The Name and Person Behind the Nickname “Six”

By Elizabeth Baker, C’27

This ca. 1914 photograph of Willie Sims was found in a Sewanee student’s scrapbook. It shows that, only a few years after starting his full-time work as athletic “trainer,” Sims already had become a nickname in the imaginations of students.

For generations, Sewanee’s chroniclers have amassed a virtual library of stories of “Willie Six,” the legendary Black athletic trainer who worked with Sewanee’s football team for nearly forty years in the first half of the twentieth century, in the university’s archives and databases. As the nation faced heightening racial tensions after World War II, “Willie Six” was the subject of praise in publications in the South and across the country looking for examples of the benevolence of Southern white supremacy – here was a Black man whose devoted and selfless service to the white boys of the University seemed to refute national accusations of injustice and racial violence in the South. 

Far less common are stories about Willie Sims, the man behind the nickname “Six.” He lived in the segregated St. Mark’s community with his wife, Mollie. His life outside of his labor was uninteresting to the white people of Sewanee, and, unfortunately, the vast majority of local history is dictated and reported by white people. We have meager evidence of any Black life at Sewanee unassociated with work and service to the University. There has been ample reporting from the Sewanee Purple, the student newspaper, on Willie Sims’s contributions to the university, but it has been nearly impossible to find any glimpse into his personal family and community life.

As a summer intern for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation at Sewanee, I’ve been spending substantial time in the many rabbit holes of and its associated sites, looking for any crumb of information about what life looked like in the St. Mark’s community, Sewanee’s historic Black community, during the first half of the 20th century. Mentions of any family or person in St. Mark’s is a rare reward for hours of digging through census records and lease ledgers – as we work to build out a digital map of the St. Mark’s community in the mid-20th century, plotting out who lived where and when, we have begun to emphasize the search for stories about families who spent decades of their lives at Sewanee. Because of the deprioritization of Black experiences in the historical record, though, the glimpses we get of the men and women who lived and worked together under the authority of the University are scant and hard to find.

I was excited, then, to find a mention of Willie Sims, famous for his work for Sewanee, at a dinner party in the “Out of Town Notes” section of the Nashville Globe. The Globe was a Black-owned newspaper that published in the early 20th century, and now essentially serves as a database on post-Reconstruction Black social life in Tennessee. The mentioned dinner party was hosted in September 1918 by Hill Robinson of Sewanee in honor of Thurman Davis, on the occasion of his joining the military. But the meat of this clipping, and the reason I’m writing this post in the first place, is that Willie Sims is listed as a guest at the party. It was an intimate affair – there were no more than seven or eight people, which points to a certain familiarity Sims probably had either with the host, the subject of the celebrations, or the guest of honor. This is a rare example of Willie Sims the man, rather than the rubber.

From the Nashville Globe, September 1918.

Our new clip from the Nashville Globe gives us a new depth of understanding about Willie Sims’s life – there is no mention of his work, no regard for his service to the University. He is, here, a man at a party with his friends, celebrating someone about to embark on a new adventure. We know, now, that in 1918, Sims was well-known enough to gain a mention in the Globe, which could indicate some connection to the Black community in Nashville; not fame, but community We know he had a social life that did not include what he could do for white students, one that took its leisure at friends’ homes in the evening. It provokes questions that haven’t been part of the equation before: what did he do with his friends Robinson, Rankins, Davis, and Kindly? What did they talk about? Where did they most often meet, and when? Now that we can attach Sims to other men in his community, instead of the athletic program, we may venture to hope that we may someday better know what it meant to be Willie Sims, a Black man, instead of Willie Six, a symbol of white supremacy’s benevolence in Sewanee in the first half of the 20th century. 

About the author:

Elizabeth Baker (C’27) is a 2024 Roberson Project summer intern from Los Angeles, California. Her work, supported by Sewanee’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fund, has focused on mapping the historic St. Mark’s community and cataloging the mythologization of Sewanee for the Locating Slavery’s Legacies database. She is majoring in Classics and Medieval Studies, and plans to attend law school. She is a member of the Interfaith House, an Americorps service member, co–president of the Sewanee Debate Union, and occasional violinist in the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra. When she’s not writing for work, she’s writing fiction on the porch of Stirling’s.

Sewanee residents find a lost photo – believed to be of Willie “Willie Six” Sims – between the pages of a book on their shelf.

The name of Willie Sims is well known to the Sewanee community. He was the most honored African American in the University of the South’s first century – and arguably its entire history. Born in the 1880s in nearby Pelham, Tennessee, likely the son of emancipated enslaved people, and possessing no more than an eighth-grade education, he worked as “trainer” for Sewanee’s athletic teams from 1909 until his employment ended in 1947. Sewanee men nicknamed him “Willie Six,” and often called him just “Six,” after the numeral on a second-hand jersey he once wore at work. Willie Sims died in 1950. 

As familiar as his name is, there are few surviving candid images of him, especially showing him at work. Most of those we have were staged or posed to accompany publicity about the University.

But this past week, a wholly new and unfamiliar image of Sims appeared on the Roberson Project’s doorstep. Really it did. An envelope containing the image was slipped under our office door. 

The sources of the photograph were Sewanee residents Marilyn and Tom Phelps. 

But first a description of the photograph, and then the story of the Phelpses’ role in this important find.

