2022 Summer Intern Reflections-Sofina Behr

Editor’s note: This past summer, the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation was fortunate to have five talented and hardworking undergraduate research assistants working with us: Callista Abner, Sofina Behr, Plum Champlin, Lillian Holloway, and Carrie Schupack. We asked each of them to contribute to the Project blog some reflections on their work and experiences from the summer. The opinions expressed in the blogs are solely theirs and not necessarily those of the Roberson Projects. Our third post is by Sofina (Sofie) Behr, a junior Philosophy and Psychology major at Sewanee from Montgomery, Alabama.  

The Legacies of Slavery: Acklen and Reparative Work

When I was interviewing for the Summer 2022 research assistantship with the Roberson Project, its director, Dr. Woody Register, looked at me through our Zoom screen and asked, “so, what are your thoughts on reparations?” This question was meant to see what I had thought about the complicated issue, but it made me realize how little thought I had previously given the topic. At that time, I wasn’t sure what my thoughts were on reparations. To this day, I’m still not fully satisfied with my ability to answer that question.

Reparations generally refer to compensation given to those who have experienced abuse or injury.i  In the context of the University of the South’s indebtedness to slavery, reparations would refer to damages experienced by victims of slavery and/or their descendants. In the national context, supporters of reparations have proposed a variety of actions, including but not limited to affirmative action, scholarships, individual monetary payments, and systematic initiatives.ii For victims of slavery and/or descendants of enslaved people, evidence of this disadvantage is indicated in the wealth disparities between Black and white Americans. For example, in 2016, researchers found that the “median black household net worth ($17,600) is only one-tenth of the white net worth ($171,000).” .iii While I was aware of these arguments before starting my internship, I hadn’t been directly exposed to a specific example of reparations for this disparity in action. Over the course of the summer with the Roberson Project, I was introduced to the story of the Acklen family and their descendants, and it has stuck with me because of its relevance to the discussion of reparations and generational wealth.

I encountered the Acklens’ story while working on a project with Dr. Andrew Maginn, the Roberson Project’s Senior Research Associate and Program Coordinator. We were trying to compose biographies of the original supporters of the University of the South. We are calling them the “Founding Funders.”  Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen (1816-1863) was a Mexican War hero and lawyer from Huntsville, Alabama. He and his wife, Adelicia Acklen, frequently surfaced in our research, and we quickly found that their family was connected to other “Founding Funders” with deep and troubling ties to slavery, such as Isaac Franklin and John Armfield. Isaac Franklin was Adelicia’s first husband, and his death in 1846 made her the wealthiest woman in the South.iv Adelicia was left with a fortune of almost $1 million, which included seven cotton plantations in Louisiana, a farm in Tennessee, and hundreds of enslaved people.v The one property that stood out to me was the Acklens’ West Feliciana property in Louisiana. The 1860 Slave Schedule of the U.S. Census reported that 659 enslaved people toiled on this property. This was a clarifying moment for me. I realized a reality about the university’s “Funders” and the Acklens specifically. They were not just representative of the institution of slavery. They were the institution of slavery. 

Acklen Family 1860 Slave Schedules

Inside the Belmont Mansion

 In late June, the Roberson Project Summer researchers visited the Belmont Mansion in Nashville, the home of Joseph and Adelicia Acklen. We were fortunate to sit down with a guide who provided some important insight into the legacy of the Acklen family and their wealth. He explained that Joseph Acklen’s knowledge and experience in planting assisted in the growth of Adelicia’s wealth, all through the enslaved labor at their West Feliciana plantation. Adelicia capitalized on this economic and social status by networking and connecting with other members of the southern aristocracy through lavish dinner parties and events at the mansion. Throughout the Civil War, Adelicia relied on her social status and connections to other wealthy planters to protect her fortune. As Union troops drew near Nashville in 1862, Adelicia traveled to New Orleans, where she negotiated the sale of her plantations’ remaining cotton for $960,000 in gold, equivalent to more than $16 million today.vi

According to records and information from our guide, the descendants today of the Acklens are the Kaiser family, who remain quite prominent and wealthy .vii The story of the Acklens and their Kaiser descendants is by no means unusual. While I knew that many slave-owning families had living descendants who benefitted from the generational wealth their ancestors created, I had never been exposed to a specific example. When we talk about reparations and the need for reparative work, it is often easy to remain comfortable engaging in abstract or theoretical discussions. In contrast, the legacy of the Acklen family, and the knowledge of the Kaisers as the descendants of the Acklens, made the discussion of reparative work strikingly concrete. The conversation no longer centered around the general talk of “descendants” or a family of forgotten or faceless names. Here was a family whose vast wealth has roots in the institution of slavery. 

The Acklens’ story is one of the many stories exploring the legacy of slavery, and more specifically, the legacies of slavery in connection to Sewanee. Families like the Acklens built their fortunes with enslaved labor. However, they were able to maintain generational wealth due to a number of factors, not least of which was the socioeconomic status granted to them as members of the southern upper class. This wealth was not at all accessible to enslaved people and their descendants, and this lack of access to wealth creation is why the conversation about reparative work needs to be encouraged. After emancipation, former slave owners like the Acklens and their descendants were able to remain afloat, as their status and prestige remained and provided opportunities for financial gain. In contrast, freed people and their descendants had to build wealth, quite literally, from scratch. Here, it is clear to see the shortcomings of Reconstruction era policy and a disregard for this inequity in the last half century.viii While enslaved people did become “free,” they lacked the resources and the wealth many white families had used their labor and property value to accumulate over decades and across generations.  

So what can be done to remedy the economic inequity faced by descendants of enslaved people? One answer to this question is located about five minutes away from Belmont Mansion. Down the hill from the Acklens’ estate is Freedom Plaza, which Belmont University dedicated in 2021. 

Plaque for Freedom Plaza at Belmont University

Freedom Plaza, according to the University, serves to “celebrate and memorialize the lives of the enslaved individuals who are known to have labored on the estate owned by Joseph and Adelicia Acklen more than 170 years ago, prior to the establishment of Belmont College.”ix This sort of reparative work, sometimes called “symbolic reparations,” is important, but is not by any means sufficient in remediating the effects of slavery. In a report written by the United Nations Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent, the erection of “monuments, memorials, and markers” is recommended as a means to “facilitate the public dialogue.”x At first glance, I felt the Freedom Plaza achieved this goal. Upon further thought, however, I became less convinced that the dedication of the Freedom Plaza was anything more than a performative gesture. Freedom Plaza lists the names of six known individuals enslaved at Belmont Mansion. But in my view, that is precisely the issue with this example of reparative work: there are only six names. 

Given what we know about the extent of the Acklens’ slave ownership, it is unlikely that only six individuals were enslaved there. Even more questionable is the fact that researchers working for the mansion could find the names of only six enslaved laborers and, it seems, were satisfied enough to place those names on the monument. While symbolic reparations like Freedom Plaza may “facilitate dialogue” among visitors to the mansion, there is something to be said about the effort and attention given to discovering and naming the enslaved. When I examined Freedom Plaza through this lens, it seemed limited in its impact. In the words of William A. Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen, authors of [insert title], memorials and plaques are useful in commemorating the enslaved and those who have fought for justice, but these acts on their own are mere “piecemeal reparations.” They do little to change the actual material conditions of slavery’s descendants.xi Darity and Mullen assert that the federal government enforced the institution of slavery until 1865, and thus the payment of reparations for the harm the national government caused is an American obligation.xii

Colleges and universities bear responsibility, too. Like Belmont University, the University of the South has deeply rooted ties to the Acklen family and the institution of slavery. (The Acklens pledged the enormous sum of $10,000 to the founding of the university.) In order not only to reckon with this reality but also to partake in actual reparative work, students like me as well as academic institutions as a whole must give greater thought to Darity and Mullen’s call to action: “Instead of seeking piecemeal reparations from their institutions on a one-by-one basis, activists should push these institutions to join the lobbying effort for congressional approval of black reparations.”xiii Honoring and recognizing the enslaved people whose property value bankrolled the founding of my university is important for us to do. We need to know that historical truth. But if we want to promote real reparations for the slavery that made our university possible, we have to go beyond these piecemeal steps. That, to answer Dr. Register’s original question, is what I am thinking about reparations.

