society of the South.
With few exceptions until recently, most historians of the University—as well as many of its alumni, students, and partisans—have had little to say about slavery and slavery’s enduring residue in the rise of the institution and the place we know as Sewanee. Instead, they have focused on the spiritual and religious mission of launching an Episcopal Church university to train a “native” ministry for the region and to strengthen and polish the sons of Southern planters to “go forth [bearing] a tone that shall elevate the whole country.” Slavery, if mentioned at all, has been treated as a remote and inconsequential aspect of the University’s origins. Bondage was largely depicted as an incident, but not the cause, of the University.
Four years ago, the University joined a consortium of institutions examining their historical entanglements with slavery, Universities Studying Slavery, and the following year launched the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, a comprehensive initiative to seek a more empirically based and ethically informed understanding of slavery’s role in the University’s pre-Civil War founding and post-war history. From the start and building on earlier work by such scholars as John McCardell, Samuel Williamson, Brown Patterson, Gardiner Shattuck, and Charles Reagan Wilson, the Roberson Project’s research has focused on the formative and decisive presence of slavery and racism within the goals that guided the University in the mid-19th century and beyond. We are inspired by our project’s namesake, Houston Bryan Roberson, Sewanee’s first tenured African American professor. His influence as a scholar of African American history informs our mission “to gather and give a more complete historical account of this university, the town of Sewanee, and all its people.” By “all its people,” we emphasize the urgent need to recognize and acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of all who have shaped Sewanee’s past and present—especially the enslaved people whose labors created the wealth that made this University possible to conceive, the African Americans who moved to Sewanee in the 20th century and created a vibrant and strong community here despite the severe and unjust restrictions of Jim Crow, and the young Black students whose choices and actions disrupted a century of segregation and white supremacy at the University of the South in the 1950s and 1960s. From the evidence they have uncovered and amassed over the last three years, the students and faculty and staff members of the Roberson Project are aware of what Sewanee’s Vice-Chancellor Reuben E. Brigety II recently called “the gaping wounds of racial injustice” in our institution’s past and how they correspond to the national wounds “laid bare for all the world to see” in recent months.
The Period from 1856 to 1865
Although the University of the South did not open its classroom doors until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, the University did not escape the shadow of slavery. The Southern Episcopal bishops and their church and lay allies launched their organizing effort 12 years earlier in 1856 in response to the social, cultural, and political crisis prompted by the impassioned and increasingly violent conflict over the future of slavery in the United States. Likewise, the University’s post-emancipation rebuilding phase began in 1867-1868 in the aftermath of the Civil War, the political and military destruction of the Confederacy, the collapse of the slaveholding society and liberation of nearly four million enslaved African Americans. Sewanee’s earliest history, then, was fundamentally shaped by what historians have called the “second American Revolution,” which destroyed slavery and temporarily established equal citizenship for men in the United States without reference to race. There is no telling Sewanee’s story independent of this historical context.
While other universities have documented their institutions’ profiting from the sale of enslaved people (Georgetown University) or actual ownership of enslaved labor (College of William and Mary), there is no evidence that the University of the South itself ever owned enslaved people. However, there is ample evidence that enslaved people did most of the hard labor to prepare the Mountain to become an academic campus. Records show that the white men in charge of preparing the campus hired or leased enslaved people to clear areas of the wooded Plateau and construct its early structures, homes, and roadways. The Episcopal Bishops Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott both had homes in Sewanee. The Polk family brought enslaved household labor with them, and it is likely the Elliotts and other University officials in residence did, too. Tennessee’s Bishop James Hervey Otey also frequently traveled with a “servant.” At the cornerstone ceremony, the Nashville caterers who feted hundreds of dignitaries brought with them “a large retinue of servants” to cook, serve, and clean. It is certain, too, that the wealthy guests at that event would not have traveled even to Sewanee without their own retinue of enslaved attendants.
Even if the University was not an owner of enslaved people, the centrality of slavery to its antebellum origins becomes all the more apparent when we consider more carefully who the members of the founding generation were, what they were trying to accomplish with the University of the South, and where they turned to get the money for their enterprise. The profile of the leading bishops and trustees indicates the density of the University’s foundation in slavery. In 1856, the three Episcopal bishops who led the campaign and served as the University’s first chancellors—Otey of Tennessee, Polk of Louisiana, and Elliott of Georgia—were slaveowners and later supporters of the Confederacy. The number of people Polk enslaved on his Louisiana sugar plantation is unclear, but estimates range from 200 to 300 or more; later he served as a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army. Elliott mounted a religious defense of slavery as the foundation of Christian civilization and helped lead the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America in its break from the American Episcopal church. Finally, all but four of the University’s original 37 trustees owned enslaved people.
Such men, led by Polk and Elliott, were well prepared to carry the University’s banner. They envisioned the University as a beacon to the nation and world, illuminating how the South of slavery was a modern and Christian society, advancing God’s designs for the world and rising to rival history’s greatest civilizations. “The world is trying hard to persuade us that a slaveholding people cannot be a people of high moral and intellectual culture,” Polk and Elliott wrote in a pamphlet. “Never was there a grosser error than this.” In actuality, the bishops insisted, the white men of the South were positioned better than any other to make the highest contributions to world civilization because they had slavery—a “caste” whose labor freed the “thinking and governing class” to devote themselves to higher attainments. In a world where the voices condemning the immorality and sinfulness of slavery were growing in volume and number, the University of the South would not just enable slaveholders to denounce anyone who thought slavery sinful as “infidels” from a position of cultural authority; it would empower Southern white men “to assert our rightful place among the learned of the earth.”
A close examination of the University’s planned organization further exposes how slavery constituted the mortar of the institution. The founders designed the University itself as a federation of 32 separate schools comprehending “all branches of knowledge.” What made this ambitious architecture distinctive and impressive, though, was not the inclusion of classical languages or metaphysics and “Evidences of the Christian Religion,” which most colleges of the time taught. Rather, it was the emphasis on areas of practical instruction in knowledge and skills directly supporting an expansive plantation economy that employed and was financially secured by enslaved labor: “Civil Engineering,” “Chemistry applied to Agriculture and the Arts,” “Theory and Practice of Agriculture” (including an experimental farm), “Mines and Mining.” No other American university at the time offered an applied curriculum so extensive. Even more telling was the planned “School of Ethnology and Universal Geography,” dedicated, as one admirer put it, to the study and promotion of “the science which teaches the aptitude and comparative position of different human races.” Historians have shown that in the nation’s medical schools across in the first half of the 19th century, science deferred to racial theory. Likewise, it seems reasonable to conclude that the founders foresaw the University as a leading center of scholarship proving white racial superiority and the “aptitude” of people of African descent for enslavement. Add to these a School of Theology for service to the church and a School of Political Science for service to the state, and the 32 schools united all three pillars upholding the Southern civilization of bondage.
The University’s proposed agenda, which bound together visions of cultural supremacy and Southern nationalism with pro-slavery arguments and dire predictions of abolitionism’s rising tide, resonated with the region’s moneyed and leadership class. The Episcopal Church in the South already had an advantage because it was, to quote historian Charles Reagan Wilson, “the church of the planter class,” drawing its comparatively small membership disproportionately from the wealthy slaveholding class. By the time of the Civil War that small sector of the white population in the South had generously responded to the entreaties of the University’s leaders, led principally by Polk. At least 292 men and women from across the South pledged $1,185,750 to the University. As context, Harvard had needed more than 200 years to amass an endowment equal in value to what the Southern bishops had summoned in just four to five—and the bishops predicted one or two million more to come.
We have confidently identified more than 180 of the 292 persons who pledged (and in some cases actually gave) those funds to the University. They came from the region’s powerful cadre of planters, financiers, and statesmen, including state legislators, congressmen, at least five former governors, and Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campbell. Together these donors enslaved at least 34,000 persons in 1860; 88 of them were among the South’s most exclusive elite, the “Great Planters” who enslaved more than 100 people. The largest pledges ($25,000-$40,000) came from men like John Armfield, a partner in the Franklin and Armfield slave trading firm (ca. 1828-1836), which historian Joshua Rothman has called “the most successful slave traders the United States had ever seen”; former Gov. Henry Johnson of Louisiana, who had been the principal purchaser of the 272 enslaved people Georgetown College sold in 1838 to forestall bankruptcy; Oliver Morgan, one of the richest men in Louisiana and whose cotton operations exploited the labor of 700 or more enslaved people; and Isaac Croom of Alabama, one of that state’s most influential slaveholders and among the South’s leaders in applying science to agricultural production. On the question of how much of the pledged money actually was paid, the research is incomplete, but it appears only a small fraction made it to the University’s coffers. Armfield, for instance, pledged $1,000 annually for 25 years, but aside from fronting the University with operating cash, there is no record that he ever made good on his pledge1. The bulk of what money actually was collected came from Louisiana sources and was deposited in the Citizens’ Bank of New Orleans, called a “plantation bank” because its reserves consisted principally of mortgages on enslaved property and plantation land instead of paid-in capital. Underscoring slavery’s position at the core of the University’s financial infrastructure was the principal orator chosen for the cornerstone laying on October 10, 1860: John S. Preston of South Carolina. In 1858 Preston had sold his Louisiana sugar operation and its labor force of 548 enslaved people for the unprecedented sum of $1 million. Bishop Otey of Tennessee introduced him that day as “a gentleman who has always shown himself zealous and liberal in promoting the interests of all institutions designed for the honor of our country and the welfare of mankind.” Preston spoke for more than two hours and finished by extolling the University of the South’s purpose: to produce enlightened masters of Christian households, who would lead the “gravest mission ever entrusted to man, that of redeeming to Christianity, through the portals of slavery, an inferior, subject, dependent and necessary race, on which his whole order of civilization is based.”
The Period from 1865 to 1945
The Civil War in some important ways severed the antebellum origins of the University from its first century of actual operation starting in 1868. The war and the Thirteenth Amendment eliminated chattel bondage in the United States and thereby destroyed the University’s foundation of wealth as well as the most urgent reason for its existence. But over the century after the University opened its doors and continued to define its mission and purpose in terms of the religious, social, and cultural needs of the South, the traces of its antebellum origins and purposes were preserved and supplemented. Thomas F. Gailor, the bishop of Tennessee and the University’s long-serving chancellor, explained how at a meeting of the Tennessee division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Sewanee in 1927. The Civil War, he said, may have destroyed the “material fabric” of the newly founded University of the South, “but the idea, the cause, lived on … Certainly, in a unique way and degree, the University at Sewanee is a child of the Confederacy and has a right to its name, ‘The University of the South.’”
Following Gailor’s lead, we can see the material and nonmaterial residue of slavery influencing the University’s postwar history as the “child of the Confederacy” by again focusing on who led the University in the decades after 1868 and where they turned to get the money for their enterprise. After the war, the trustees recruited Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis to serve as vice-chancellor. Each declined, but their candidacies were indicative of the profiles of those who led the postwar University. In all, the first four chancellors (1866-1908) and first three vice-chancellors (1867-1890) had served in the Confederate military and been slaveholders. The most important figures in resurrecting the University were the second bishop of Tennessee and first vice-chancellor, Charles T. Quintard, and George R. Fairbanks, an original trustee from Florida. Both had enslaved people; Fairbanks himself had held some 100 persons in bondage on his orange groves and plantations in Florida. Both served in the Confederate military and defended the Confederacy’s righteousness in “Lost Cause” terms in the decades after 1865. The earliest faculty members included Confederate military veterans Francis A. Shoup, John B. Elliott, William Porcher DuBose, Edmund Kirby Smith, Robert Dabney, T. F. Sevier, and John McCrady. Until 1892, the University required all its students to wear Confederate-gray uniforms.
Even more important, the largest sources of financial support had their roots in the global network of the slave trade and cotton economy and the power structure of the Confederacy. In 1867-68 and 1875-76, Quintard, who had served as chaplain in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, rescued the University with two fundraising campaigns in Great Britain. Quintard succeeded, however, because he was able to cultivate and exploit a network of Britain’s Confederate sympathizers, many of whose fortunes were tied to the Caribbean plantation economy before Britain outlawed slavery in the Empire. The largest single gift Quintard harvested and the most important to the University in its first 50 years came from Charlotte Morris Manigault, the scion of several “Great Planter” families in South Carolina who had fled with her husband to Europe before the end of the Civil War. Manigault gave $25,000 to build Sewanee’s School of Theology, which was dedicated to her slaveholding father. Other unrepentant Confederates were almost as important. Jacob Thompson, a Mississippi planter who had headed the Confederate Secret Service and escaped to Europe at war’s end with a massive fortune, was recruited through his relations with Jefferson Davis and the Chancellor William M. Green. Thompson served 12 years as University trustee and gave money to build Chemical and Philosophical Hall, later renamed “Thompson Union” in his honor. Less well known were the contributions of James Potter (1793-1862), one of the titans of Georgia’s coastal Rice Kingdom who enslaved as many as 500 and probably many more on his several plantations near Savannah. One historian has called the Potter empire “a vast water-driven machine to make rice,” and Potter himself a trafficker “in the currency of money, slaves, and land.” A determined pro-slavery advocate, Potter pledged a pre-war subscription of $10,000 to the University but died before making it. In 1874, Sewanee’s third vice-chancellor, Telfair Hodgson, who had the good fortune of marrying Potter’s daughter Frances, fulfilled the pledge, which helped construct the Hodgson Library. Historians of the University credit Hodgson with bringing lifesaving financial management to the University during his vice-chancellorship. A considerable part of that stability rested on the reserve of wealth accessible through his wife, an heir to James Potter’s pre-Civil War rice and slave empire.
The names of Quintard, Thompson, Manigault, and Hodgson, along with many others who were slaveholders and/or supporters of the Confederacy, articulators of scientific and other theories of white racial supremacy, proponents of the “Lost Cause,” or defenders of Jim Crow and segregation, are preserved throughout Sewanee’s sprawling campus. The prevalence of such memorials underlines the earnestness and enterprise of generations of Sewanee patrons and students who invented the post-war University as a “child of the Confederacy” and made it a manufacturer of ideas, rituals, and leaders of the “Lost Cause.” Among the more important figures were the Chancellor Ellison Capers (known as the “Orator Laureate of the Lost Cause”); the eminent theologian and dean of the School of Theology, William Porcher DuBose; the women who led Sewanee’s Kirby-Smith chapter of the UDC; and, above all, Bishop Thomas F. Gailor. “We respect our own race; and that is not an earthborn prejudice, but a God-given instinct,” the future chancellor explained in 1907. “A white man who is not jealous for the purity of his blood and [the] supremacy of his race is a degenerate.” Two years earlier the local UDC chapter erected Sewanee’s first official Confederate monument to CSA Brigadier General Francis A. Shoup, whom Gailor lauded as “a Confederate soldier and never ashamed of what he fought for.” Sewanee’s meaningfulness to the Lost Cause was expressed well in 1921 by Sarah Barnwell Elliott, Sewanee resident, UDC member, and daughter of founder Stephen Elliott. In that year, she issued a public call to make the University a repository of Southern history: “the University of the South at Sewanee is the fit Representative—the Child and Heir—of the Old South, worthy to be the Custodian and the Conservator of all Southern relics.” In 1940, the local UDC chapter and the University’s leadership joined in making good on a pledge to erect a memorial to CSA General Edmund Kirby Smith, who was routinely celebrated as the last full general to surrender to the Union. The Kirby Smith memorial, draped in Confederate flags and located on the campus’s main thoroughfare, was Sewanee’s second UDC monument. (The University moved the memorial to its cemetery in the fall of 2017 at the request of some of the Kirby Smith descendants.)
The Period from 1945 to 1970
In a recent interview, the Rev. Joseph Green, a retired African American Episcopal priest in Norfolk, Virginia, recalled the shock he experienced when he began summer studies in the School of Theology in 1959. He and his first cousin, William O’Neal, who went with him to do graduate work at Sewanee that summer, had grown up in rural South Carolina and lived in the South nearly all their lives. For them both, however, Sewanee was an altogether different experience. “I did not know that Sewanee was as Jim Crow as it was,” Green remembered.
That there was this Black community set aside, where they lived, they came and did the work for the seminary. To me, the same way that slaves would have done. And to me I saw an example of what the South would have looked like if it had continued on the road of gradually freeing of the slaves. Sewanee was the perfect example. Jim Crow was just as much alive and it was so much alive at Sewanee, I was shocked to see it. You know Black people had their place. White people had their place. And they just didn’t cross over.
Green and O’Neal were not the first Black students at Sewanee, but they became the first to receive a degree when they each earned a master’s of sacred theology in 1965. His recollection of their experiences of ostracism and painful discrimination provides an African American’s perspective the likes of which was altogether missing from the recorded histories of Sewanee until 2008. In that year Professor Houston Roberson published an essay, “The Problem of the Twentieth Century: Sewanee, Race and Race Relations.” Roberson’s study actually made history because he broke the metaphorical “color line” in accounts of the University’s history in crucial ways. He was the first African American to examine the University’s whole history, the first to focus on the experiences of African Americans in Sewanee, and the first to place that history in the context of Black history in America as a whole. “Whether we consider the African American presence or the issue of race at Sewanee from the vantage point of the founding years, the integration of the School of Theology, the integration of the College, or merely the black presence in the community,” he observed, “almost immediately we encounter the word: problem.” Roberson’s exploration of “the complexities of race and race relations at defining moments in the life of the university” shows that race was not a “Negro problem” but a Sewanee problem, as it had been from its beginning. Roberson’s essay sought “to discuss the range of African American thought and efforts to contest the late 19th century triumph of white supremacy and finally show how changes in racial attitudes and customs occurred over time.” Green’s recollections provide testimony of how African Americans forced those changes in spite of fierce and determined resistance from many undergraduate students, alumni, administrators, partisans, and white residents of the local region.
Offensive as it sounded even then, there was some truth in the observation of an alumnus from Selma, Alabama, who warned in 1952 that racial integration of the University “will forever destroy the Sewanee loved by generations of alumni and friends and abolish forever the ideas of Southern culture of Bishops Polk, Otey and Quintard.” That point of view, as Joseph Green remembered, and the resistance to changing Sewanee’s Jim Crow racial order had deep support on a campus that still cherished being the child and heir of the Confederacy. For example, in March 1952, even as the Episcopal Church was pressuring the University to desegregate its School of Theology, Sewanee’s Kappa Alpha fraternity staged its first-ever Confederacy-themed “Old South Weekend” and marked the occasion by dressing in the “Old South” attire of the slaveocracy and inviting Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady to speak about the University’s four Confederate generals. He described them as “devout Christians with a high sense of duty coupled with dignity, manliness, and courtesy” and credited the University’s most cherished traditions and values to their influence.
Such celebrations of the “Old South” and hostility toward integration and African Americans did not make Sewanee unusual in the 1950s and 1960s. Nothing happened at Sewanee remotely like the campus riots, deployment of force, and occasional federal intervention that, for example, roiled the attempted desegregation of the University of Alabama (in 1956 and in 1963), of the University of Georgia (in 1961), and of the University of Mississippi (in 1962). Still, the Project’s preliminary research has discovered incidents of harassment, violence, and cross burnings on the Sewanee campus, actions taken to intimidate civil rights activists, make Black students feel unwelcome or threatened, and punish white students accused of “dating” Black women.
Attitudes about race were not monolithic at Sewanee, a fact that became national news only two months after the Old South Weekend. In June 1952, the University’s Board of Trustees, with the support of McCrady and church leaders like Bishop Frank Juhan of Florida and Bland Mitchell of Arkansas, voted to reject the Episcopal Church’s directive to admit Black candidates for ministerial training. In response, seven School of Theology faculty, the head of the College’s Religion Department, and the chaplain threatened to resign and then did so the following October. With other outside pressure, including 14 bishops threatening to pull their students out of the School of Theology if it was not desegregated, the Board of Trustees reversed the vote in June 1953, cracking open the door for the admission of Black seminarians. Weeks later, the Rev. John M. Moncrief, an African American priest from South Carolina, entered the graduate summer program of the School of Theology. (He did not complete the degree before he was killed in an automobile accident in 1955.) The following year, 1954, Merrick Collier of Savannah was the first African American to enter the School of Theology as a full-time student. Harassed and demeaned, he left after one year; he later was ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Then in 1959 the African American priests, Joseph Green and William O’Neal, consciously following in Moncrief’s and Collier’s footsteps and determined to end segregation at the University once and for all, entered the summer graduate program. In 1965 they completed their degree requirements and became the University’s first Black graduates, 12 years after Moncrief broke the color line. Change at the College, however, was much slower in coming. In June 1961, eight years after officially desegregating the School of Theology, the University’s trustees voted to allow admission of African Americans to the College of Arts and Sciences. In the fall of 1963, Calvin Kendall Williams of Birmingham, Alabama was the first African American student to attend the College full time, transferring from Fisk University. He left Sewanee and returned to Fisk after one year. In 1964, Rickey Rowe, from nearby Cowan, enrolled in the College; he left after two years. In 1966, Nathaniel Davis Owens from Hartsville, Tennessee, enrolled and in 1970 was the first African American to receive an undergraduate degree, a full century after the first students matriculated at the University.
