Keeping the Faith: Sewanee and its Students, 1868-1870

By Colton Williams, C’21 Research Assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2019

Students and others lounging in front of Tremlett Hall, circa 1880. Tremlett Hall, which was built in 1868, honored the English cleric who championed the Confederate cause in England during the Civil War.

In Woodville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi, fourteen years before the state seceded from the Union, the planter and slaveholder Daniel Prosser and his wife Sarah welcomed their son into the world. Ralph Hylton Prosser’s birth in 1847 may seem unfortunate in terms of historical timing, but by the time he came of age Prosser saw it as an opportunity. Prosser was sixteen years old and enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute when the Civil War erupted. With his father’s permission, he left VMI and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private. He served in Company F of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, better known as Mosby’s Rangers.[i] On October 8, 1864 — Prosser’s seventeenth birthday — he was captured by Union forces and held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., and later in Boston Harbor, where he remained until war’s end in June 1865. By this time, Prosser was still a young man, four months shy of both his eighteenth birthday and the anniversary of his capture. But he was not a young man destined to return home according to the now-familiar trope of the destitute and threadbare Confederate, vowing as Scarlett O’Hara did to “never be hungry again.”[ii] That was not in Prosser’s future. Prosser already had the prestige of serving with the Gray Ghost himself, the mythologized John Mosby, and had studied at VMI, a premier military institution for Southern boys of high social standing. With that record, and a changing world before him, Ralph Hylton Prosser’s next step was to prepare for the Episcopal priesthood. In order to do so, in 1869 he became the thirty-sixth student to matriculate at the new University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.[iii]

Prosser’s story, though unique, was not unusual. He came to Sewanee for a reason. Like most students in those early years, he ended up leaving before earning a degree. Still, his story sheds light on what the university was in 1869, when it was but an idea being put to the test. For a university steeped so deeply in the histories it tells about itself, there has been a notable absence of study of the very people who were essential in making the university a university: the students. As one myself, I have always felt — in fact, know — that the way students see the university and the culture of Sewanee is often quite different from the official view.

Klarke Stricklen, C’22, Colton Williams, C’21, and Maddy Parks, C’19, summer research assistants

This summer, as I worked as a research assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, I focused on capturing the profiles of the university’s first generation of students. One question that spurred me forward was what did Sewanee’s first students think about the university’s identity? Claims are often made about what Sewanee was at its ‘refounding’ in 1868, as opposed to the original founding of the university in 1858, the year of its charter. How did the students make and reflect the culture of Sewanee after the ‘refounding’? This question is a slippery one. Over the years those who have studied and written about Sewanee have given greater emphasis to the later, as opposed to the earlier, founding, and sought to explain what that post-war and post-emancipation history has meant to the university’s identity. In celebration of the university’s sesquicentennial moments, books have been published about the ‘refounding,’ the general history of the university, the history of the liberal arts at Sewanee, Reconstruction at Sewanee, and ‘Sewanee places.’ Today, students touch the fabled cornerstone from 1860 before signing the honor code and symbolically enrolling in the university, making a connection to the earliest days of the university when its founders imagined that the “South” the university would encompass — “the land of the sun and the slave,” they proclaimed it — would last forever.[iv] Students like Ralph Hylton Prosser are a crucial link in the history of Sewanee, and yet they often are left out.

Stories of students are usually ancillary to some other point, whether it is about the founders, the curriculum, sports, or the mystique of Sewanee itself. But if we are to understand both the most basic and the most complex questions about this place — for instance, what did people in 1868 think were the ideas that defined the university? — it is imperative to study the students who entered the university in its early years for their own sake and for what they can suggest about the formation of the institution in its post-Civil War years.

The effect of this historical oversight is highlighted by Sewanee Perspectives, the 2008 volume of essays on the university’s history, which is dedicated to “the nine students who matriculated on September 18, 1868 in the Junior Department of the University of the South.”[v] To my surprise I discovered that nowhere in the volume are the histories of those nine students examined. They are important, of course, but the symbolic weight they carry has been assigned to them without studying them in any thorough manner.

Between 1868-1870, 226 students enrolled in the university. Almost none of them graduated with a degree; many left after a single term or year. By studying the early students of Sewanee, we can learn more about what the students who enrolled thought and expected about their education and how they may have shaped the university when it began operations in 1868. Did it still conform to the visions of the founders to create a “body of scholars of whom no country need be ashamed”?[vi] Or did it represent a new enterprise?

Looking at the 226 students from 1868-1870 is not an arbitrary time frame. They represent the first two years of the Rt. Rev. Charles Quintard’s Vice-Chancellorship and contain a large enough sample to make some provisional conclusions about the students during that time. Quintard, who was present at the original laying of the cornerstone, is considered a founder of the university, while his successor, Josiah Gorgas, is rarely, if ever, given that title.[vii] By looking at the students arriving during Quintard’s tenure, more can be learned about what the ‘second founding’ meant in actuality, particularly for the students who came here. Was Sewanee to be a new, modern university for a new south, or did it cater specially to former Confederates, slaveholders, and their progeny? Did the establishment (or re-establishment) of the university in 1868 represent a break with the pre-war political and social order or serve to revive and maintain that order under new circumstances, in the vein of ‘Redeemers’ intent on “dismantling the Reconstruction state”?[viii] Quintard, quoted in the Charleston Evening Record in 1873, explained, “There is something worse than war — something worse than pestilence and famine — something worse than death. It is worse to see a people of high culture, of noble lineage, bow down their backs and become hewers of wood and drawers of water, and in the depths of an overwhelming despair descend from the high position they have occupied and adorned… We need and society needs an educated class.”[ix] In Quintard’s view, it seems, Sewanee was a university with a particular and conservative charge. My research shows that few who went to Sewanee in 1868 were hewing wood and drawing water. They were the sons of the wealthy, the connected, the aristocratic. The sons of Confederates, they were sometimes, like Prosser, Confederates themselves. If Quintard imagined a university that would pick up the charge of a conquered elite and save them from embarrassment and subjugation, did that way of thinking transmit to the first students who obtained their education at Sewanee? Were they, too, afraid of becoming “hewers of wood,” and did they see education — and an education at the University of the South in particular — as the way to reclaim their pre-war position and that of their families?

Most of the students would have fit within this vision of a reborn southern elite. The first students to enter the university came from a fairly representative geographical cross-section of the former Confederacy. Of the 226 students to matriculate from 1868-1870, only 4 were from outside the region.[x] (The trend continued; only 12 of the first 726 students from 1868-1878 were non-southerners):

Students’ Home States,
Number of Students,
Alabama 46
Tennessee 45
Georgia 26
Mississippi 23
Texas 23
Louisiana 22
Florida 18
Arkansas 9
Kentucky 4
North Carolina 3
Missouri 2
Pennsylvania 2
Virginia 1
Illinois 1
New York 1
Total 226

While it may seem obvious why almost all students were white ‘southerners,’ the fact that such young men went to Sewanee was not predetermined. There was a reason. Geographic proximity certainly played a part, but many wealthy southern boys already were going to colleges far away from home, if they were going at all. At VMI, Prosser was a long way from Woodville, Mississippi. While the location of the University of the South was chosen in part because of its centrality to the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church, it still required effort and money to get to Sewanee. Eight students from 1868-1870 hailed from Galveston, Texas, quite a world away from the top of the Cumberland Plateau. Southern it was, but close it was not. Many of the early students were, of course, Episcopalians, and it seems likely that many came specifically for the church affiliation. But designating their religious affiliation alone as their reason for coming to Sewanee obscures the larger context within which the Episcopal Church operated in the southern region. The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Confederate States of America was the official, sanctioned church of the seceded states during the Civil War. Its first and only Presiding Bishop was Stephen Elliott of Georgia, an instrumental original founder of Sewanee. To be an Episcopalian in the South, even after the Confederate Church no longer existed, was not solely a religious affiliation. It was a hallmark of patrician Southern identity, which had always been tied fundamentally to slavery. Stephen Elliott made this link explicit, saying that what was at stake during the war was “the whole framework of our social life.”[xi]

Higher education at Sewanee in 1868-70 only vaguely resembled the university of today. Students were organized into groups of Gownsmen (18 years of age or older) and Juniors (younger students). In addition to a college, the university consisted of a grammar, or preparatory, school and a theological department for training priests. Most who entered the university were between the ages of 14 and 18.[xii] For this article, I excluded only the grammar school students from my review; I relied on the 1870-1871 Arts and Sciences Catalog for basic information on the first generation of matriculants.[xiii]

The 1860 Slave Schedule for George Fairbanks, father of early student Charles M. Fairbanks

Sixty-one of the 185 students were matched with their parents through a combination of census records, gravesite data, and information pulled from the students’ biographical files. Of these, 35 fathers were confirmed as slaveholders in the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedule. These 35 were the fathers of 45 students, due to siblings matriculating at the same time. This small sample size allows for preliminary conclusions only, although I expect that as I continue my research and match additional students with their parents, the results will show similar patterns. It is unlikely that the 61 students I was able to identify would be disproportionately the offspring of slaveholding parents.

So what?, might be the response. After all, this was the University of the South, so we would expect the people who attended in 1868, 1869, and 1870 to have been the sons of former slaveholders. While this argument does get one point right — that the region had been a slave society, built on “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”[xiv] — that observation misses the larger point. According to the 1860 U.S. Census, roughly 25% of households in the South owned slaves.[xv] This is a marked contrast to the 74% of Sewanee students from the confirmed data set who came from slaveholding households. For instance, Sewanee student Burton Bellamy (M’69)[xvi] from Monticello, Florida, was born into a slaveholding family. He lived as a young master until his early teenage years, as his family enslaved 97 persons, from a one-year-old girl to a 55-year-old woman. The family of Thomas Barnett (M’69), from Montgomery, Alabama, enslaved people, too, and so did that of Philip Marbury (M’68) from McMinnville, Tennessee. The list goes on. These students, the scions of the master class and race, were the students the founders originally had in mind. The former “masters” in Sewanee weren’t just the faculty and residents, but the students themselves.