Notes to the text: 

i  “Reparation Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster.” Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America’s Most-Trusted Online Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reparation

ii  Araujo, Ana Lucia. Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, p. 2. 

iii  Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality. UNC Press Book, 2020, p. 31.

iv  Brown, Mark. “Acklen, Adelicia | Tennessee Encyclopedia.” Tennessee Encyclopedia, Tennessee Historical Society, 11 Feb. 2018, https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/adelicia-acklen/

v 1860 United States Census and Slave Schedules for Joseph Acklen

vi  Watts, Jennifer. “Adelicia Acklen: The Lady of Belmont.” Tennessee State Museum –  Nashville Attractions, https://tnmuseum.org/junior-curators/posts/adelicia-acklen-the-lady-of-belmont?locale=en_us

vii  Bliss, Jessica. “Adelicia Acklen’s Treasures Return to Belmont after 126 Years.” Tennessean, 16 Aug. 2014, https://www.tennessean.com/story/life/2014/08/16/adelicia-acklens-treasures-return-belmont-years/14085917/

viii  Araujo, Ana Lucia. Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, p. 2. 

ix Hefner, April. “Belmont Dedicates Freedom Plaza Memorial | Belmont University News and Media.” Belmont University News & Media | Official News from the Office of Communications, Belmont University News & Media, 18 Jan. 2021, https://news.belmont.edu/belmont-dedicates-freedom-plaza-memorial/

x  Araujo, Ana Lucia. Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, p. 182.

xi  Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality. UNC Press Book, 2020, p. 257.

xii  Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality. UNC Press Book, 2020, p. 269.

xiii Darity, William A., and A. Kirsten Mullen. From Here to Equality. UNC Press Book, 2020, p. 269.

2022 Summer Intern Reflections-Callista Abner

Editor’s note: This past summer, the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation is fortunate to have five talented and hardworking undergraduate research assistants working with us: Callista Abner, Sofina Behr, Plum Champlin, Lillian Holloway, and Carrie Schupack. We asked each of them to contribute to the project blog some reflections on their work and experiences from the summer. Our second post is by Callista Abner, a rising senior history major at Sewanee from Pleasant View, Tennessee.  

Fairbanks Donor List located at the University of the South Archives [i]

Identifying a Founding Funder: Maunsel White

In the early days of my summer research assistantship with the Roberson Project, my colleagues and I were locked in on identifying “White,” one of the major pre-Civil War contributors to the founding of the University of the South. This “Founding Funder,” as we are calling them, pledged the impressive sum of $5,000 (equivalent today to $176,000 and probably more) [Figure 1]. He, like most donors, were white, wealthy, Episcopalian men of the South who enslaved masses of human beings. Initially, we thought we had a match in John White, one of the founding members of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. He was geographically favorable since we knew that donors to the University of the South were concentrated in the cotton and sugar plantation regions of Louisiana. This, along with John White’s service as a lay delegate to the Twenty-First Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Louisiana in 1859, made a connection to the University of the South very feasible. [ii] However, we couldn’t find census records or other documentation that would improve the odds that John White was wealthy enough to donate $5,000. But, after scouring records of the Episcopal Church, Louisiana history, and Southern education resources, I realized that another of John White’s contemporaries, Maunsel White [Figure 2], was a more likely benefactor. Maunsel White’s opulent wealth via enslaved laborexhibited support of the cause to preserve “Southern values,” and connections to many powerful individuals made him the more likely “White” of the University donor list. The more research I did into Maunsel White, the more persuaded — and excited — I became that I had found a likely connection between the founding of the University of the South and an unusually influential and recognizable Southern character.

Portrait of Maunsel White [ii]

Maunsel White was not born into wealth. He was an Irish immigrant who arrived in the U.S. at a young age. [iv] Like many immigrants, he moved around.  White first lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was a childhood friend of future president Zachary Taylor. In 1800 and at the age of thirteen, he was living in New Orleans, where he had likely moved with his family.[iv]   There, he gained prominence from his service in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, most notably as a member of the envoy that negotiated peace with the British commander at the behest of General Andrew Jackson. His skill in brokering peace solidified his friendship with many prominent figures.[v] One of these connections is to Andrew Jackson, which serves as yet another example of a relationship with a presidential and influential figure that Maunsel continuously cultivated. Maunsel also gained the trust of a prominent Louisianan,  Pierre Denis de la Ronde. The head of a wealthy, well-connected, politically active, and very French New Orleans family, de la Ronde resided in what is known as the “Versailles Plantation,” considered “the most beautiful sugar plantation home in Louisiana of the day.”[vi]

Historical Marker for the “Versailles Plantation” [vi]

Following the war, White became a wealthy merchant, civic leader, and planter.[vii] His relationship with Andrew Jackson grew as both a friend and business partner. [v] His connection to Pierre Denis de la Ronde brought him the notoriety and wealth associated with the de la Ronde family. He married his daughter, Ysavel (Elizabeth) Celeste de la Ronde, and after her death, her sister, Heloise de la Ronde.[viii & ix] 

Maunsel White’s primary plantation, Deer Range, in Plaquemines Parish, grew sugar cane, corn, and other crops with the labor of approximately 200 enslaved people.[vi] His residence was described in the southern journal, De Bow’s Review: “no home was wider known through the valley of the Mississippi; and in no period of its history was its credit or character tarnished by a breath.”[v] Even when White was in dire financial straits and being hounded for repayment of loans, public opinion still held him in esteem. The Daily Nashville Union described how “no one doubts the ability of Maunsel White, individually, to meet every outstanding claim,” and reported that his New Orleans real estate was worth $500,000 [Figure 3].[x] The newspaper, in highlighting the value of his property (including his human property), attested to his character: a reliable, wealthy, and industrious man. 

Maunsel White’s leadership extended across many aspects of Louisianan life and included strong ties to the Episcopal Church. Like John White, he was one of the incorporators of Emmanuel Parish in Plaquemines.[xi] Like many other parishes in the nineteenth century, its rector ministered to the people enslaved at local plantations. Maunsel White donated $100 for this purpose, and it is likely that his Deer Range was one of the plantations where the enslaved were evangelized by missionaries of the Episcopal Church.[xi] His generosity and concern for the southern education of planters’ sons led him to contribute to fledgling educational institutions, including Sewanee. White was one of the first board members for the University of Louisiana in New Orleans, which is now Tulane University, on which he served with other Sewanee contributors. In his fundraising efforts for that university, he said, “no one ought to refuse, who is desirous of Education of his children at home.” [xii] His sentiments mirrored those of the University of the South’s earliest supporters. They all were reluctant to send Southern youth to northern colleges, where they were sure to be exposed to anti-slavery doctrine.

White’s sentiments about the institution of slavery are evident in the harsh methods he used to maintain order among those he enslaved. He “put Negroes who feigned sickness in the stocks” and gave those who did not work hard enough dry bread instead of meat. [xii] In his own records, White noted his use of forms of violence, such as whipping, on his enslaved, including a woman named Caty, and condoned such actions done by his overseers, as well.[xiv] To his contemporaries, White’s was a model plantation, where, according to De Bow’s Review, “order and system, health and contentment reign through its limits.”[v] 

This was the type of man whose wealth enabled the founding of the University of the South. They were devoted to the institution of slavery; they belonged to the Episcopal Church; and they were connected to powerful political and business interests in the American South. White’s success and renown were impressive for his time, and in the league of many who pledged their wealth to the southern university. Regardless, he was one of the “founding funders” whose contributions and legacy we are working to investigate and illuminate. Uncovering this connection made me feel that my work was contributing important information to the research of the Roberson Project. Each source I found in this process further filled out our network of connected individuals. Hopefully, this will allow the Roberson Project and other Sewanee constituents to form a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances of our founding and development. This discovery was a wonderful start to my internship, and I’m grateful to be able to contribute to the annals of Sewanee and American history in such a way. 

Notes to the text: 

[i] 1859 list of University of the South donors, from the University of the South Archives. 

[ii] Journal of the Proceedings of the  21st  Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of Louisiana, 1859, https://books.google.com/books?id=_3jkAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. p. 15.

[iii] Colonel Maunsell White Sr., March 21,  2016, https://www.geni.com/photo/view/6000000026681114003?album_type=photos_of_me&photo_id=6000000041093069251

[iv] Memorial Page for Col Maunsel White (1783-17 Dec 1863), Find a Grave Memorial ID 7567088. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/75687088/maunsel-white

[v] De Bow, J. D. B., 1858. The Pioneer’s of the South, No. 1. De Bow’s Review: Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial Progress and Resources, XXV, https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=siQKAAAAIAAJ&pg=GBS.PA480&hl=en pp.480-482. 

[vi] Meredith, M., 2021. Pierre Denys de LaRonde (1726-1772) – HouseHistree. [online] Househistree.com. Available at: https://househistree.com/people/pierre-denys-de-laronde

[vii] Evans, C., 2022. The Real History of Tabasco® – Chuck Evans’ MONTEZUMA Brand Sauces & Salsas. [online] Chuck Evans’ MONTEZUMA Brand Sauces & Salsas. http://montezumabrand.com/articles/the-real-history-of-tabasco/

[viii] Ancestry.com. n.d. Ysavel Celeste Laronde in the Louisiana, U.S., Compiled Marriages, 1728-1850. [online] Available at: https://www.ancestry.com/discoveryui-content/view/5670:2090.

[ix] Familysearch.org. n.d. Colonel Maunsell White Sr.. [online] Available at: https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/timeline/K2TZ-BWW.

[x] “Communication,” Daily Nashville Union (Nashville, Tennessee), February 5, 1852. https://www.newspapers.com/image/?clipping_id=103936118&fcfToken=eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJmcmVlLXZpZXctaWQiOjYwMzkzNDEzNywiaWF0IjoxNjU2NjIwODE3LCJleHAiOjE2NTY3MDcyMTd9.UI2snk8RkLfcVAmQ2CdE9TKeUx_mwbbNV18qJfjpLFE, p. 2. 

[xi] Duncan, H., 1888. Diocese of Louisiana: Some of Its History, 1838-1888. New Orleans: A. W. Hyatt, Printer, pp.138-141.

[xii] Eaton, Clement. The Mind of the Old South, (Louisiana State University Press, 1967), p. 80. 

[xiii] Eaton, Clement. The Growth of Southern Civilization, (Harper and Row, 1961), p. 61.

[xiv] Regan, J., 2021. “Irish Overseers in the Antebellum South.” Irish Historical Studies, [online] 45(168), pp.203-222. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/irish-historical-studies/article/irish-overseers-in-the-antebellum-us-south/EE2DBBA131BB8F571347268888AB8D5E#fn68 

The Roberson Project Remembers Matt Reynolds

Photo: Matt Reynolds and Sister Felicity Parks ready for business on Memorial Day 2019, the Roberson Project’s first digitization day with the historic Black community in Sewanee.

Two weeks ago, on August 7, all of us who work with the Roberson Project were stunned and saddened to learn that our friend and colleague, Matt Reynolds, had died. Our deepest sympathy goes out to his wife, Viva, their daughter, Fiona, his extended family, and his many close work associates.

Seven years ago, in 2015, Matt came to Sewanee as Associate Director of University Archives and Special Collections. One of the first tasks he took on was helping Professor Woody Register and his research associate, Tanner Potts, pull together and put up an exhibition in the University Archives: “Founded to Make Men: Explorations of Masculinity at the University of the South.” Neither Register nor Potts had ever done anything like this before. Matt jumped into the project with gusto. He was superhumanly patient and helpful with every aspect, including the transfer of the exhibit to an online platform.

In addition to his expertise in information management and archiving, Matt was a historian by training and inclination. He also was a fast learner, diving into Sewanee’s crazy closet of materials to locate and learn the location of items that have eluded cataloging and systematic organization for generations. If he didn’t know where something was, he usually managed to find it. And if he couldn’t find it, that usually meant it wasn’t there, to begin with. Someone with less energy and love of history would have quailed before the mountainous climb of learning our archival collections demanded. Matt seemed to relish the hunt — the more difficult, the better — and exult in the find. 

And speaking of enthusiasm, the Roberson Project has not had a more generous and supportive friend than Matt. And we have leaned on him unsparingly over the last five years. And we usually could have been much more considerate about getting our requests to him in a timely manner. It is no exaggeration to say that Matt was a right arm of the Roberson Project. He found what we requested, and he found a lot of things we didn’t know to request. The density of our research reflects his many contributions.

One big example: three years ago, we staged the first of several digitization events at the St. Mark’s Community Center here in Sewanee to launch a much bigger project to work with local residents in collecting, preserving, and telling Sewanee’s “Black History.” Again, the Roberson Project had never done anything like this before, and there was Matt, again, ready to help us with the nuts and bolts of it as well as the bigger picture. He helped train volunteers in the technologies and methods of taking oral histories, scanning and photographing documents and memorabilia, and organizing the first stage of an online archive that officially launched a year ago: https://blacksewanee.org/. All of us needed some serious hand-holding on this project, and Matt was there for us. We have him to thank for this project’s continuing successes in rebuilding the historical resources of what we call the #savesewaneeblackhistory initiative.

If it is not already clear, allow us to underscore what made working with Matt so rewarding and enjoyable: his good cheer, hearty laugh, love of historical inquiry, faith in education, fondness for college students, and dedication to archives as priceless resources to be used for understanding the past and the present. We could continue in this vein.

We mourn Matt’s death and give thanks for the seven years of collegiality, intellectual partnership, and friendship that he gave to us both as individuals and as a program. We miss him, and we will remember him in all the work we do for the Roberson Project.

2022 Summer Intern Reflections-Lillian Holloway

Remembered, Not Forgotten: Recognizing Racial Inequity in the Sewanee Cemetery

Editor’s note: This summer the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation is fortunate to have five talented and hardworking undergraduate research assistants working with us: Callista Abner, Sofina Behr, Plum Champlin, Lillian Holloway, and Carrie Schupack. We asked each of them to contribute to the project blog some reflections on their work and experiences this summer. We begin with the thoughts of Lillian Holloway, who will start her second year at Sewanee this fall.