In most accounts of the dismantling of Jim Crow at the University of the South, chroniclers have focused almost exclusively on the actions and reactions of white people, perpetuating the “Negro problem” point of view that Houston Roberson exposed and critically dismantled in his essay. What has been omitted from these accounts and what the Roberson Project through its research plan is committed to recovering are the choices and actions of African Americans who made Sewanee change and did so in the face of staunch resistance. These actions would include those of John Moncrief, Merrick Collier, Joseph Green, William O’Neal, Calvin Williams, Rickey Rowe, and Nathaniel Owens—all of them and others who chose to defy de facto racial segregation at Sewanee. It also would include those of the Black families—the Hills, Sisks, Statens, and Turners—who joined with the white Bates, Cameron, Camp, and Goodstein families to bring a successful lawsuit to desegregate Franklin County schools in 1963-64. It also would include the actions of the white allies of Sewanee’s African American residents and students: the faculty members and students who joined in with the civil rights activists at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle; the students who hosted Black jazz musicians on campus and violated discriminatory policies and rules of racial decorum in doing so; the students who joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee or otherwise resisted the strictures of Jim Crow.
In the late 1940s the University’s leaders, including white men from the faculty and community, launched an initiative to create a “model Negro community” in Sewanee that would place and show racial segregation in its best light. The echoes of the 1850s design broadcasting the “high moral and intellectual culture” of a “slaveholding people” are hard not to hear in this paternalistic plan to address the “Negro problem” a full century later. But extending the basic services that whites enjoyed—water, sewer, paved roads, loans for home improvements, a modest two-room schoolhouse and community center, an upgraded segregated church, and even a Blacks-only swimming pool—into the wet bottomlands where African Americans were permitted to live in Sewanee did nothing to forestall the changes that Sewanee’s Black residents and Black Episcopalians around the South brought to the University and its community. Their actions, supplemented by alliances with white students, faculty and community members, and civil rights activists in the Episcopal Church, disrupted the long history of slavery’s legacies at the University of the South.
Yet even as they made a difference at Sewanee, their actions and those of others did not bring an end to slavery’s enduring legacies here or in the rest of the United States. Again, to quote Vice-Chancellor Brigety, we still need to “grapple with these challenging and urgent questions of race and equality” and “to engage the racial and economic disparities that exist in our host communities.” To do so holds out the hope and possibility that the people of Sewanee have long imagined as their historical destiny: to make this place a model not just in but of and for the South and the world beyond it. By knowing and acknowledging the centrality of slavery and its legacies in their history and traditions, the people of Sewanee may pursue this task in a way that binds and heals the wounds of racial injustice.
Dr. Woody Register, C’80
Francis S. Houghteling Professor of American History
Director, Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation
The University of the South
The Rev. Dr. Benjamin King
Professor of Christian History
Assoc. Dean for Academic Affairs, Director of the Advanced Degrees Program
The School of Theology
The University of the South
1 According to the economists’ website, MeasuringWorth.com, $100 in 1850 would have equaled about $23,000 in 2016. By that calculation, Armfield’s pledge amounted to $230,000 annually in 2016 dollars, or $5.75 million over the 25 years. Henry Johnson did in a way fulfill his $40,000 pledge to the University in 1859 by transferring ownership of a mortgage he held on the sale of 1,061 acres in Iberville Parish, Louisiana. Records indicate that the borrowers forfeited on the mortgage and the University took possession of the land after the war.