How did the experiences and backgrounds of these students affect the character of Sewanee after the ‘refounding’? Did their pasts as slaveholders leave a mark on the atmosphere of the university? John Bradford, one of the few students to matriculate from outside of the South, remembers the complicated environment at Sewanee in 1869. Bradford came to Sewanee from Springfield, Illinois, persuaded to enter the college by an Episcopal priest in his hometown. In 1937 Bradford recalled that Sewanee boys were of “gentle birth and breeding,” yet he still remembered being “taunted with having come from the home of Abraham Lincoln and being too friendly with the negro servants.” He remembered that he “loafed in the kitchen and made myself solid with Old Isaac the cook and got an extra piece of pie and some cold biscuit.” Bradford’s story suggests he was the only one doing this. He had no problem with befriending ‘Old Isaac,’ a step none of the other students deigned to take. Bradford also had no problem with befriending the boys who likely had enslaved many persons like ‘Old Isaac’ only a few years before.[xvii]

Slavery was not in the distant past for these students. It was not in the periphery of their lives. It was foundational to the fact that they were even at a university, especially one called the University of the South. How would a university founded to prove “that a slaveholding people” could be of “high moral and intellectual culture,” as Bishops Polk and Elliott wrote in an 1859 fundraising pamphlet, adapt to a world without slavery? To what degree would a university founded to assert slaveholders’ “rightful place among the learned of the earth” position itself in relation to the political, economic, and moral order of its slaveholding past?[xviii] Without their slaves, where did these original, foundational principles and the social order they underwrote go when the university opened its doors in 1868? The change necessitated a different goal. It was no longer Elliott’s vision, but Quintard’s. Sewanee was not to prove slaveholders’ “high intellectual and moral culture,” but to save the Southern elite from “something worse than death,” to save them from “the depths of an overwhelming despair” by losing their social position. The University of the South was the way to do that.

Higher education was, for these students and their families, a way of maintaining or recovering their standing. While slaveholding families experienced unprecedented wealth losses in the decade after the Civil War, these economic setbacks were not transmitted to their sons’ generation. Instead, a group of scholars recently argued, “sons that grew up in slaveholding households quickly surpassed the economic status of sons of comparable households.” By 1880, the sons of slaveholders had accumulated wealth on par with the sons of similarly wealthy non-slaveholding households. But by 1900, the sons of slaveholders had surpassed all of their counterparts in terms of occupation-based wealth and earnings.[xix]

This increase in wealth is likely not attributable to superior industriousness, entrepreneurial zeal, or intelligence on the part of the sons of slaveholders. Nor would we expect the sons of slaveholders to have been endowed with more business acumen and ability than their similarly wealthy non-slaveholding counterparts. Instead, sons of slaveholders were able to increase their wealth through social capital, access to credit, and family connections. University represented an opportunity to strengthen existing social networks and create new ones.

Of the 185 students with biographical files, I was able to confirm the careers or subsequent occupations of 67 of them. They are broken down in the chart below:

Occupation # of Students Engaged in Work
Planting/Farming/Cotton Business 12
Law 11
Clergy 9
Politics 5
Medicine 4
Real Estate 4
Finance 4
Mercantile Pursuits 3
Insurance 3
Engineering 3
Journalism 2
Freight 2
Surveying 1
Dairyman 1
Interior Decoration 1
Salt Mining (Proprietor) 1
Lumber (Proprietor) 1
Total 67

Again, these conclusions must be preliminary due to the incompleteness of my research thus far. However, there does seem to have been a trend. With the exception perhaps of the lone dairyman in New Orleans, all of these students pursued white collar work after their time at Sewanee. Careers variously listed as “cotton broker,” “cotton business,” “cotton,” “planter,” and “farmer” were all put into one category for the assumptions one must make if a college-educated male in 1870 was going into farming. He was likely not himself the one behind the plow. This data conflicts with the myth of a devastated and reconstructed South post-war. The sons of slaveholders remade their wealth in new ways. Whether they were keeping the status quo by engaging in the ‘cotton business’ or entering into law, real estate, the clergy, or medicine, these Sewanee students seem to have maintained or reconstituted their position and wealth in the post-war world.

One might reasonably make the argument that anyone going to college at the time would subsequently be engaged in white collar work. This may be true, but that fact in and of itself gives way to a larger truth about early Sewanee: the creation of the university in a slaveholding society allowed for wealthy sons of slaveholders to be educated at Sewanee and maintain their wealth and status. It meant something for former slaveholders to send their sons to Sewanee, and those sons turned around with their Sewanee education and entered society with a status not much changed from their fathers’. They were clergymen with prestigious positions like Charles McIlvaine Gray (M’69). They were members of the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901 like Cecil Browne (M’70). They were physicians in Mexico like Cornelius Gregg (M’70). They ran mining companies, lumber companies, worked in real estate acquisition, were financiers, and entered politics. They were able to do all of this, undoubtedly, because they had a leg up. They emerged from a society based on the institution of slavery, and they were the generational inheritors of wealth, power, and prestige built on slavery. It was no meritocracy.

The students understood Sewanee as an institution of the South, too. They considered Sewanee a continuation of the old order, not a break from it. John Sharp Williams (M’70), who went on to become a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, observed as much in 1919: “Nor must we forget that the very name ‘University of the South’ suggests the idea that ‘the South’ faces a new era and has an important part to play in the work of social reorganization. I, for one, have never known any ‘New South!’ I know only the same Old South, and I want its leaders to be like the traditional leaders of the South always have been — men of high ideals, honest purpose, of noble instincts, of gentlemanly conduct, even though they were not always men of clear insight into the future of the world. An alumnus of the University of the South myself, although I spent a very short time there, I earnestly bespeak for her, for her work and for her mission your full consideration and your help.”[xx]

Written in a fundraising letter in 1919, Williams’s words were influenced by his own time. Nearly 50 years after Williams matriculated, the Lost Cause mythology had taken root and gained general acceptance among white Americans across the United States. But for these early students, their own words are often what has to be relied on. It struck Williams as a key selling point that Sewanee was an institution of the “same Old South,” and he knew it would appeal to the readers of the letter if he wrote about never knowing any “New South!” and that Sewanee has an important role to play in “social reorganization.” To whatever degree his thinking was molded by the South of 1919, he saw Sewanee in the same light: Sewanee was still as it was in 1870, that is, a place that more than anywhere else resembled 1850.

Williams’s remarks underscore the need to study Sewanee’s post-Civil War history as just as fraught and complex as any pre-war history. There is a lot to be uncovered and examined in a Sewanee history that incorporates the people who attended the university — and without which the university would not have existed — along with the usual emphasis on the lives of Vice-Chancellors and founders and benefactors. Knowing who comprised the student body and who those people really were is integral to understanding the history of the university as a whole. This work isn’t final or definitive, though it does attempt to put some evidence to the story. More study ought to be done and will be done on the early students of Sewanee, how they shaped the university, and how the university shaped them. Instead of conjecture and assumption about what the early students believed and what they did, instead of using the students to further one idea of the university’s past or another, their histories can actually be discovered. In my estimation, the more we learn about the students, the more we will learn about the university. Some students can provide small windows into the university’s past, others larger entryways. Sometimes, the stories speak for themselves.

Obituary of Ralph Prosser

After Sewanee, Ralph Prosser finished his education at Nashotah House, an Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin. But he returned South again, as he always had, and was ordained in his native Mississippi by a legendary Sewanee man, Bishop William Mercer Green. He spent the rest of his life as a priest in the Diocese of Louisiana, before succumbing to blood poisoning in 1923. “Ever a loyal confederate,” Prosser never let go of the Southern cause. He was chosen by fellow former Confederates as the Chaplain General of the Louisiana Division of Confederate Veterans, a position he proudly held until his death. It had been nearly 60 years since teenaged Prosser’s brief enlistment in the Confederate military, even longer since he was a young master of at least twenty enslaved persons, but as he was buried, his coffin was lowered into the grave draped in a Confederate battle flag. Prosser had no qualms about who he was or what it meant to have fought to preserve the right to enslave black people. A verse from 2 Timothy closed out his obituary: “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith.”[xxi]

Notes to the Text

Thank you to the University Archives and Special Collections at Sewanee for the images used in this story.

[i] Prosser’s father served in the Confederate military, too, and as early as 1850 he had signed his name to a letter in the Woodville Republican decrying the “struggle between Northern might and Southern right.”  Letter, “To Hon. Jefferson Davis,” Woodville (Miss.) Republican, November 26, 1850,, accessed October 21, 2019,

[ii] Gone With the Wind, directed by Victor Fleming (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1939).

[iii] “A Loyal Soldier Goes to Receive his Award,” copy of article that appeared in Episcopal Church Paper, “The Diocese of Louisiana, Vol. 28, No. 3, published at New Orleans September 1923, which issue was dedicated to Sewanee”; R.H. Prosser biographical file, William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections, Sewanee, Tennessee, USA (hereafter cited as UA).

[iv] Address of the Board of Trustees of the University of the South, to the Southern Dioceses, in Reference to Its Choice of the Site for the University (Savannah: George H. Nichols, 1858), 104.

[v] Dedication, Sewanee Perspectives: On the History of the University of the South, ed. Gerald L. Smith and Samuel R. Williamson, Jr. (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2008).

[vi] “Address of the Commissioners for Raising the Endowment of the University of the South,” February 24, 1859, quoted in Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Aspirations, Success, and Civil War, 1832-1865” in Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2008), 8.

[vii] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Quintard: The Third Founder and His Colleagues, 1865-1866,” in The ReFounding of Sewanee, eds. Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., Gerald L. Smith, and John M. McCardell, Jr. (Sewanee: Sesquicentennial History Project, 2018), 41.

[viii] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 588.

[ix] Williamson, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History, 36.

[x] University of the South Arts and Sciences Catalog, 1870-71, College of Arts and Sciences Catalog and Announcements, UA.

[xi] Eugene D. Genovese, A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 3.

[xii] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “Success, Frustration, and at Last a Glimpse of a University, 1869-1870,” in The ReFounding of Sewanee, 122.

[xiii] The catalog supplied basic information such as the students’ names, hometowns, and matriculation year. In addition, 185 of the 226 students had “biographical files” at the University Archives, which contained the students’ registration cards (names, matriculation years, hometowns, etc.) and some additional information if it was available, such as subsequent careers and death dates. Some files included correspondence with university officials, newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, and information filled out by relatives or descendants.

[xiv] Abraham Lincoln, “Second Inaugural Address,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, accessed July 11, 2019,

[xv] Joseph P. Glatthaar, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served Under Robert E. Lee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 154.

[xvi]M’” for ‘matriculated,’ as in “C’” for class graduation year.

[xvii] Letter, “A Backward View of Sewanee,” October 1, 1937, John S. Bradford biographical file, UA.

[xviii] Williamson, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History, 8.

[xix] Philipp Ager, Leah Platt Boustan, Katherine Eriksson, “The Intergenerational Effects of a Large Wealth Stock: White Southerners After the Civil War,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2019.

[xx] Letter to Rev. N. Logan, Pass Christian, Mississippi, October 18, 1919, John Sharp Williams biographical file, UA.

[xxi] “A Loyal Soldier Goes to Receive his Award”; Prosser biographical file.


Sewanee Black History Digitization Days
Group picture from the July 5th Digitization Day.

We had a productive summer kicking off our Save Sewanee Black History initiative. The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation hosted two “digitization days” for present and former residents of the historical African American community of Sewanee and their descendants. The events have been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Common Heritage Grant. 

The goal of the events was to build a foundation for a community-based archive of Sewanee’s African American history by capturing and preserving the historical records and memories that are mostly missing from the official stories of Sewanee.

Carl Hill, Jr. shows his “Sewaneeian” t-shirt on Memorial Day — including the names of local places dear to Sewanee’s African American residents.

The two digitization days were hosted on Memorial Day and July 5th, traditional times for “Sewaneeians” to return to the Mountain. Current and past residents and their families who came to the St. Mark’s Community Center on Alabama Avenue were incredibly generous in sharing their histories and artifacts. Volunteers (college and seminary students, university faculty and staff, and community members) staffed the three main stations. They recorded oral histories, took down stories for a community mapping, and scanned an impressive array of photographs and memorabilia.

With food and music, the atmosphere was festive as folks shared their memories, pointing out where they grew up on the community map, bringing in family scrapbooks to be scanned, or telling their story in the oral history booth set up in Doug Cameron’s cozy camper outside. In addition to the digitization stations, each day featured a van tour of the historic African American neighborhood in Sewanee with stops at the site of the pool, the cemetery, and the Kennerly School.

In addition to the work of staff, the Project had three energetic undergraduate Research Assistants — Maddy Parks, Colton Williams, and Klarke Stricklen — who helped in a myriad of ways. The planning for both days was done over the course of months with a committee of community members. The Project is particularly grateful to Carl Hill, Jr., Jimmy Staten, Shirley Taylor, Sandra Turner, Jackie Duncan, and Elmore Torbert for their efforts spreading the word and making each day a memorable success. Nor could we have launched this work without the contributions and good cheer of Doug Cameron, Rob Lamborn, and Otey Memorial Parish Church. And, of course, NEH funding was critical to building the foundation for this and future efforts to record and preserve Sewanee Black History.

Overall, the digitization days were a great success in building awareness of Sewanee’s black history and in seeding the community-based archive project. Over 100 African Americans with ties to Sewanee returned to the Mountain over the two days to participate. This was the first step in building this community archive, but efforts will continue this year with a permanent scanning station in the new Roberson Project offices in the university’s Gailor Hall.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article or in the funded project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Filling in the Spaces: A Reconsideration of the Turbulent Desegregation of Sewanee’s School of Theology, 1952-1953, Part II

Image by artist Allan Crite for The Theo-Log (1953)

By Hannah Pommersheim, T’19
Research Assistant for the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2018

[Editor’s note: Hannah Pommersheim here adds a reflection that follows from her earlier post on the resignation of eight of the faculty members of the School of Theology over the university’s decision not to desegregate its graduate program. She urges us to reconsider these events, not as a “crisis” that the university was fortunate to survive, but as an example of Christian witness that remains powerfully meaningful to the Sewanee community today. It is the sacrifice, not the crisis, that Sewanee needs to remember.]

During orientation when I entered the School of Theology in 2016, the new class of students was sent home one night with a copy of the Sewanee Theological Review from 2003 and instructed to read it. Within these pages, I found a surprising story about the racial desegregation of the School of Theology in 1953. I learned that the process of change was instigated in part by the willingness of the Theology faculty to stand up to the university’s governing Trustees and ask for Christian action. When in June 1952 the university refused to desegregate the School of Theology, the Theology faculty published a letter asking the university to reconsider. The letter was not well received by the administration, and under duress from the Vice-Chancellor and the board, the faculty resigned, all leaving before actual desegregation took place in June 1953. This blip in my seminary orientation stuck with me. It seemed to be a story everyone knew, vaguely, but that we didn’t discuss much outside of orientation and Church History class. 

These troubling impressions were still on my mind this past summer when I had the opportunity to be a researcher for the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. I wanted to spend my summer helping to advance the goals of the Project, yes, but I also wanted to better understand what the actions to dismantle Sewanee’s color line had meant to these professors and what it meant to the School of Theology then and now. I spent two months delving deep into the history of the School of Theology during the early 1950s.

The stories I am interested in are those that are hidden between the lines of our official histories. It has been nearly seven months since I completed my full-time research, and I now realize that I was not able to fully answer my original questions about who these professors were and how this action affected their students. Why? I answered many other questions — how the events unfolded in 1952-53, who the major players in Sewanee were, what underlying concerns and prejudices motivated those who wanted to keep Sewanee securely white. This institutional history is important, not insignificant. Yet what I did not find in my research is equally significant. I did not find the fully realized voices of the professors who resigned. I did not find the voices of the School of Theology students who supported them. I did not find the stories of what day-to-day seminary life was like in the wake of this “crisis.” 

In June when I began my research, I created a folder on my computer to store my notes and named it “Sewanee Integration Crisis.” My choice of this heading is telling. In our institutional history at Sewanee, these events of 1952-53 are always referred to as a “crisis.” [1] I, unconsciously, adopted the same terminology. Now, though, I wonder about this framing. Surely it was a tumultuous time at Sewanee and, to the administration, an identity and public relations crisis. Sewanee’s actions and missteps were described not only in the church press, but also in the national press. Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady received a slew of letters from both sides advising him on how Sewanee should act. In December 1952, six months after the original letter from the faculty, McCrady wrote to Bishop Charles Carpenter of Alabama, “I am convinced that the Seminary has been injured immeasurably and inexcusably by the action of the present protestors.” [2] But why do we continue to remember it as such? Naming this year as a crisis elides, in my opinion, the faithful and courageous actions taken by the School of Theology professors as well as the ultimate triumph of their cause. Sewanee did desegregate. It was a triumph of Christian witness. Instead of emphasizing the crisis, what if we focused on the courage of the professors and those first African American students who broke the color line at Sewanee? There are many troubled and troubling incidents in Sewanee’s long racial history, but this one, I believe, is one we can be proud of in retrospect.  

The position of this history can be visualized in our built landscape. This period has not been officially commemorated or remembered in Sewanee, a place that loves to memorialize its history. How do we commemorate these professors or the first African American students who attended Sewanee? How do we remember this costly history? Largely, if not completely, they are absent from the built landscape of Sewanee, even if they exist in memory. 

 By contrast, memorials to those figures who either vehemently opposed the professors’ action and the later desegregation or resisted dismantling the color line at Sewanee are found everywhere. I have spent much of my summer researching this period within the walls of the Jessie Ball duPont Library, a testament to the enormous sums of money she gave to Sewanee in the years after World War II. In fact, in 1954, a year after formally desegregating, the Board of Regents accepted a large financial gift from Mrs. duPont with the stipulation that the funds be used for “whites only.” Bishops of Sewanee are likewise commemorated around campus, nowhere more prominently than the gymnasium named for Frank Juhan, the legendary Sewanee athlete, Bishop of Florida, chancellor, and close friend of Mrs. duPont. But there are numerous others, including Carpenter Circle, the street named for Alabama Bishop Charles Carpenter, and St. Augustine’s Chapel, given in honor of Bishop Bland Mitchell of Arkansas. The reasoning goes that these were all loyal Sewanee bishops, some chancellors, and they deserve remembrance for their loyalty and contributions to the life of the university. A plaque for Bland Mitchell in All Saints’ refers to him as a “Loyal Son of Sewanee.” These bishops were on a spectrum in their stances towards desegregation, yet the fact remains that all opposed not only the desegregation of the seminary but the “methods” that the faculty employed to fight for desegregation. 

The only marker reminding us of the events of this period and their larger meaning comes from a seminary student publication at the time called The Theo-Log. In the spring of 1953, the student editor James Fenhagen and his colleagues commissioned the well-known African American and Episcopal artist Allan Crite to create brush paintings for their issue. [3] They asked him to paint images of Jesus, using Sewanee’s campus, and in particular the seminary chapel, St. Luke’s, as the backdrop. [4] In Crite’s black and white depictions, Christ is black.  Framed copies of these drawings are hung on the walls of the School of Theology, although there is no description of the context in which they were made. Beyond these remarkable and moving images, no markers exist to remind us of the events of 1952 and 1953: no plaques, no framed copy of the professors’ letter, no memorial, and, above all, nothing about the African American students who later enrolled at Sewanee. [5]

What, I wonder, is lost for those of us studying for ordained ministry by this absence? If Sewanee as a community still frames desegregation as a “crisis” that the university survived, then perhaps that is one reason we have not moved towards reclaiming these histories. We are formed by stories and by silences. As a seminarian studying for priesthood, I feel alienated by the priestly models that Sewanee most commonly valorizes, such as the antebellum founding Episcopal bishops, all of whom were slaveholders. Yet what I have learned through my work with the Project is that alternative examples of priestly ministry exist within the Sewanee canon, but have been buried. There are examples of those who spoke out on the side of justice and of those first African Americans who passed through Sewanee’s doors. There are examples of those still working to make the world of Sewanee more completely reflect the expansive diversity of the people of God. My hope for Sewanee — as an institution of higher education, as a leader in theological training, and as a community — is that we would abandon the “crisis” version of these events and more deeply consider whose stories are missing from our histories and begin the vital work of reclaiming them not just individually but communally. 

The Rev. Howard A. Johnson

In an effort to fill in the spaces, I offer one story I uncovered in the archives this summer. Professor Howard A. Johnson resigned along with eight others in 1952. A decade later, he was invited to return to Sewanee for a summer program. Johnson initially considered the invitation, but decided to turn it down after reading an issue of The Sewanee News that contained an article on “Sewanee and Segregation.” In declining, Johnson cited Sewanee’s slow progress towards integration in 1962 as the reason. Since leaving Sewanee, Johnson had spent two years traveling around the world visiting the countries of the Anglican Communion. In a letter addressed to Arthur Ben Chitty, Director of Public Relations and Alumni Secretary at Sewanee, Johnson said, “I trust you are aware that Sewanee is an embarrassment to the whole Anglican Communion. In the course of my two-year trip around the world, I, as an American Episcopalian, was asked anguished questions about Sewanee a thousand times — and the questions came from people who did not realize that I had once been a member of the University.” [6] Chitty’s wife, Elizabeth Nick, responded to Johnson by outlining the strides Sewanee had made towards integration, pointing out that Sewanee was the “first major private formerly all-white college in the South to desegregate at all” and ahead of other church-affiliated schools like Davidson, Duke, or Wake Forest. [7]

Johnson thanked her for the letter, but countered that “When one stands in history, however, the pace seems maddeningly slow. And to me the most distressing aspect of Sewanee’s present stance is its ambiguity. You may want to take me to task for this, but I cannot escape the impression that the University talks out of both sides of its mouth, that it says one thing to the people who chiefly foot its bills and that it says something rather different to the Church at large from whom it needs signs of recognition, respectability, and reconciliation.” [8] He concludes, “In short, Sewanee seems to me to equivocate.”[9] To those in Sewanee like the Chittys, who were fighting hard for integration, this response did not seem to acknowledge their hard work. Johnson said he hoped one day to return to Sewanee. Alas, this was never to happen. He died unexpectedly in 1974. 

This exchange has stayed with me all through and since the summer because I identify with both perspectives. Johnson and the Chittys both loved Sewanee and wanted to see it change, but they went about seeking that change in different ways. As someone training for priesthood, I often think about our moral obligations to speak out but also to stay and improve the places we love. Should Johnson have returned to Sewanee to spread the message that Sewanee’s reputation across the Anglican Communion was suffering greatly because of its slow progress? Or was Johnson’s refusal to associate with a place he saw equivocating on such important Gospel values the greater witness? 

Perhaps there is not one right answer to these questions. This past summer I have been reflecting on the lives of the professors who resigned from the School of Theology in 1952 amid their prophetic call for ending segregation. This action was consequential — they put their livelihoods and families on the line. Three of them were alumni, and yet through this action, were effectively disowned. According to Vice-Chancellor McCrady, “the protesters have done the University a great injustice which only time will heal.” [10] They committed the greatest sin – disloyalty – in the eyes of the University. The only professor who did not participate in the protest, Bayard Hale Jones, dismissively referred to his colleagues as “self-canonized Martyrs.” [11] Such comments must have been painful to those men. I am simultaneously proud of the seminary I attend because of the example and witness of these professors and ashamed and embarrassed to be a part of a larger institution that conspired in forcing nine talented and principled scholars into exile in defense of upholding segregation. 

In the words of Howard Johnson, I, too, often find the pace of progress at Sewanee “maddeningly slow.”  But I hope, as he and the other professors who resigned did, to be an agent of accelerating the pace of progress.  May we remember the names of those involved, the nine witnessing professors: Craighill Brown, Bob Grant, Lansing Hicks, Bob McNair, Allen Reddick, Claude Guthrie, Dick Wilmer, Jr., Howard Johnson, and Fritz Shafer. And may we uncover and commemorate the first African American students at Sewanee — John Moncrief, Samuel Rudder, Joseph Green and others — so that by honoring and reflecting on their examples, we might see what more work needs to be done at Sewanee today. 

In 1965 the Rev. Joseph Nathaniel Green and the Rev. William Fletcher O’Neal were the first African Americans to receive a degree from the University of the South. Father Green has been honored with an honorary degree from Sewanee.

[1] See former Vice-Chancellor Samuel R. Williamson’s comment, “no crisis in the university’s long history has received more public notice or more discussion” than that over integrating the School of Theology, in Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South (Sewanee, Tenn., 2008), 262; or former Professor of Church History Don Armentrout’s account in the Sewanee Theological Review entitled, “A Documentary History of the Integration Crisis at the School of Theology 1951-53.”

[2] Letter from Edward McCrady to Bishop Charles Carpenter, 16 Dec. 1952, in University Archives and Special Collections, Sewanee, Tenn. (hereafter UASC).

[3] More research into Allan Crite and his Sewanee connections is certainly needed! 

[4] James C. Fenhagen, “Sewanee in 1953: A Reminiscence,” in Sewanee Theological Review 46:2 (Easter 2003), 225. 

[5] There are two other traces of commemoration. Dean Brown, like all of the seminary deans, has a portrait hanging at Hamilton Hall. (Bob Grant was also an interim Dean, so he has a portrait as well.) Also, when Dean Brown died, two torches in the seminary chapel were dedicated to his memory by his former student Duncan Gray.  

[6] Letter from Howard Johnson to Arthur Ben Chitty, 29 June 1962 (Howard A. Johnson Bio File), UASC. 

[7] Letter from Elizabeth Nick Chitty to Howard Johnson, 2 July 1962 (Howard A. Johnson Bio File), UASC.

[8] Letter from Howard A. Johnson to Elizabeth Nick Chitty, 10 July 1962 (Howard A. Johnson Bio File), UASC.

[9] Letter from Howard A. Johnson to Elizabeth Nick Chitty, 10 July 1962 (Howard A. Johnson Bio File), UASC.

[10] Letter from Edward McCrady to the Rt. Rev. Thomas N. Carruthers, 18 March 1953, UASC.

[11] Letter from Bayard Jones to Margaret Myers, 22 July 1952, UASC.

‘The Real Issue’: A Reconsideration of the Turbulent Desegregation of Sewanee’s School of Theology, 1952-1953, Part I

The faculty of Sewanee’s School of Theology in 1950; those who left in response to the university Trustees’ rejection of desegregation in 1952 are marked with an asterisk. First row: Robert McNair*, F. Craighill Brown*, James Allen Reddick*, Bayard Hale Jones. Second row: Robert M. Grant*, R. Lansing Hicks*, and Howard A. Johnson. Three other faculty – Claude A. Guthrie, Frederick Q. Shafer, and Richard H. Wilmer – also resigned and are not pictured here.

By Hannah Pommersheim, T’19
Research Assistant for the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2018


This summer I had the privilege of serving as a researcher for the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. As I am a student at the School of Theology training for Episcopal priesthood, this internship was perhaps not the most obvious way to spend a summer. Yet it was my position as a seminarian that interested me most in this work. From this research, I have written two posts. Part One, below, is a historical account of what occurred in 1952-1953 and led to the desegregation of the School of Theology at Sewanee. My approach differs from more familiar accounts because it focuses on the faculty who protested Sewanee’s racial segregation, how they framed their dissent, and how Sewanee leaders’ veneration of the university’s antebellum founders was used to oppose desegregation. Part Two, which will be published later, is a more personal post, in which I grapple with my position as a seminarian relating to this history. What unites these posts is my desire to reframe our memory of this period by recovering the perspective of the professors whose protests led them to leave the university. What I seek to uncover in my two posts are the underlying principles at stake for the seminary faculty. What were the protesting faculty fighting for? How did students’ and university leaders’ understanding of Sewanee’s history and its founders’ vision shape their defense of segregation? How important were questions of Christian ethics and witness to the protests and conflicts?

In their own words, the protesting faculty were motivated by their sense of Christian discipleship, by their vocation as clergy in the Episcopal Church, and by their desire to see the institution that they worked for stand up for Christian principles. In refocusing our memories on these professors, I believe we can see this episode in light of Christian ethics and what they mean for our communal ideals and obligations. For those who view Sewanee’s connection with the Episcopal Church as an impediment to social progress on campus, I hope this episode demonstrates the ways in which our Episcopal identity has been a force for justice in our history. There is much work to be done to recover the voices of those first African American men who enrolled and broke the color line at Sewanee – Episcopal priests themselves, I might add – and the Project at large is pursuing that history. This post is a starting place to shift away from the passive construction (Sewanee was desegregated) and toward a more accurate historical account of how the seminary’s faculty and a handful of courageous and determined young African American priests forced the University of the South to end its whites-only educational practices. From my position as a student training for priesthood, the events of 1952-1953 also present an opportunity to celebrate the moral imagination and Christian witness of those professors whose actions forced Sewanee to desegregate.

Questioning the Crisis

During those two decades of racial strife [in Mississippi], I watched opponents of integration resort over and over again to criticism of the “methods” and “motivations” of those advocating change rather than dealing with the issue itself—just as so many of the trustees and regents, and the administration itself, had done in my senior year [at the School of Theology]. And, certainly, over and over again, the real issue was evaded by attacking the character and personal behavior of those on the side of integration—just as happened on ‘the Mountain’ in 1952-1953.

The Right Rev. Duncan M. Gray, Jr. (1926-2016), Bishop of Mississippi and Chancellor of the University of the South [i]

The years 1952 and 1953 were some of the most turbulent in the history of the University of the South. At the end of the Easter (spring) term in 1953, all but one of the faculty of the School of Theology, the university’s chaplain, and the head of the Religion Department at the College resigned and left the Mountain because Sewanee’s Board of Trustees, fully supported by its administration, had voted not to admit African American men to its School of Theology. Shortly after the resignations, the Trustees reversed themselves, officially desegregating the School of Theology (although not the undergraduate College of Arts and Sciences). The Trustees’ resolution from June 1953 stated that all applicants for the School of Theology would be considered “regardless of race.” That summer, John M. Moncrief, Jr., a priest in Orangeburg, S.C., became the first African American student at the University of the South when he enrolled in a summer program for clergy at the Graduate School of Theology.

Moncrief’s matriculation capped a year of fierce and destructive debate about the identity, vision, and purpose of the University of the South and its Episcopal seminary. But damage already had been done. Over sixty percent of its student body had transferred. [ii] In academic terms, the School of Theology had lost a roster of distinguished and accomplished theologians and now had to rebuild the faculty from the ground up. Off the mountain, newspapers and church publications nationwide had portrayed the university as an institution of the Episcopal church determined to resist challenges to the segregated social order of the South.

Most often writers who focus on this time in Sewanee’s history have described these events as a “crisis” for the university, which it was fortunate to survive. (For examples see former Vice-Chancellor Sam Williamson’s Sesquicentennial History chapter on “The McCrady Years,” or former School of Theology Church History Professor Don Armentrout’s article, “A Documentary History of the Integration Crisis at the School of Theology 1951-53” in the Sewanee Theological Review. [iii])

But my research has shown me that framing the story as a “crisis” tends to privilege the perspectives and priorities of the university’s leaders. It tends to fixate on the administrative “ins and outs” of managing the conflict and protecting institutional interests.

Something important gets lost in such accounts — what Duncan Gray, himself a seminarian at that time, called “the real issue.” He had learned the hard but valuable lesson during his last year in seminary that in defense of racial supremacy, even the most enlightened and educated of southern whites would attack “the character and personal behavior of those on the side of integration” instead of confronting “the real issue” of how racial hierarchies stood in light of Christian principles and ethics. For Duncan Gray, the real issue was how a Christian ought to think and act in the face of racial injustice.

From my perspective, what needs recovering from these turbulent years and added to the communal memory of the so-called “crisis” is how the Theology professors grounded their arguments and actions in Christian ethics — how they insisted that the Trustees and administrators not speak of segregation or desegregation as merely a business or practical matter, but to name “any Christian principle involved” in the preservation of the status quo. Expanding our understanding in this way enables us to see these events not just as a crisis averted or survived. We also can see them as leading to a triumph over racial injustice — a triumph made possible by the actions and sacrifices of the protesting faculty members who resigned.


The Beginning

The “Sewanee Integration Crisis,” as it was later known, had its origins in broader church politics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the national level, the Episcopal Church was debating how best to provide for the education of African American clergy in the South after the only all-black seminary, Bishop Payne Divinity School in Virginia, closed in 1949. Rather than opening a new all-black seminary, the Synod of the Fourth Province of the Episcopal Church (Province IV consists of the southern-most Episcopal districts, or “dioceses,” which own the university; sometimes it is called the “Sewanee Province”) passed a resolution in the fall of 1951 calling on Sewanee to desegregate to provide for training of black clergy. In June 1952, the Sewanee Trustees were responding to this resolution from Province IV. Before the vote, there was evidence that several prominent bishops from Province IV opposed desegregation, the foremost of whom was Bishop Frank Juhan of Florida. Juhan wrote to all the Trustees before the June 1952 vote to let them know of his opposition to desegregation. [iv]

On June 6, 1952, the Trustees passed a resolution stating “there is nothing in the ordinances of the University to prevent the admission of Negroes…but [we] are of the opinion that the encouragement of the enrollment of such students now is inadvisable.” [v] They cited two reasons for continued segregation. First, Tennessee state law prohibited integrated education. Second, the seminary was part of a wider university and not a standalone institution; to end segregation in the graduate school would effectively end it in the undergraduate college, too. In closing, they said, “we are of the opinion that furtherance of the Church’s work and the happiness and mutual good will of both races will not now be served” by admitting black seminarians. [vi]

"Sewanee Rules Against Negro Theology Class"  The Nashville Tennessean June 7, 1952
“Sewanee Rules Against Negro Theology Class,” Nashville Tennessean, June 7, 1952.

Newspapers in the South and across the nation immediately reported the Trustees’ action. “Sewanee Rules Against Negro Theology Class” read the front-page headline of the Nashville Tennessean on June 7. The School of Theology faculty, having learned of the Trustees’ resolution from such media coverage, drafted their response on the evening of June 9. On June 11, a letter signed by eight faculty members dissenting from the Trustees’ decision not to desegregate was published in the New York Times. [vii] The faculty appealed to Christian ethics in support of desegregation, citing an encyclical from the 1948 Lambeth Conference, a meeting of bishops from across the worldwide Anglican Communion. Additionally, the faculty cited the need to train African American clergy for the church and their own integrity as faculty and priests. They listed their reasons and petitioned the Trustees as follows:

We therefore request a reconsideration of this question by the Trustees. We request that the public be informed that the issue is being considered. We request a statement from the Trustees, not later than their next regular meeting, that they approve in principle the relevant resolutions of the Lambeth Conference and that they are prepared to allow admission of qualified Negro students to the School of Theology … If our request is ignored or if the assurance sought is refused, we are without exception prepared to resign our positions and terminate our connection with the University in June 1953.

As Bishop Gray recalled, the response at Sewanee focused on the “methods” and “motivations” of the dissenting faculty instead of the larger issue of desegregation in light of Christian ethics and the church’s own resolutions. Critics made much of the fact that the protestors released their letter to the press instead of first sending it to the Trustees. In fact, they had sent the letter to the Chancellor, the Bishop of Arkansas Bland Mitchell, and Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady, but the press received it at virtually the same time. Although the administration claimed they had been blindsided, the position of the theological faculty was well-known to the bishop Trustees.  The Theological faculty had met with the bishops to discuss the “negro question” on June 7. Matters had apparently gotten so heated that Chancellor Mitchell told a faculty member, “Well, if you don’t like things the way they are, you can leave!” The faculty members interpreted Mitchell’s statement as a threat. [viii]

Another point of contention was whether the closing statement of the faculty letter constituted an ultimatum or a strike-threat. Vice-Chancellor McCrady and Chancellor Mitchell interpreted it as both and went on the defensive. They criticized the faculty members in the Sewanee community for their methods and tactics, which were equated with communist strategies. Important donor and segregationist Jessie Ball duPont wrote that the faculty’s ultimatum constituted a “communistic act” and compared the professors to Stalin. [ix] Red-baiting or labeling integrationists as communists was a common tactic in the 1950s for silencing progressive views. “In the South,” writes historian Michael K. Honey, “the accelerating anticommunist rhetoric had the effect of cloaking segregationist and anti-union appeals with a new degree of patriotic responsibility.” [x]

In a letter to the Dean of the School of Theology, Craighill Brown, Bishop Juhan said, “I honestly don’t believe any group of freshmen could have done anything more inconsiderate, unethical, and stupid…”[xi]Vice-Chancellor McCrady commented, “Trial by press, deliberate cultivation of ill will by name calling, and high pressure techniques in general may serve the purpose of a Hitler or a Stalin but do not, I think, extend the Kingdom of God on earth.”[xii]In response to these hostile reactions on the Mountain, the dissenting faculty issued a “Statement of Clarification” on June 21, rebutting the claim that their original letter constituted an ultimatum.

"DEAN BROWN OF SEWANEE: An ultimatum on the subject of Negro seminarians" The Living Church June 22, 1952
Headline in The Living Church: “Dean Brown of Sewanee: An ultimatum on the subject of Negro seminarians,” June 22, 1952.

By contrast, outside of Sewanee, the press was widely supportive of the faculty. Hodding Carter, the well-known editor of the Delta Democrat-Times in Greenville, Mississippi, wrote an editorial titled “Eight Courageous Men of God,” which was then reprinted in The Living Church. [xiii] Newspapers around the country, from The Atlanta Constitution and The Nashville Tennessean to The New York Times, published accounts of the faculty’s letter. Pressure from the Episcopal Church at large was an important factor in the entire episode. The church press all vocally supported the protesters. The deans of Episcopal seminaries wrote a supportive letter as did several Episcopal dioceses and local church vestries and organizations. Other letters from around the country poured in to Vice-Chancellor McCrady’s office, offering opinions, advice, support, and admonishment.

A Tumultuous Time

At the end of July 1952, Chancellor Mitchell called a special session of the Board of Regents, during which he appointed a special committee to investigate admitting black students to the School of Theology. Bishop Edwin Penick of North Carolina, a known supporter of desegregation, chaired the committee. The Penick Committee, as it would be known, began their work immediately, but they did not submit a report until the following May of 1953. During this meeting, at the suggestion of Bishop Edmund Dandridge of Tennessee, the Regents met with the faculty and prayed together as a show of unity during a very tumultuous time. A statement released by the Regents after this meeting added a note of optimism: “both groups [Regents and faculty] feel assured of the cooperation and harmonious operation of the School of Theology during the coming academic year.” [xiv] A truce of sorts had been agreed upon, but it did not hold for long.

Seminarians in 1952
Seminarians in 1952

When school began in the fall, the seminary students returned to a hostile environment left by the controversy over the summer. In response, on September 23, the School of Theology student body passed a series of resolutions in support of their faculty. Notably, one of the staunchest supporters of the faculty was student Duncan Gray Jr., president of School of Theology student body and future bishop. Gray found himself in a difficult position: His father was the Bishop of Mississippi, making him an owning bishop and trustee, while Vice-Chancellor McCrady was his maternal uncle. Yet Gray was set in his allegiances. He supported his professors, whom he later named the most important theological influences in his life. [xv] Looking back later, Gray said the events of his senior year at the School of Theology (1952-53) schooled him well for his ministry and Civil Rights activism as a priest in Mississippi. In conversations “with students, alumni, trustees and regents,” Gray recalled, “I heard every argument possible for preserving segregation in all areas of public life.” This aspect of his education, he said, “prepared [me] for every argument that I ever heard in the next twenty years back in Mississippi. There was nothing new.” [xvi]

The Professors Resign

"Sewanee Urged to Admit Negroes to St. Luke's" and "Dr. Wilmer Urges Cancel Color Line at St. Luke's" The Sewanee Purple October 31, 1951
Headlines in the Sewanee Purple, October 31, 1951: “Sewanee Urged to Admit Negroes to St. Luke’s” and “Dr. Wilmer Urges Cancel Color Line at St. Luke’s.” 

Two important factors worked together to convince the faculty that their resignations needed to be submitted sooner than their original deadline of June 1953. First was the ousting of Professor Bob Grant. As one of the older and most distinguished faculty members, Grant had served as Interim Dean and had won a Guggenheim Fellowship.  In September, Vice-Chancellor McCrady confronted Grant with the charge of public drunkenness. The incident in question had taken place six years earlier, and the segregationist Bishop Juhan was the chief accuser. [xvii] Grant did not dispute the charges and, rather than face his accusers, resigned. In addition to Grant, rumors of misconduct also circulated about Professors Bob McNair and Allen Reddick. The professors apparently believed the administration to be the source of the rumors, leading McNair to write to Chancellor Mitchell asking him to substantiate the charges against him. Chancellor Mitchell responded not by presenting proof, but by asking McNair if he knew in his heart he was guilty: “My understanding of Christian ethics and moral theology is that the guilt or sin in any act or course lies in the doing of it and not in whether the guilt or sin is alleged or proved.”[xviii]The faculty believed they were the targets of a larger scheme by the supporters of segregation to discredit them personally in order to undermine the case they made for desegregation. McCrady, the Vice-Chancellor, later denied any such operation, but a letter from Jessie Ball duPont to Bishop Mitchell in August 1952 suggests otherwise. “The elimination process one by one,” she wrote, “sounds very wise. I trust it has already begun.” [xix]

Robert McNair

Robert Grant

A second matter that disturbed the faculty involved Professor McNair. At the Trustees meeting in June 1952, they had voted to promote McNair to Full Professor, which carried with it tenure. After the faculty published their letter on June 9, the McCrady administration decided to withhold the promotion. When McNair learned of this in September, he filed a complaint with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which investigated. The AAUP also was warned of the firing of Grant, but he did not wish to pursue the matter, so they only investigated the circumstances of McNair’s promotion.  The AAUP report concluded that the only reason the promotion was withheld was that McNair had signed the June 9 letter of protest. Therefore, the AAUP reported, the action was a serious threat to “academic freedom” at Sewanee. Withholding the promotion, they observed, “was a step that could scarcely fail to create, in the protesting group, deep uncertainty as to the intentions and the good will of the University.” [xx]

In response to these pressures, as well as the general atmosphere at Sewanee, the professors tendered their resignations on October 6, 1952. Initially, the Vice-Chancellor did not accept them, but he relented in late October when Dean Brown threatened to make the resignations public if they were not accepted. While all the professors agreed to serve out the rest of the 1952-1953 school year, the School of Theology faced a potentially disastrous situation: It had only one professor returning for the following fall.  The process of seeking a new School of Theology faculty as well as a new University Chaplain began. In February, the university announced it had assembled a new faculty with Bishop Dandridge of Tennessee as Dean. [xxi] With the question of desegregation as yet unresolved, the hiring of a new faculty was met with derision by some. In the Episcopal Churchnews, the Rev. John Krumm, Chaplain at Columbia University, referred to these newly hired faculty members as “scabs,” continuing the theme of labor language. [xxii]

"St. Luke's Faculty Leaves in June: Vice-Chancellor Accepts 8 Voluntary Resignations" The Sewanee Purple November 12, 1952
Headline in the Sewanee Purple, November 12, 1952: “St. Luke’s Faculty Leaves in June: Vice-Chancellor Accepts 8 Voluntary Resignations.”

At the School of Theology, the spring of 1953 was one of deep uncertainty. Concerned that there might not be a new faculty in place for the following year, some seminary professors who were leaving taught their senior level classes in the evenings for the current middlers (second year seminarians) so they would be prepared for their ordination exams.[xxiii]In the end, many bishops including Penick of North Carolina pulled their students from Sewanee: Of the 56 rising middlers and seniors, 35 transferred and 21 remained.

Desegregation at Last

In June 1953, the Trustees met again in a special session to consider desegregation. They had before them the Penick Committee Report, a relatively comprehensive document that included data about the number of African American students at other Episcopal seminaries (there were not many), opinions of faculty, staff, and students, legal matters, and discussions with seminaries that had desegregated about their experiences. A letter from Bishop Thomas Carruthers of South Carolina to McCrady expressed the wider church support for the faculty who had resigned: “the General Church will accept but one answer” on the matter of desegregation. [xxiv]

Those who wanted to maintain Sewanee as an all-white institution often justified their positions by citing Sewanee’s founders. The university was founded by Episcopal Bishops in 1856-1860 to defend and advance the interests of the South’s slaveholding civilization. The 1950s critics alluded to preserving the southern way of life envisaged by those founders. Vice-Chancellor McCrady himself said that desegregation would violate “the founders’ spirit and intention.” [xxv] The Selma branch of the Sewanee alumni association argued that desegregation would be to “abolish forever the ideas of Southern culture of Bishops Polk, Otey and Quintard.” [xxvi] The chief opponent of desegregation on the seminary faculty, Professor Bayard Jones, made exactly this point in a letter to McCrady: “the Sewanee envisaged by the Founders could not survive the experiment which is urged.” [xxvii]

Yet in the end, a different vision of Sewanee won out. “In this instance the church influence proved decisive,” writes Vice-Chancellor Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., “overriding the chancellor, the vice-chancellor, the Board of Regents, and the college faculty.” [xxviii] As of June 1953, the School of Theology was officially desegregated, a victory for the faculty who were no longer there to see it. Yet the actual work of desegregation was done by the Rev. John Moncrief and the brave African American priests who followed in his footsteps, breaking down the color line at Sewanee. The School of Theology, the university, the students, and the faculty involved were forever changed. Perhaps, we are only now beginning to learn the lessons we ought from this time, by moving beyond a narrative of institutional crisis and rediscovering the powerful Christian witnesses in our communal history.

About the author: Hannah Pommersheim is a third-year Masters of Divinity student at the School of Theology. She is a Candidate for Holy Orders from the Diocese of Texas. Originally from South Dakota and a graduate of Davidson College, Hannah lives in Sewanee with her husband.

Appendix: The full text of the faculty letter of June 9, 1952:

To the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees of the University of the South


We, the Dean and Members of the Faculty of the School of Theology, the Chaplain of the University, and the Department of Religion of the College of Arts and Sciences, of the University of the South, are deeply disturbed by the statement in the public press reporting the negative action taken by the Board of Trustees on the resolution from the Synod of the Province of Sewanee, asking for the admission of Negro students to the School of Theology.

We therefore wish to put on record our convictions on this matter,

First, we deplore the Trustees’ failure to state any Christian principle involved, with the consequent reduction of the whole issue to the level of expediency only.

Second, the position taken seems to us untenable in the light of Christian ethics and of the teaching of the Anglican Communion;

“God has given man responsibility. To exercise it, he must have freedom. The Christian Church therefore demands essential human rights for all, irrespective of race or colour. There are unhappily countries in the world where such rights are denied. We are grateful for the work which is being done by the Commission of the United Nations on Human Rights.We pledge ourselves to work for the removal of the injustice and oppression, and, in particular, to stand by those whose right to religious liberty is threatened.” (The Encyclical Letter, The Lambeth Conference, 1948)

Third, the statement that there are ten other Episcopal seminaries which do accept Negro students, together with the implication in the Chancellor’s remark that the Sewanee Trustees’ refusal to admit Negroes now is in “the furtherance of the Church’s work and the happiness and mutual good will or both races”, can only mean that the ministry to the Negro members of the twenty-two owning Dioceses and the training of clergy or their needs is no concern of the University.

Fourth, we believe that the statement of the Trustees, as reported, if not re-examined and revised will do irreparable harm to the reputation of Sewanee as a center of Christian education,

Fifth, the action of the Trustees undermines our effectiveness as teachers of the Christian faith and way of life. It compromises us as priests and teachers in this University, which is owned and operated by the Episcopal Church.

We therefore request a reconsideration of this question by the Trustees. We request that the public be informed that the issue is being considered. We request a statement from the Trustees, not later than their next regular meeting, that they approve in principle the relevant resolutions of the Lambeth Conference and that they are prepared to allow admission of qualified Negro students to the School of Theology. Meanwhile, we shall do our best to servethe Church in training men for the Ministry, though under adverse circumstances which we protest.

If our request is ignored or if the assurance sought is refused, we are without exception prepared to resign our positions and terminate our connection with the University in June 1953.

[The following signed the letter: The Very Reverend F. Craighill Brown, D, D., Dean; the Reverend Robert M. Grant, Th.D., Professor of New Testament; the Reverend R. Lansing Hicks, B.D., Associate Professor of Old Testament; the Reverend Robert M. McNair, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology; Allen Reddick, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Church History; the Reverend Claude E. Guthrie, B.D., Instructor in Practical Theology; the Reverend Richard H. Wilmer, Jr., D. Phil., Chaplain of the University and Professor of English Bible; and the Reverend Frederick Q. Shafer, S.T.D., head of the Department of Religion in the College of Arts and Sciences.


Thank you to the University Archives and Special Collections at Sewanee for the images used in this story. The McCrady Papers and the School of Theology Integration Papers are both housed in the University Archives. 

[i] Duncan M. Gray, Jr., “Sewanee: There and Back Again,” Sewanee Theological Review (Easter 2003), 218.

[ii] Donald S. Armentrout, “A Documentary History of the Integration Crisis at the School of Theology 1951-53,” Sewanee Theological Review (Easter 2003), 210. Of the 56 rising middlers and seniors, 35 transferred and 21 remained.

[iii] Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South, 262, and Armentrout, “A Documentary History of the Integration Crisis at the School of Theology 1951-53.”

[iv] Letter from Alfred P. Chambliss, Jr. to Edward McCrady, January 9, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 81. He says, “I was very shocked and distressed over a letter which I received from Bishop Juhan, and I suppose he sent it to all members of the Board of Trustees. In this letter, he expressed his own opinion that the resolution passed by the Provincial Synod, requesting the admission of Negro students to the School of Theology at Sewanee, should be turned down by the Board.”

[v] Resolution passed by the Board of Trustees on June 6, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 100.

[vi] Resolution passed by the Board of Trustees on June 6, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 100.

[vii] Two School of Theology professors were away from the Mountain at the time. Bayard Hale Jones denounced his fellow faculty members and Howard A. Johnson immediately added his name to the letter, bringing the total number of signers to nine.

[viii] All of this is recalled in a letter from Bayard Hale Jones to Edward McCrady, August 19, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[ix] Letter from Jessie Ball duPont to Edward McCrady, July 1, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[x] Michael K. Honey, “Operation Dixie, the Red Scare, and the Defeat of Southern Labor Organizing,” in American Labor and the Cold War, edited by Cherny, Issel, and Taylors, 226.

[xi] Letter from Bishop Juhan to F. Craighill Brown, June 21, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[xii] Letter from Edward McCrady to H. L. Graham, February 25, 1953, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[xiii] The Living Church, June 29, 1952, School of Theology Integration Files, Box 2.

[xiv] Press release from “Sewanee News Room,” August 1, 1952, School of Theology Integration Files, Box 2.

[xv] Gray, 218.

[xvi] Gray, 218.

[xvii] Araminta Stone Johnston, And One Was a Priest: The Life and Times of Duncan M. Gray, Jr., 107.

[xviii] Letter from Bland Mitchell to Robert McNair, November 26, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[xix] Williamson, 260. Quotations are from her authorized biography, Richard Greening Hewlett, Jessie Ball duPont.

[xx] AAUP report, undated, School of Theology Integration Files, Box 2.

[xxi] “Bishop E. P. Dandridge Elected Seminary Dean,” Sewanee Alumni News, February 15, 1953, 3.

[xxii] Armentrout, 207. Krumm quotation from Episcopal Churchnews, March 1, 1953.

[xxiii] Thomas H. Carson, “The Way We Were: Life at Sewanee in 1953,” Sewanee Theological Review (Easter 2003), 214.

[xxiv] Letter from Rt. Rev. Thomas N. Carruthers of South Carolina to Edward McCrady, January 14, 1953, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[xxv] Letter from Edward McCrady to Mrs. Allen August 2, 1953, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[xxvi] Houston Roberson, “The Problem of the Twentieth Century: Sewanee, Race, and Race Relations,” in Sewanee Perspectives: On the History of the University of the South,  edited by Gerald L. Smith and Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., 487. Roberson is quoting a letter from the Selma Sewanee Alumni.

[xxvii] Letter from Bayard Hale Jones to Edward McCrady August 19, 1952, McCrady Papers, Box 81.

[xxviii] Williamson, 214.

‘Within the Pale of the Plantation States’: Slavery and the Governance of the University of the South in 1860

Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states and the United States (1861).

[Click here to go directly to the interactive map.]

Across the United States today, many of the nation’s oldest universities and colleges have, for the first time, begun researching their historical ties to slavery and uncovering the ways  their institutions relied on enslaved persons for the labor performed on their campuses or as the basis of fortunes they tapped for funding.

The University of the South is at the start of its own six-year investigation, led by its Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. Today the Project shares part of the research it has amassed by introducing an interactive map feature entitled ‘Within the Pale of the Plantation States’: Slavery and the Governance of the University of the South in 1860.

Our aim with the publication of this map is to gain a better understanding of the significance of slavery in the campaign to establish the University of the South. The Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk, launched that drive in July 1856, when he wrote a letter to nine of his fellow southern bishops, rallying them to join forces in founding a southern and Episcopal university. This great center of learning would be the equal of any other in the world and centrally located, he explained, “within the pale of the plantation states.”

With that telling phrase, Polk rooted the identity of the planned university in the region defined by slave-based plantation agriculture, its enslaved population numbering some 4 million persons, and the phenomenal wealth it generated. Polk’s bold proposal later materialized as The University of the South, chartered in 1858.

The ten “plantation states” the bishop identified are represented in the interactive map compiled here. Save for Virginia, which does not appear here because it was not included in Polk’s campaign, the states corresponded to those of the Confederacy later formed in 1861.

The interactive map locates the home counties of the thirty-seven white men – Episcopal bishops, clergymen, and laymen – who served in 1860 as the original Trustees and governed the new University of the South. Clicking on the highlighted counties allows a closer inspection, revealing a more detailed demographic profile of the respective counties and each individual Trustee, including their assessed wealth and the number of persons they enslaved. (Links to the U.S. Census documents from which the information is drawn are provided, too.) You may click through the biographies on the left side or explore the map itself by selecting a county.

The map incorporates extensive research by Tanner Potts, C’15, the Project’s research associate, who worked closely with Molly Elkins, C’18, and Will Godsey, C’17, technicians in the university’s Landscape Analysis Lab, in preparing the illustration.

What we see in this accounting is that virtually all of the university’s early leaders held persons in bondage; in some cases, they held hundreds captive as slaves. Most hailed from counties where the enslaved population was comparatively large, and in some cases the numerical majority. The map’s profiling of the original leadership cadre indicates the university’s indebtedness to the wealth and power of persons whose fortunes were grounded in the slave-based plantation economy.

The map represents the initial phase of a larger project of “social geography” that uses Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping technology to profile and examine the university’s first generation of organizers and boosters in light of their connections with and investments in slavery.  Succeeding versions of the map will incorporate our ongoing research into the biographies of the nearly 300 persons who pledged upwards of $1 million to endow the University of the South.

Our interactive map is indebted to one of the landmark productions in the history of American cartography: the Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states and the United States. The U.S. Coast Survey issued this map in 1861 after the formation of the Confederacy and sold it “for the benefit of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U.S. Army.”

The map translated statistical information taken from the 1860 Census into a visual form, a process known today as “statistical cartography.” The map’s principal designer shaded each county according to the density of the enslaved population, the darkest indicating counties where slaves constituted 80 percent or more of the inhabitants. Doing so produced a picture of slavery and an argument against it that no one had ever seen or imagined before – a kind of “heat map” that linked the hotbeds of secessionist fervor to the areas of densest enslaved populations.

By overlaying our data on the 1861 map, we produce a revealing picture of the antebellum University of the South, its leadership class, and the slavery-defined “pale of the plantation states” that gave the university its first identity.

NOTES: For further information on Hergesheimer’s map, see Susan Schulten, “The Cartography of Slavery and the Authority of Statistics,” Civil War History, vol. X no. 1 (March 2010): 5-32. For information on the property categories in the Eight Census of 1860, see the instructions to the Census marshals at  this website.

CLOSER LOOKS: The Thompson Union Story

By Tanner Potts
Research Associate
Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation

How well do we really know our campus landmarks?

For example, take Thompson Union. Standing on University Avenue directly across from All Saints’ Chapel, it is one of the Sewanee campus’s legendary and most recognizable buildings. Originally a science hall and later the storied student union and still the location of the SUT (Sewanee’s movie theater), it has served the last two decades or more as the home of the university’s fundraising arm.

But how did it come about? And whom does its name honor?

In this interactive slideshow  (available at this link), the Project’s researcher Tanner Potts, C’15, shows why we need to follow his lead in taking much “closer looks” at this building and our campus as a whole to understand the histories of the memorials it retains to the leaders of the antebellum slaveholding order and to their resurgence to wealth, power, and influence as they succeeded in defeating Reconstruction.

Please email us ( with comments or questions.


Builders and Buildings

St. John’s Church, Ashwood (1839-1842)

By Woody Register, Professor of History and Director, Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation

Back in November, on a drizzly, blustery Saturday morning, an architect and three historians from Sewanee – John Runkle, Jody Allen, Ben King, and I – drove two hours west to a place near Columbia, Tennessee, to visit the church at the Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk’s Ashwood plantation. Polk’s neoclassical mansion house burned in the 1870s, but St. John’s Church, completed in 1842, endures.

The church is all the more impressive because the large towered brick structure (said to hold 500 persons) appears to be set in the middle of agricultural fields, as if it had been teleported there. There is no surrounding town or village, no neighborhood or community to which it appears to belong. A hundred or more yards from its front door is busy rural Highway 243; down the road a bit a BP station. Three to six miles away are Mount Pleasant and Columbia, which would have been the nearest significant towns in the 1840s.

Isolated as it is today, and as mystifying as the setting may be to casual passersby, St. John’s location made perfect sense when it was consecrated in 1842. It had reason, purpose, and function: to serve the Polk families and the hundreds of persons they held as slaves on their four plantations. The church is an invaluable relic of antebellum America and a revealing artifact of that period’s slaveholding order. Today the church is maintained by the St. John’s Association, a group of local people who lovingly and devotedly see to its upkeep. Anyone who cares about the Episcopal Church and its part in the history of this region should be grateful for their labors.

We four from Sewanee had journeyed there because of our interest in slavery’s importance to the founding of the University of the South between 1856 and 1861. Three of us are involved in the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. I teach U.S. history at Sewanee and direct the Project. Jody Allen, an assistant professor of history at William & Mary and director of that university’s study of its history with slavery, taught classes on African American history last year at Sewanee; she remains an advisor to the Project. Ben King, professor of church history at the School of Theology, has been supporting the Project by researching the university’s campaigns to raise money in England after the Civil War. Joining us was John Runkle, a professionally trained architect and former director of St. Mary’s Sewanee: The Ayres Center for Spiritual Development. He and Ben are Episcopal priests.

Leonidas Polk brought us there that day. Polk, whom most histories identify as the church’s “builder,” was the most influential of the three Episcopal bishops who led the movement for the University of the South. More important, we knew that, from start to finish, the church had been built entirely by his slaves. All of us thought that St. John’s had something to teach us — about Polk as a priest, bishop, and slaveholder; about those he enslaved; and about the church itself.  We also wondered if this church would tell us something about the founding and mission of the university.

A view of St. John’s from the adjoining cemetery.

Ashwood Hall, the home of Leonidas Polk, burned in 1874.

St. John’s was not a regular Episcopal church, but a “plantation chapel.” It arose on this remote spot to realize Leonidas Polk’s dream of an upliftingly beautiful place of worship, where an Episcopal priest could minister to the members of the four Polk families – the church was built at the junction of his and his three brothers’ plantations in Maury County – and the 200-plus persons they held in bondage. Maury County in 1840 had 17,900 free (white) residents and 11,000 slaves. With 111 enslaved at Ashwood, Leonidas Polk was an Episcopal priest and the county’s largest slaveholder.

Expensive plantation chapels like St. John’s were uncommon in their day. In the wake of the evangelical revivalism that swept the United States in the antebellum period, growing numbers of slaveholders across the spectrum of Protestant denominations became concerned for the religious instruction of their slaves. However, even the most pious usually were satisfied simply to set aside a shady tree or barn for Sunday services.

Rare as they were, actual plantation chapels were especially favored by Episcopalians. As historian Blake Touchstone has written, Episcopal planters may have been more inclined to imagine themselves “as country gentry or English squires” lording over their landed estates rather than as aggressive businessmen invested in global and modern commodities markets. The Gothic style, the expensive construction, and the beauty of St. John’s spoke to the social, political, and economic prestige and power the Polks claimed for themselves after moving from North Carolina to set up their massive plantations in Middle Tennessee in the 1830s.

The Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk, university founder, Episcopal bishop, and master of Ashwood plantation.

But Leonidas Polk’s ambitions transcended Ashwood and Middle Tennessee. Evangelized while a cadet at West Point, he was emerging by 1840 as a leading force in the religious movement to persuade masters to evangelize the enslaved masses in the South. Polk pursued this calling with extraordinary energy once he was named in 1842 the Episcopal Bishop of the Southwest, which included Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas.

Ashwood’s church is a lasting monument to the early stages of Polk’s spiritual mission not only to evangelize the enslaved but also to demonstrate that slavery was a Christian institution — his God’s chosen instrument for bringing the benighted slaves into the light of the Gospel. The ministry at St. John’s would deliver souls to Christ and proof to slavery’s growing legions of critics that holding black persons in bondage was neither a sin nor a contradiction of American principles of liberty and equality. Bishop Polk told his faithful that a master assured his salvation by trying to provide for that of his slaves. Slaveholders were the special instruments for advancing the kingdom of God.

The vision of planters, their families, and their “servants” worshipping together deeply moved Polk and the other Episcopal church leaders who founded the University of the South:  Bishop of Georgia Stephen Elliott and Bishop of Tennessee James Hervey Otey. William Mercer Green, their counterpart in Mississippi and a founding trustee of the university, was among the most eloquent advocates of the Episcopal Church’s special mission to slaves. He implored planters to fulfill their paternalistic duty to attend to the souls of their slaves. In 1851, he joyfully reported to his diocese what he had witnessed when he preached at the plantation chapel of George S. Yerger the year before:

On the forenoon of [March] 20th, I preached to a full house of blacks, together with the whites of the family. Never did I address a more interested or apparently more devout congregation. I baptized one colored adult, and confirmed three. It was a beautiful sight thus to see the master worshipping in the midst of his slaves, and showing, by the attention bestowed upon them, that he felt his responsibility for their spiritual welfare.

The Rt. Rev. William M. Green, the fourth chancellor of the university.

Green was the namesake of the popular scenic overlook in Sewanee known as Green’s View. His service to the university continued after the Civil War when he became its fourth chancellor. (George S. Yerger, by the way, also was a founding trustee of the university.)

But preaching to, catechizing, and baptizing their enslaved property promised to do more than assure slaveholders of their piety and fend off the condemnations levied by slavery’s critics. Slaveholders believed what most powerful persons at the time believed — that the religiously instructed were more pliant and obedient, less likely to rebel against their condition at the bottom of the social order. In other words, religion was a mechanism of the planters’ top-down social control.

Bishop Green often preached to the Johnstones and their slaves at the Chapel of the Cross (1850), a Gothic revival plantation chapel in Madison County near Jackson, Miss.

This mixture of spiritual and temporal motivations marked the evangelical missions to the slave population. Planters, historian Blake Touchstone observes, had diverse reasons “for promulgating Christianity” to their slaves. “It is virtually impossible to dissect the Christian conscience and delineate where altruism left off and self-interest began.”

Bishop Green himself described the worldly and heavenly rewards of preaching to the enslaved. He assured skeptical planters that bringing true religion to them “will make them orderly and obedient upon principle, and not from fear alone. Let the experiment be fairly tried, and I am sure that the happiest results will flow out of it, both to the master and the slave.”

We learned during our visit to St. John’s that the church does not, on its own, tell this complicated history of entwined paternalistic benevolence and violence, of spiritual freedom and bodily enslavement, of altruistic concern and materialistic self-interest.

If anything, St. John’s Church today makes that history harder to imagine. That is partly the effect of its pastoral setting – nestled in a bower of trees and shrubs, set back from a busy highway, sheltering a cemetery of weathered monuments to generations of Polks and other prominent families. The scene seems to beckon visitors to travel back to a better and more gracious time, simpler, less hurried and modern.

There are other, more official and monumental encouragements to this nostalgic misunderstanding of the church’s historical origins in a civilization based on bondage. The first thing we encountered that November day was an official plaque that the Tennessee Historical Commission set on Highway 243 at the gate to St. John’s. The story it tells is striking both for what it omits and for what it reports.

It begins, “Consecrated Sept. 4, 1842, by James Hervey Otey, first Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee.” That passage links the origins of the church to the founding, fifteen years later, of the University of the South. The two bishops, Otey and his longtime friend Polk, along with Georgia’s Bishop Stephen Elliott, were the most important figures in launching the “southern university.”

The Tennessee Historical Commission plaque.

The plaque continues, “this church was built by Leonidas Polk, then Missionary  Bishop of Southwest and his three brothers, George, Lucius, and Rufus,” whose father had given them the 5,000-plus acres of prime Tennessee land. (Otey is buried in St. John’s churchyard cemetery.)

But who really built St. John’s church?  Whose labor, ingenuity, and spirit did it signify then – and does it signify today? The church may have realized the imperial vision of the missionary slaveholding bishop, but in the truest sense of the word, it was not Leonidas or the other Polks who built it.

“We all put in hands to make brick, put them up, do the carpentry, plastering, etc., etc.,” Polk wrote to his mother in 1839.

“Hands” were slaves.

A close-up of the brickwork that slaves at Ashwood made and laid in building the church.

Between 1839 and 1842 the enslaved at Leonidas Polk’s plantation labored to build the church in the time when they were not planting, tending, or harvesting the cotton and other crops grown there. They cleared the six acres set aside for the structure; they dug the clay, designed and fired the bricks, and then laid them to fashion the church’s walls.

They cut the surrounding timber, including massive trees they milled into lumber and crafted into more than twenty rows of heavy pews still in use today. The walls themselves are tall, thick, and sound; they have needed steadying only once, with steel rods, in the 1870s.

The tapered enclosure for the church’s Gothic windows.

Within the walls are set three tall Gothic windows on either side of the building, divided by mullions into sheets of glass diamonds. The casings of the windows are not rectangular cut-outs, but tapered to form a slanted enclosure embowering the windows. The stacks of surrounding bricks that form the opening are not uniformly and rectangularly shaped, but customized, sometimes trapezoidal, to meet the geometric and structural demands of the fitted opening.

John Runkle, speaking as an architect, explained that the work that went into the church and its architectural features was not basic or elementary, but sophisticated and difficult. It reflected the experience, ingenuity, and skill of artisans who, though enslaved, were masters at their craft and resourceful in devising ways to enhance its structural integrity and architectural appeal. There is both function and beauty here, engineering and aesthetics.

Who deserves the credit for the church? Who solved the problems of conception and execution? Whose ideas of material function and spiritual uplift did it contain and express? Who should be credited for its 175 years (and counting) of relative steadfastness?

Polk himself once explained the potential greatness of Southern civilization in this way: Because of slavery, he said, “we have that division of classes which makes one a laboring and the other a dominant class — one a working and the other a thinking and governing class.”

The Tennessee Historical Commission plaque adopts that division of physical and mental labor by giving  all the credit to the Polks; their names are the only ones preserved in the official record. They built the church.

An older plaque, placed on the church in 1947 by the Diocese of Tennessee and the St. John’s Association, says much the same.

The plaque installed in 1947.

Something similar has happened in most published histories about the church. As recently as 1970, the most scholarly accounts have made note of the slave labor that went into the construction, but the story has remained one principally of the Polks, and brother Leonidas in particular, as creators, marginalizing the contributions of the slaves whose hands and heads actually built the church.

Moreover, they have emphasized the ways in which the church’s history confirmed the brothers as benevolent masters and the reciprocal gratitude and loyalty of those they ministered to and held in bondage. Slavery was wrong, they say, but as practiced by the Polks, the church is evidence that in this case, slavery was less wrong than it could have been. In such accounts – and much as they did in the antebellum period – the enslaved continue to serve the Polks.

A fuller and truer account of the church’s origins, designs, construction, and purposes would not eliminate the Polks, or even marginalize them. Instead, it would situate them in relation to the enslaved and slavery at the center of the story of the church and seek to imagine how those whose hands, eyes, and minds fashioned it understood what they were doing.

Few records and no names remain to document those who worked three years in building the church, but the evidence is everywhere at St. John’s to disclose what they accomplished. Did they see the church building and what happened within it as belonging (like them) to the Polks? Or did they see it in any way as their church? Did they recognize and understand that they, more than anyone else, made it possible – and not just the building itself, but also the fiction of master and slaves joined, as a family, in the sight of God?

Surely they understood that, no matter how heartfelt, the Polks’ benevolence was one of the ways of holding them in chains. This church, to me, captures precisely what historian Lucia Stanton has called “the coils and contradictions of slavery” that entangled bound and free alike.

The St. John’s Association erected this memorial to the church’s enslaved communicants. The tablet rightly gives the unnamed slaves due credit for the building the church.

The custodians of the church, the St. John’s Association, who maintain its upkeep, safeguard the property, and hold Whitsunday services there each spring, have sought to modify the building’s story and to honor the contributions of the enslaved. There are at least thirty-six enslaved persons buried in the cemetery – fourteen of them named. Using ground penetrating radar technology, they discovered the unmarked and unnamed graves in a separate section of the cemetery.

In 2015 the St. John’s Association and the Diocese of Tennessee designated the unmarked graves with simple stone blocks bearing a cross. They also installed a memorial in the area: “To the memory of the enslaved persons, known and unknown, interred here and nearby who were communicants of St. John’s Church. The church stands as a lasting testament to their labor, talents, and artisanship.”

This tablet is an important corrective to the plaques on the state highway and face of the church, but it is not immediately visible. A visitor must stumble upon it, behind the church at the rear of the cemetery, far from the highway.

Welcome though it is, I propose that even more needs to be understood and more directly communicated about this church and the people who built it. A new historical plaque on the highway, with the authority of the state commission, would foreground the histories of the enslaved. It would recognize them as who cleared the forest and fabricated the pews and devised how to build a church that would last. It would recognize that, as slaves, they gathered in that church under the watchful eyes of men and women who cared for their souls but claimed the irresistible power to own their bodies.

I also offer this proposition to consider and explore. This brick church – its origins, purposes, and uses – suggests a prototype for what would coalesce fifteen years later as the plan for a “southern university.” That institution would accomplish on a grand scale what Leonidas Polk aimed to do with St. John’s at the conjunction of the Polk estates. Under the direction of the Episcopal Church in the slaveholding states, the university would train a native ministry to spread the Gospel to the free and enslaved alike, through the instrument of a Christian master class who would fulfill God’s designated mission for the American South. “The world is trying hard to persuade us that a slaveholding people cannot be a people of high moral and intellectual culture,” Polk and his fellow bishop Elliott wrote in 1859. The University of the South would demonstrate the error of this position. The university would serve and protect a slaveholding society – and all, bound and free alike, would be uplifted by its good works.

For generations we have honored Polk, Otey, and Elliott for founding the University of the South. We often hear that they and the hundreds of wealthy, slaveholding Southerners they enlisted in what they regarded as the high spiritual and material purposes of their cause built the university. They laid its cornerstone.

A short visit to St. John’s Church, especially on a gray and damp November day that deepens and enriches the reds, tans, and browns of its sturdy brick walls and tower, reminds us that we need to look more closely and deeply into the history of the University of the South to behold and give due recognition to all of those whose labor, intelligence, skill, and sacrifice laid the cornerstone of its foundation.


Ben King; Woody Register; Jody Allen; John Runkle, November 18, 2017.


The following materials were used in the production of this blog:

On the history of the church itself, see George W. Polk, “St. John’s Church: Maury County, Tenn.,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 7, no. 3 (October, 1921): 147-53; Trezevant Player Yeatman, Jr., “St. John’s – A Plantation Church of the Old South,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 10, no. 4 (December, 1951): 334-43; Jill K. Garrett, Tennessee Historical Quarterly 29, no. 1 (Spring 1970): 3-23. A more critical view of Leonidas Polk as church-builder and slaveholder is Richard D. Betterly, “St. John’s Episcopal Churchyard: Material Culture and Antebellum Class Distinction,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 53, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 88-99.

On plantation chapels, see Blake Touchstone, “Planters and Slave Religion in the Deep South,” in Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740-1870, ed. John B. Boles (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1988), 99-126.

For the quotation of “coils and contradictions of slavery,” see Lucia Stanton, “The Other End of the Telescope: Jefferson through the Eyes of His Slaves,” William and Mary Quarterly 57, no. 1 (January 2000), 139-52.

For the quotation of “The world is trying hard to persuade us that a slaveholding people cannot be a people of high moral and intellectual culture,” see Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, Address of the Commissioners for Raising the Endowment of The University of the South (New Orleans: B. M. Norman, 1859).




The Cornerstone Gift: John Armfield and the University of the South

By Tanner Potts
Research Associate
The Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation

John Armfield (1797-1871), who made his fortune in  the 1820s and 1830s in the slave-trading firm of Franklin & Armfield, was a critically important operator in the founding of the University of the South in the late 1850s. However, much misinformation and exaggeration surround his involvement and contributions.

This slideshow feature, prepared by the Project’s researcher Tanner Potts C’15, outlines Armfield’s importance to the founding of the university and in light of his formative influence in shaping the slaveholding order of the antebellum southern region.

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