The image shows Sims hard at work on the football field, attending to the nether regions of a Sewanee player who is stretched, face down, on a bench. They are surrounded by other players, a man dressed in jacket and tie, other men idling nearby, and a little girl in a ribboned straw hat. 

We have yet to identify any of these figures, and we cannot even see Sims’s face. But it seems highly probable it is the trainer “Willie Six,” dressed in well-worn trousers and hat, tattered shirt, and workman’s shoes. From the automobiles visible in the distant background, the players’ hairstyles, the photograph appears to date from the 1930s. Sims had been Sewanee’s trainer since about 1909. In team photographs from that era, he is the lone Black man appended to a group of white people. 

A group of football players posing for a photo

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The circumstances of the photo’s appearance also place it in the 1930s. 

The Phelpses discovered the photograph when it fell from the pages of a book in their possession, the Chaplain Moultrie Guerry’s Men Who Made Sewanee, published in 1932. And that copy of the book had belonged to Arthur Ben Chitty, Sewanee’s long-serving historiographer and perhaps most loyal alumnus, who graduated from the College in 1935.

The Phelpses had acquired Men Who Made Sewanee “a few years back” from Em Chitty, the daughter of Arthur Ben and Elizabeth Chitty and who recently returned to live in Sewanee. 

Tom Phelps, Sewanee Class of 1974, fondly recalled, “There were no more stalwart Sewanee supporters than the Chittys in the 70s and 80s.” 

“When I was a student in the 70s, she knew all about me: my goals and aspirations [to be a medical doctor]. She arranged for me and another classmate to go to Nashville to witness one of the first cardiac bypasses performed by Sewanee alumnus Dr. Bill Stony… I remember them with fondness and gratitude.”

Tom later graduated from medical school, and today, “retired” and living in Sewanee, he is a physician at the Tracy City Free Clinic in Grundy County, providing affordable health care to uninsured people living in this region.

The Roberson Project is grateful to Marilyn and Tom for sharing this image with us and donating it to the Save Sewanee Black History digital archive, where it will appear soon. Visit the Save Sewanee Black History archive at this LINK

Most important, they have contributed to the growing record of African American life and experience in Sewanee. This photo helps us diversify and enrich the campus narrative because it contributes to our memory of all who were “makers of Sewanee.”

To learn more about Willie Sims, visit this WEBSITE. To learn more about Men Who Made Sewanee and the Black men who were “makers of Sewanee,” read Woody Register’s 2021 essay in the Sewanee Review.


This is a photo of the Rev. John McCoy Moncrief, Jr. (1923-1955).

It is likely you have never seen or heard of him before, although his name and face are ones that all Sewanee people should recognize.

In the summer of 1953, John Moncrief, a young Episcopal priest from Orangeburg, South Carolina, broke the “color line” at Sewanee, becoming the first African American to enroll in the University of the South.

His actions were of singular importance in the history of this institution and the Episcopal Church. And yet those of us who have told the story of Sewanee’s slow departure from the racist practices of its first century have tended to have a blind spot when it comes to the young African American men who actually ended segregation by enrolling in the University of the South.

This “first draft” is an attempt to eliminate one of those blind spots. It shares what our research has uncovered about John Moncrief and his deliberate campaign to subvert Sewanee’s segregationist practices.

Click HERE to go to an illustrated website about his life and contributions to the University of the South.

Framing Founding Funders

Reflection by Dr. Andrew Maginn, Senior Research Associate and Program Coordinator, Roberson Project.

When the Roberson Project hired me in July 2021, I was a newly minted PhD from Howard University. Coming from a program that trained activist scholars,  I was excited to work for an organization that consciously endeavored to scrutinize its institution’s past. My first assignment was to help research the history of the University’s founding. Eager to prove myself and before I made the move to Sewanee, I ordered two books to be sent to my home in Washington, D.C.: Sewanee Perspectives: On the History of the University of the South (2008) and Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South (2008).  I immediately devoured these books, soaking in as much knowledge about the University’s history as I could prior to my first in-person meeting with the Project’s director, Dr. Woody Register. Impressed by this newfound knowledge, Dr. Register shared with me the Fairbanks List.” Little did I anticipate how much working with this document would influence my development as a historian and scholar in the digital humanities. 

George Rainsford Fairbanks, an original trustee and, after the Civil War, a longtime administrator of the University, compiled his “list” in the 1870s. Tanner Potts C’15, the Roberson Project’s first full-time researcher, uncovered the document in the Sewanee Archives in 2017. It consists of an itemized list, detailing the names of 294 people who, prior to the war, pledged funds to the creation of the University of the South. Despite Fairbanks’ effort to document these pre-war promises, most subscribers did not make good on their pledges.

Unfortunately, the list is not as straightforward as a researcher would like: most of the “founding funders” are listed by surname and donation amount with a spare notation to help identify an individual funder: first name, an initial, a title, or a place of residence. Due to these limited hints, efforts to identify these funders have taken significant time. When I joined the Roberson Project, about half of the funders had been identified. My assignment was the same as many of the tasks undertaken by the Roberson Project: to fill in the gaps in the record of Sewanee’s past that earlier researchers missed, neglected, or chose not to address. 

I began working on the “Fairbanks List”in August 2021 alongside my other tasks for the Roberson Project. Juggling events, last-minute research requests, archival visits, and leading a seminar on arguments regarding reparations for slavery, I made some progress identifying funders in late 2021.  As more biographical and background data was gathered and gaps in previous research were addressed, