By Colton Williams, C’21 Research Assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2019
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]
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. Read Part 1 here.]
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.
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? Continue reading “‘The Real Issue’: A Reconsideration of the Turbulent Desegregation of Sewanee’s School of Theology, 1952-1953, Part I”