Less than a year ago, I began my freshman year at Sewanee. I was enrolled in “Finding Your Place,” an intensive first-year program that focuses on local issues and history and begins a few weeks before the start of the semester. To help the class get situated, my professor led us on tours of campus and the surrounding communities. One of the earliest sites we visited was Convocation Hall. Dedicated in 1886, it is among the oldest academic buildings on campus. It was and is a stunning space, filled with the musky aroma of academia, but some feel unwelcome. Depending on the experiences and identity of visitors, the portraits of white men that line the walls can be alienating.

William Porcher DuBose, George Rainsford Fairbanks, Francis Asbury Shoup, Hugh Miller Thompson, Nicholas Hamner Cobbs, Leonidas Polk, Charles Todd Quintard, Telfair Hodgson, James Hervey Otey, Henry Champlin Lay, Thomas Frank Gailor, Alexander Gregg, Richard Hooker Wilmer, Edwin Gardner Weed, and Wylie Blount Miller. They’re just names, but in Convocation Hall, they’re fifteen faces surrounded by Episcopal vestments and gilded picture frames. The institute has proudly decorated these historic walls with their images  to honor the religious, financial, intellectual, and social support they gave to the University of the South. These men have names, and faces, and many are subjects of Wikipedia pages, websites and books; in other words, their lives are well-documented and publicly accessible.

This summer, I’m working as a student research assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. Launched five years ago, the Roberson Project aims, among other goals, to recover, preserve, and tell the histories of Sewanee’s Black residents. My research is primarily focused on the Black Cemetery Project and the recovery of the names and personhoods of those interred in the burial ground the University’s white leaders set aside for  African Americans. The “Sewanee Negro Cemetery,” as it was called for most of its history, is beside the University cemetery, which for nearly a century was separated from its neighbor by a stone wall. I say “recovery” because the few sources that document this history, and African American history in general, are often incomplete and disorganized. During the first week of work, we spent most of our time in the Sewanee Archives, transcribing information from the registers of the local Episcopal Otey Memorial Parish (recently renamed St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s, to disassociate it from its slave-owning and slavery-defending namesake) and the cemetery records of Franklin County. Now, we’re filtering through this data and collecting census records to more thoroughly understand the lives of Sewanee’s Black residents.

Recently, the Roberson Project teamed up with archaeologists from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to conduct a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) scan of the Black side of the University Cemetery. An analysis of the data collected from the area, which covers a little more than an acre, shows about 300 graves. Some 156 conventional gravestones have been documented, and field stones seem to indicate another 16 burials. Those numbers suggest that about 130, or a little less than half, of the graves are unmarked. Presumably, when these Black citizens were buried, their resting place was identified with a small curio—like a shell or broken bottle—but over the span of the past 150 or so years, the traditional markers the Black community used to remember their dead have been forgotten or removed. Time has worn away some markers, like the words on standard gravestones, but white conservationists and groundskeepers, unaware of Black cemetery practices, have also removed burial markers, mistaking them for trash or debris. These landscaped ruins lie adjacent to the white side of the University Cemetery and its well-preserved family plots.

Graveyards are durable, and in the years since the legal end of Jim Crow, as memorials of racial segregation disappear, sites like the University Cemetery continue to cast a shadow over today’s society with visual reminders of the severity of racial inequity within the United States. In 1963, white students and community members moved the wall that separated the cemeteries and used the stones to rebuild the wall on the far side of the Black cemetery, combing the two1. Today, remnants of the wall that used to separate the Black and white cemeteries still remain in their original place. I’m not sure how I feel about this fact; it doesn’t seem practical to destroy the individual stones for being abiotic constituents of racism, but it doesn’t seem right to reuse them. To anyone aware of the cemeteries’ history, this repurposing, especially for use in the same space, seems to forget the racial oppression faced by the Black community members buried on the “historically” Black side of the cemetery. Sure, the cemeteries are now united under one name, but even without an official divide, the two sides of University Cemetery are racially distinct. These tracts of land hold some of the most influential people in Sewanee’s history—both white and Black, yet the respect with which these bodies are or are not treated is not measured by respectability. The Black community still holds a place in Sewanee’s history, but individual identities have been lost. Instead, their legacies are defined by race; meritocracy be damned.

This is what remains of the wall that separated the white and black sides of the University Cemetery

I know I sound angry. I guess I am. The men on the walls live on. Their steely eyes continue to look down on University visitors, while their Wikipedia pages color their “Life and career” with pictures and references to books and websites that detail their exploits. The unnamed men and women buried on the Black side of the cemetery, on the other hand, are lucky to survive on a single line of the hand-written burial records from St. Mark’s Chapel, tucked away in a folder in a box on the well-organized shelves of the William R. Laurie University Archives & Special Collections. Convocation’s fifteen portraits forget the person and remember a face, while so many of the University Cemetery’s Black gravesites no longer remember the person at all. Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist and author of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, writes about the national misunderstanding of race in the United States, saying, “I understood that the absence of 1619 [the first year enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia] from mainstream history was intentional… I was starting to figure out that the histories we learn in school, or more casually, through popular culture, monuments, and political speeches, rarely teach us the facts but only certain facts.”2 In most narratives, the study of history uses an Anglo-centric microscope that’s blind to the rich past of African American communities at the national level, as discussed by Hannah-Jones, and in local settings like Sewanee. The increasing number of people of color in the student population and faculties of the university has increased the need for honest histories that include populations who have never been welcome in the canonical history of the United States or Sewanee.It’s also important to remember that this institution is part of a larger community and has a responsibility to respect the needs and wishes of Black Sewanee. 

I started writing this blog post with the intention to study Convocation Hall and the fifteen portraits it contains. I wanted to list their moral failings and involvement with the Confederacy and slavery, but I’d rather promote Sewanee’s Black community. I think it might be a good idea to “pack the court” and supplement these white men with people of color who deserve well-informed respect—not the uninformed esteem afforded to those fifteen men by formal portraiture. Their visibility in the University’s mock hall of fame hasn’t been offered to Sewanee’s Black community members. White privilege protects these individuals and their moral legacies, while the Black community struggles to prevent the erasure of their names from the historical record. 

We can’t yet identify any of the unmarked graves located by the GPR scan, but I’d like to start the process of remembering by sharing a few names that can be found on marked and researched burial sites: Dora Irene Turner, Willie Lee “Inky” Turner, Willie Lee “June” Turner, Gail Renata Turner, Bertha Geneva Shedd, Cheryl Diane Newell, Rufus Moseley, George Allen Moseley, Mary Agnes Chappell Moseley, Mollie Sims, Willie “Six” Sims, Clemmie Hill, Grace Childress, Walter Wooten, and Henderson Willis. Fifteen names, fifteen headstones, fifteen people I don’t want to forget to remember.

Endnotes

1.  Gerald L. Smith, Sean T Suarez, Samuel R Williamson, and University of the South, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History Project, Sewanee Places: A Historical Gazetteer of the Domain and the Sewanee Area, (Sewanee Sesquicentennial History Project. Sewanee, TN: University of the South, 2010), 396-397

2.   Hannah-Jones, Nikole, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein. “Origin.” Preface. In The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, xx. New York, NY: Random House Large Print, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2022.

Spring 2022 Course Spotlight

Humanities 215: Introduction to Digital Humanities Through Post-Soviet Identity and America’s South

Reflection by Susanna Weygandt, Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian

This past spring I designed and taught HUMN 215: Introduction to Digital Humanities through Post-Soviet Identity and America’s South. The comparative focus of the first part of the course juxtaposed the history of Russian serfdom to that of slavery in the United States, and we got at the historical understandings of slavery through readings in books and in digital archives. Through the Roberson Project for example, students learned about recent research to uncover the history of African Americans at Sewanee, including the historical era that is tied to the construction of the university. The Roberson Project, at the same time as being a source of deep historical information, is an exemplary digital humanities platform, and thus a model to incorporate into an introductory digital humanities course. Digital humanities platforms host unique collections, have search functions, and allow for collaboration, among other characteristics. Through hands-on training students learned to use digital tools to create visuals that augmented their research arguments: ThingLink, Omeka, graphing, and to analyze and display text: Scalar and Medium.com. In their assignments and final research projects, students demonstrated their fluency in digital tools by using them to support their claims and historical findings about the comparisons of U.S. slavery to Russian serfdom, rural capitalism in America’s South and Russia, as well as the future of the rural village in Russia.

One component of digital humanities projects involves essentializing and condensing chapters and bodies of knowledge into brief paragraphs (or even into labels and categories or numbers). In addition to employing digital skills to embed annotated images into their public-facing writing, the format of Medium.com’s platform helped students streamline their writing.  Students also learned lessons on concision via the art of annotation, which involves not only gaining technical skills, but also critical thinking skills. What does it mean to represent information, in particular historical information, online? When you label a historical document for display, for instance, what agenda are you ascribing to it? Thus, students labeled their chosen historical images after deeply researching their topic. As researchers of contradictory, unjust, and traumatic histories, students collaboratively developed their own definition of reconciliation: We cannot change the past, but we can use today’s technology along with historical research skills to uncover injustices of the past.

Literature woven into the course that led to some of the most dynamic discussions included:

For their final project, students wrote research essays based on reading passages that excited them and used visualizations to support their arguments. They displayed their chosen visualizations in a digital exhibition of historical images to highlight connections between US slavery and Russian serfdom. This digital companion to the final essay trained students in an essential digital humanities skill: online exhibition. It also helped students hone their writing skills as students’ exhibits were accompanied by robust written descriptions of the images for this compelling text+image display. The course exhibition can be viewed here: https://humn215.omeka.net.

For more details about course assignments and to view examples of students’ final project, check out Professor Weygandt’s course folder on Google Drive

A Year Later, A Letter of Explanation

A year ago on March 16, the director of the Roberson Project, Dr. Woody Register, received an email from Ms. Mandi Johnson, the director of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections here at Sewanee: 

The Polk bust from the Library, along with a letter addressed to you [Register], was found on the Archives’ front porch this morning. A small cardboard sign with the word “Racist” was left in its place in the Library… 

The letter, which was not signed, began this way: “Yesterday I removed the bust of Confederate General Leonidas Polk from the first floor of duPont library. I place him into your care in a red bag outside the archives building.”

The Polk head – and the difficult history it tells – has remained in the archives ever since. And the identity of the person who relocated it there has been unknown until this week. The campus newspaper, the Sewanee Purple, has now published the letter below in which he identifies himself as senior George Burruss from Lynchburg, Virginia. Burruss also explains at greater length why he moved the sculpture a year ago and why he has decided to identify himself now.

The Roberson Project is publishing Burruss’s letter so that his account becomes part of the historical record related to the University’s history with the Lost Cause and to the work of the Project. For the record, Burrus has explained that he was not responsible for the cardboard “Racist” sign, which someone else posted behind the sculpture prior to his taking it to the archives.  

Dear Sewanee Community, 

In the Archives: Jack Kershaw’s sculptural head of Leonidas Polk and plaque.

Early one morning in March of last year, I opened an unlocked door and walked into duPont library, unfastened the bronze head of Leonidas Polk from its mount, wrapped it in plastic bags to protect it from sun or rain, and carefully delivered it to the doorstep of the University Archives and Special Collections. This effigy, best described as a portrait bust or a bronze sculpture, commemorated Confederate General Leonidas Polk, who helped found the University. Some saw the transfer of the bust from the library to the Archives as theft or trespassing, but in my mind, this was an act of civil disobedience. I made sure that nothing was broken or damaged. On the anniversary of this act and as a senior whose time at Sewanee is coming to a conclusion, I have decided to write this letter explaining why I felt compelled to relocate the bronze sculpture of Polk’s head. My hope is that I can be part of rekindling a conversation about race and reconciliation at Sewanee that rose to prominence last spring but has since died down. These conversations are vitally important for the health of this community and in the pursuit of a more inclusive Sewanee.

One year ago, the Sewanee community plunged into turmoil when students at a lacrosse game against Emmanuel College shouted racial slurs at the visiting college’s nonwhite players. Just weeks before, Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety revealed his home had been vandalized and his family had been harassed. These events shook Sewanee at its core, and with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd fresh in the minds of the country, it felt like Sewanee was about to join a nationwide conversation about racial reckoning. The community’s response was immediate: we walked out from class, we flooded Convocation Hall with gowns, and we gathered on the University Quad to hear strong voices. On the Quad, Black students and professors spoke about their anger, disappointment, and a depressing lack of surprise that the incident at the lacrosse game had occurred. These speeches reinforced that racist behavior was not new to Sewanee or America, that these aggressions are not an uncommon part of life for many BIPOC people. 

In the weeks following the lacrosse game, Sewanee student Peggy Owusu-Ansah wrote in a Purple article “The lacrosse game is not the ‘proof’ we needed to see that Sewanee is racist, you just have not been paying attention. Ever since I have been at this University, people of color have been talking about the microaggressions and downright racist acts that have been perpetrated against them in and outside of the classroom. But it did not matter, because no one was paying attention.”

Also on the Quad, Vice-Chancellor Brigety spoke with conviction, saying that we would find the people responsible, there would be accountability, and that we would move in unity towards a more harmonious “New South.” His words were powerful and there was hope that maybe this time things would turn out differently, this time things could really start to change.

A few years before, around the time I matriculated at Sewanee, I became aware of movements across the nation to reevaluate and/or remove Confederate symbols from university campuses and public spaces. I learned that across the South, the majority of Confederate symbols were erected not during or immediately after the Civil War, but to reinforce white supremacy and resist civil rights movements in the century following the war. These Confederate monuments were not the “proud symbols of southern heritage” that I had heard they were as a white child growing up in Virginia; they were a racist rebuke to Black people advocating for their rights. With this new understanding, I began to look at the symbols around me differently. Armed with the knowledge and research compiled by the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, I learned more about Confederate memorials on Sewanee’s campus. I was astonished by the sheer volume; there did not seem to be a single space on campus free from these honorifics. Dorms like McCrady, Quintard, and Hodgson, academic buildings like Gailor, and even natural landmarks like Armfield Bluff, Morgan’s Steep, and Manigault Park are all named after Confederates or sympathizers of the Lost Cause and white supremacy. 

When I shared my shock at these findings with BIPOC friends, I found they were somewhat disgusted with my surprise. As a white person, I had the privilege of ignoring these symbols, living in ignorance of the existence of these monuments to enslavers. I was informed that this was a luxury that was not shared, that these monuments were a constant reminder to BIPOC students that they lived, studied, and grew in a place that was not meant for them. These symbols are a reminder that Sewanee was founded with the explicit goal of training southern white men to continue the culture of oppression and intolerance.

Dr. Woody Register wrote in the Sewanee Review, “The University of the South was to produce a new vanguard of pious patriarchs, fitted for “the land of the sun and the slave.” Vice-Chancellor Brigety in the same edition of the Review wrote “one of the animating reasons for the founding of our University in 1856 was to demonstrate that a slaveholding society could be learned, humane, and Christian.” 

With the knowledge that these monuments celebrated men who did not view BIPOC people as fully human and that these monuments assaulted BIPOC students’ feeling of belonging and safety at this University, I began to take stock of the symbols that surround me. 

For many students, including myself, visiting the library is a daily routine. Arguably the most important public space on campus, the library is where students spend many hours of the day studying, socializing, and growing. Despite what should be a commitment to making such an important public space inviting and open to all members in our community, it was polluted by the presence of a racist icon. The library itself was named for Jessie Ball duPont, a benefactor of the school who donated money with the expressed desire that it help to uphold a segregated University. Inside the library resided the sculpted head of Leonidas Polk, mounted on a stand that loomed over the heads of students seated at the center tables of the first floor. Known as the “Fighting Bishop,” Polk was an Episcopal priest who joined the war as a general and killed and died for the Confederacy.

Dr. Woody Register wrote, “Polk was a defender of slavery as an instrument of God’s will, and he was especially hostile toward those who called slavery sinful. His memory has historically been venerated in a way where he in his very body links Christianity and slavery.”

The presence of the Polk bust in such a communal space left me saddened and disgusted. How were BIPOC students expected to thrive in an environment filled with symbols meant to remind them of their inferiority in the eyes of the University’s founders?

The journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates argues there is systematic pressure on black people to weather injustice and inequality without showing anger that would be acceptable if the person were white. He says “An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality – it’s a double standard.”

After months of studying the history of Confederate symbols across the nation and on Sewanee’s campus, after the shameless racist incident at the lacrosse game, and after hearing the pain in the stories fellow students told on the Quad, I decided to remove Leonidas Polk from duPont. 

Before I removed the bust I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do with it once it was down. One friend suggested that I throw it off Morgan’s Steep, but I knew it was important for the bust to be preserved. While I do not believe Confederate symbols should be able to stay up as is, I am much more concerned with the idea that institutions, worried about their image, could silently remove symbols and cover up their connection to the Confederacy. If true reconciliation is to occur, in which institutions acknowledge and repent for past wrongs, it will be vitally important that the legacy of these symbols be documented and remembered.

It was with the explicit goal of preserving this history that I left the Polk bust in the very capable hands of the Archives and the Roberson Project. 

After the bust was moved the University asked that we be patient and engage in the long process of institutional change. In an email sent from Sewanee administration to faculty and students we were asked that “rather than take individual action, please let them (The Roberson Project) continue their excellent work so that we can make the necessary changes in a thoughtful and systematic way.” Change is often a slow process, and I agree that it is best achieved through community, not individual action, but I also think that sometimes the process needs a catalyst. In recent years there have been notable changes in Confederate symbols on campus, the Kirby Smith memorial was moved from University Avenue, stained glass in All Saints’ Chapel was altered to remove Confederate flags and imagery, and the Thompson Union, named after a Confederate, is being renamed Biehl Commons. But in light of the vitriol of the lacrosse game, these changes felt insufficient. These, and all Confederate monuments on this campus, should have been moved decades ago. To be asked to wait any longer for change is an insult to the BIPOC people who for generations have been denied the decency of being able to live in an environment free of these racist dog whistles. 

At the end of this past summer, the University announced that the persons responsible for shouting the epithets used at the game could not be held accountable because no one had stepped forward to accept or assign responsibility. Last year, in a letter I left on with the sculpture I said, “It is no wonder to me that in an environment in which the relics of the Confederacy are still proudly littered around us that students feel as though they can get away with blatant racism.” Now that a year has passed and no one has been held responsible it is apparent to me that students know they can get away with blatant racism. Why should we expect anything different from a culture that still proudly displays Confederate symbols? At that moment it was announced that no one would be held accountable, we as a community had failed, as many BIPOC students expected we would. There was no healing; there was no reconciliation. Sewanee moved on. 

It should be clear, especially in light of the inadequate response to the lacrosse game, that we must reevaluate our culture. Moving the Polk bust was a small gesture, and not something that will dramatically change anyone’s life or do much to confront racism on campus. Just removing symbols without starting a conversation does little to address the culture that allowed them to go up in the first place. When there have been changes to Confederate symbols on campus, like the relocating of the Kirby Smith monument, the removal of the  “slave chair” and a stained glass Confederate from All Saints’, and the renaming of Thompson Union, change happened quietly and hardly anyone noticed. These silent alterations to the footprint of the Confederacy on this university were missed opportunities for a wider recognition and reckoning with our history. I hope that by writing this letter and announcing my responsibility for the removal of the Fighting Bishops sculpted head that I can revitalize a conversation about the role of this monument and all Confederate symbols on the Domain. We must ask ourselves: Who are we as a University, how does our history shape us, and what must we do to make this campus a place where all students feel they belong? 

There is no divorcing the University of the South from the Confederacy. This union was carved in marble — quarried and hauled up this mountain by enslaved men — at the placement of the cornerstone in October 1860. I once heard Klarke Stricklen C’22 say that the University itself is a monument to the Confederacy. Removing the sculpture of Polk’s head from the library has not changed this fact. Therefore, removing every Confederate symbol from campus is not my goal, but it is not appropriate or respectful to BIPOC to allow these symbols to remain in communal spaces without challenge. These are spaces where we are meant to learn, live, and grow together. If we hope to reconcile and create a more inclusive Sewanee, these spaces must be reimagined. 

 

White supremacist Jack Kershaw (left) presents the sculpture to Sewanee’s leadership: Bishop of Kentucky Charles Klingman, Board of Regents chairman Edmund Orgill, and Polk descendant and Regent Dudley Gale.

We can document our past, and even acknowledge the contributions of flawed people, without venerating racists. Leonidas Polk was instrumental in founding this University, an act that over 150 years later I and thousands of others have benefited from, and there are fair arguments to be made that his role at this place should be memorialized. But to do so without any context of his intentions in founding the University or background on where the funding, generated from slave labor, came from, would be whitewashing history. Before I removed the Polk bust I searched online for anything that could explain the history of the effigy and came up short. It was not until I drew attention to the bust’s existence that its history was recovered and its creator and donor identified: the notorious white supremacist Jack Kershaw, a ringleader in the “massive resistance” campaign to defy the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. A common counter argument to removing Confederate monuments is that this would erase history, but in the case of the Polk bust, displaying it without context led to our collective loss of its historical foundation in white supremacy and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The memorial to Polk was less about the Civil War and more about Sewanee’s own resistance to racial equality. 

We can do better than this. There are already successful templates in place for documenting the history of the Confederacy in spaces separate from communal spaces. Take a look at the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, which preserves Confederate artifacts while providing appropriate context and stories from the perspective of all people, including the often-overlooked viewpoint of women, indigenous peoples, and African Americans. 

I want to acknowledge that the removal of the Polk bust was not solely an individual action on my part. I removed it, but I ran the idea by many others, and its final form was shaped by this collaboration. I would like to thank Claire Smith C’22 and the University Archives and Special Collections for the investigative journalism that uncovered the history of the sculpture of the  Polk bust and its creator. Moving forward, my hope for Sewanee is that we can create a museum-like space, open to the public, where Confederate symbols can be stored and properly contextualized. A space like this ensures that the history of the University is preserved while also removing unwelcoming symbols from communal spaces. I would like to close with the words of Milbry Polk, the great-great-granddaughter of Leonidas. She wrote, 

We can remake ourselves and we can value the things that are important. Leonidas Polk valued education and he was the founder of Sewanee: the University of the South. We have to have monuments that speak to all people, and if they don’t speak to all people, they shouldn’t be there. You can’t erase history, but you can certainly change monuments.

Respectfully,

George Webster Burruss, C’22

About the author:

 

George Burruss, C’22

George Burruss was born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He attended Virginia Episcopal School, where his mother works, and where he developed a love of ecology and the natural sciences. Outside of studying, he spent most of his time in the mountains bird watching and hiking. He grew up hearing about Sewanee from his Aunt Beth Harris, C’96, and Uncle Stuart Harris, C’89. When it came time to apply to colleges, he could not wait to tour this special place. At Sewanee George has pursued an ecology major and a pre-medical track. Outside of class, George splits his time between his partner Phoebe-Agnès Mills and his Gamma Sigma Phi fraternity brothers. After graduating George will take the MCAT, hike the Pacific Crest Trail, then apply to medical schools. In the future George hopes to return to the mountains and provide medical care in rural and/or underserved areas. 

A Day to Remember Dr. Houston Bryan Roberson (1958-2016)

Four years ago today, December 21, Dr. Houston Bryan Roberson died after a long illness. He was 58 years old and had been teaching at Sewanee since 1997. Today we at Sewanee have honored his memory and the impact he had on this community by naming our project on slavery, race, and reconciliation after him.

The last week or so this anniversary has been very much on my mind and that of Julie Berebitsky, my wife, now retired from teaching U.S. women’s history, who began her Sewanee career the same day as Houston Roberson. For both of us, Dr. Roberson was a cherished friend and colleague. These reminiscences sent me into my electronic files to dig up the remarks I made at his memorial service in All Saints’ Chapel on April 2, 2017. Looking over them, I thought that others, who may or may not have known Dr. Roberson, would appreciate the chance to read my tribute to him. A video of the full service can be found at this link. Following my remarks is a short biography that accompanied the Sewanee announcement of his death. — Woody Register

Remarks by Woody Register at the memorial service for Houston Bryan Roberson, April 2, 2017, All Saints’ Chapel, The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.

I am so grateful for this opportunity to say a few words – and, believe me, far fewer than I would like – about Houston Roberson, a scholar, teacher, colleague, and, for so many of us, a beloved friend.

Let us be honest, though: Houston was as modest a person as ever walked the planet, and if he were here today, he would protest against all the attention, and he would happily put a muzzle on me. With all due respect to him and his wishes, there are things that must be said, and trust me I am not saying them all. I cannot speak for us all, and I will not try.

I am especially thankful for being able to say these words – really of gratitude – for all that he did for us and gave to us in this chapel, which he loved, which sits at the center of a university that he loved, which is part of a church that he loved, and that in turn belongs to a faith that he shared and carried with him always. I am stating the obvious in saying that Houston loved teaching – that no one could have been more determined over the twelve months between when he first collapsed over Thanksgiving break in 2015 to the very week before he left us this past December –  that no one could have been more determined to get back into the classroom – that no one looked forward with as much excitement or anticipation to what we were planning to do with our courses and curriculum than Houston. Honestly, Houston then as he had many times before put me to shame with his fight to get back into the classroom – his zest for teaching and his belief in teaching.

There was no cynicism to be found in Houston. Now granted – our colleague loved a break as much or more than anyone else. He could make the most of those interregnums of rest at midterm or Thanksgiving or Spring break, when he would dash off in his car – and I do mean dash – to see friends and family – and really for him, friends were family – in his Virginia hometown of Stuart or Charlotte or Atlanta or Chapel Hill and Raleigh or perhaps above all New York City. Or, perhaps best of all for my wife Julie Berebitsky and me, the way he savored the night after the last day of classes – when the three of us and sometimes others would convene, and combine our love of cooking and eating, and toast the jobs we had – or we hoped we had done well with, in December, a sweet and spicy Manhattan or two, and in May, a martini – mine a gin concoction, his a vodka, and his always as dirty as we could make them. But even these transgressive times were about teaching and learning, reflecting on what we had done and would try to do better in the future, catching up on the research or writing we hoped to jam into January or cultivate over the warm months of summer.

Speaking of food – and only food this time – many of us here know that Sewanee likes to talk about its long tradition of inviting students into our homes, a folklore usually exaggerated to reinforce our branding, but it is important to remember something that many of you younger ones and those from Chapel Hill, too, remember – and that is how Houston’s classrooms always encompassed his kitchen and the bounty of his larder. A reward to students who took his classes was a meal at the end as only Houston could do it. Efficiency and time management were no consideration; they were not in his vocabulary at these times. Houston cooked long and hard, brewing up a complex mole or tenderly coaxing a bordelaise into existence to give to his students. And it was a gift from his kitchen. I remember the late spring of his last full semester of teaching – he needed to borrow something for a dish he was preparing, and I took it over to his house, where I found him in full cooking splendor: short pants, t-shirt, scruffy bedroom slippers, surrounded by the shocking disarray of his hot and steamy and full-going kitchen, giving his all, when he really had so little to spare, to the preparation of what was a genuine feast for his students. That was Houston, I thought to myself then – cooking, teaching, giving all that he had, for his students.

That is why it is no exaggeration to say that there are nearly countless numbers of women and men today, aged 20 to nearly 60, who believe that Houston was one of, if not the great teacher in their lives.  In the long list of those who feel blessed to have been in his classroom, I put myself at the greyer end of that spectrum. If I am a good teacher in and beyond the classroom – and people tell me I am – it is because over the course of my life I have had good teachers who have taught me most of what I know. Houston Roberson was and will continue to be one of my most important teachers.

I met Houston twenty years ago this past January in New York City at the dreadful annual meeting of the American Historical Association, where we were interviewing candidates for a position – Sewanee’s first ever – in African American history. Houston was our first interview of the cycle, probably 9 at the latest in the morning. I was a youngish assistant professor at Sewanee and I was joined across the table from Houston by my assistant professor colleague John Willis. It was my first time conducting job interviews – and maybe John’s too – and I doubt Houston was the beneficiary of the fact that I really did not know what I was doing. Nor did I understand the importance of what we were delegated to do. I think I thought of our mission as an academic enterprise – to add an important segment to our curriculum – but I am pretty sure I did not think of myself as being sent out to shake the foundations of the university. Nevertheless, somehow, several months later my colleagues were able to convince Houston to come work and teach at Sewanee, and again it is no exaggeration to say that nothing – no aspect of the institution, no dimension of its curriculum, certainly no student who has benefited from his classes, and nothing about myself as a teacher or scholar or friend – nothing has been the same.

Sewanee calls itself the University of the South, but for most of its history, it has been the University of and for the White South. Over the last half century there have been historic efforts to change its character, and there have been notable achievements, but Houston’s arrival at Sewanee fundamentally changed things. And let me make clear that those changes came not because of anything I or my colleagues did. They came because of Houston and what he did at Sewanee and especially because of how he did it. He was the first fulltime member of the college faculty to teach his subject area fulltime. He taught African American history in broad strokes and in fine detail: the general survey courses, to be sure, but also African-American Intellectual History, The American Civil Rights Movement, the African-American Church in Slavery and Freedom, African American Women and Religion. And, Civil Disobedience from Ancient Greece to Modern Africa – that is, the long arc of history from Sophocles to Nelson Mandela.

Houston was also the first African American to join Sewanee’s faculty fulltime – the University of the South I’m telling you – in what was then its 130-year history. And though the people of Sewanee opened their homes and their hearts to Houston, let us just concede that this was not an easy course for Houston to follow, that Sewanee people had a lot to learn from Houston, and he taught us all – with courage, wisdom, and above all patience and love for those in our community.

To reflect on that point – the good works Houston did at Sewanee – I, like him,  will return to the New Testament book of Timothy: Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12) One of the major themes in Houston’s history of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery – Fighting the Good Fight – addresses the persistent tension within African American religion during enslavement and after emancipation between the Christian’s calling to attend to the soul, to prepare for the life hereafter, and the historic need to fight injustice and oppression in this world. Does Christianity teach us to suffer silently, knowing that God is the ultimate arbiter of justice and salvation, or does it teach us to rise up against the cruelties and exploitation of this fallen world? That tension between the call to Christian ministry and the call to social activism. The members of the Dexter Avenue Church, he tells us, “‘fought the good fight’ for the cause of Christian evangelism and full citizenship rights for all Americans.” But, as Houston told the story, this was not a story of outsized historic events, the King years alone, but a long and dense history of people on the ground – the generations of congregations As Houston writes,

This church’s greatest significance is not found in the dramatic turning points in its life, but in the tedium of board meetings, missionary society activities, and pastoral searches. It was the day-to-day regular activities that anchored and stabilized life for church members as they experienced and endured the oppression of racism and segregation.

What Houston wrote about the Dexter Avenue Church, I think, applies no less to his own life as a teacher and it describes how he approached his work as an educator: Houston’s good work – his good fight – was like that of the church’s congregations, not just in the famous and stirring historic moments or in the high moments of publishing books that were universally admired or indulging in end-of-term martinis. It was especially there in the day-to-day tedium of teaching and grading – of preparing for class, meeting with students, writing letters of recommendation, working on committees, and pushing against the inevitable institutional inertia.

But his good fight also was like that of Dexter Avenue’s long history, as both a spiritual sanctuary for its community of believers and the foundation for social and political action. Christian salvation and regeneration but hand in hand with confrontation with injustice and oppression in this world. So it was with education with Houston: You learned to write well the better to express your ideas and confront those of others; you learned about the past the better to equip yourself to understand the history of injustice and discrimination. Studying history was a moral exercise: learning the history of civil disobedience, what it could accomplish and what it could not. What he said of Dexter Avenue Church was true of his classroom: just substitute classroom for church:

The classroom was for Houston a world: a sanctuary, yes, but also a place to seek power, to become and prepare leaders, and where students learned to affirm themselves and others as worthwhile, capable beings.   

And how did he do this? By teaching the history of African Americans from enslavement to emancipation to today.

I want to finish by quoting from some notes that Houston shared with me last year, which summarized the basic lessons he was trying to teach his students in his Civil Rights Movement course. Both were drawn from his great intellectual influence W. E. B. DuBois:

The African American history narrative is both distinctive from and inextricably part of the larger narrative of American history. The distinctive narrative is a defining element of the larger narrative. To summarize: African American history is American history.

Second: The story of African American history runs counter to the narrative of most other minority groups in America. There are periods of gains, backlashes and losses. That has meant having to fight again and again for the same freedoms won in an earlier generation. Thus, for African Americans and all of us as Americans, emancipation was and is an ongoing process. It was never a moment. There were antecedents and the process continues to this very hour.

Over the last three weeks I have seen the new movie, I Am Not Your Negro, twice. It is a hard movie for me to watch. As probably most of you know, the movie is about the great writer and intellectual James Baldwin, which animates and brings to public notice a manuscript he never finished at the end of his life about the murders of his three friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Both times watching this movie, time and again I thought to myself, how I wish Houston were able to see it – how I wish we could see it together, and talk about it, and how he could help me learn more from it – less selfishly, how I wish that Houston could teach this movie in his classroom. It is a complicated movie, but Baldwin’s central message and the message of the movie, in his words, is this: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America.” Those were essentially Houston’s words to me in those notes about his classes and bear repeating: The African American history narrative is both distinctive from and inextricably part of the larger narrative of American history. The distinctive narrative is a defining element of the larger narrative.   

To put these words into my own: the central and most visible history of this nation – if we open our eyes to see it – is not a story of progress, but of ongoing struggle, and nothing teaches us this lesson so well as history. And no one, in my experience, has taught this lesson so well or enduringly, as Houston. And no one through their teaching has done more to make Sewanee a university truly of the South than our teacher and friend Houston Roberson.

A Brief Biography of Houston Bryan Roberson

Houston Bryan Roberson, Professor of History, passed away on December 21, 2016. A light went out for Sewanee with the passing of this deeply loved colleague, teacher, and friend — a man of quiet demeanor but tremendous strength, who influenced for good all who were fortunate enough to know him.

Houston grew up in Stuart, Virginia, a small town in mountainous country not unlike this part of Tennessee; he was the son of the late Ralph and Madelene Roberson, and one of seven siblings. He attended Patrick County High School, where he is still remembered with affection and admiration by some of his teachers. He received a BA from Mars Hill College, an MA from Wake Forest University, and a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina. Before starting his graduate work at UNC, he taught history for many years at Chapel Hill High School; he never lost his love for the city and its people, and it is impossible to exaggerate his influence on students and his fellow teachers there or how much they admired him as a person and teacher.

Coming to Sewanee in 1997, Houston was the first African-American to be appointed a full-time member of the College faculty. He brought the study of race and of African American history to Sewanee in unprecedented and historic ways, contributing as he did so to profound change in the university’s curriculum as a whole. He was a personal mentor and friend to many students, especially the college’s growing numbers of African-American students.  He was also an accomplished scholar, widely admired for his work on the history of African American religions and Civil Rights in the U.S. His first book was Fighting the Good Fight: The Story of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, 1865-1977 (2005). In 2014, he co-authored Witness: Two Hundred Years of Faith and Practice at the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem, New York; it was a source of special pleasure to him that one of his co-authors was Genna Rae MacNeil, his former graduate advisor, who has movingly described him as “a free man with a pure spirit.” In 2002 he co-authored with Rhonda Y. Williams, Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom’s Bittersweet Song.

Especially valuable to Sewanee was his short essay, “The Problem of the Twentieth Century: Sewanee, Race and Race Relations,” published in the University’s sesquicentennial volume, Sewanee: Perspectives on the History of the University of the South (2009). This essay was the first piece of written scholarship to address directly and forthrightly the history of race on campus and in the Sewanee community. Finally, Houston was an invaluable colleague: insightful, constructive, deeply conscientious, and profoundly committed to the History Department’s goals and those of the University at this formative stage in its history. His generosity of spirit, understanding of people, courage, and wisdom continue to animate discussions in the department, the college, and the university, and will resonate for many decades among hundreds of friends, colleagues, former students, and members of the family he loved so much.

Houston was preceded in death by his parents, Ralph and Madelene Roberson, and by a brother, Mitchell W. Tatum. He left behind to cherish his memory a brother, Elder Dr. Larry D. Tatum (Iris), of Cleveland, OH; four sisters, Mrs. Elaine Thomas (Charlie), the Rev. Sheila Thomas (Albert), of Stuart, VA, Ms. Teresa K. Roberson and Dr. Olivia R. Givens (Kem), both of Charlotte, NC, along with a host of nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews for whose futures he cherished the greatest of hopes.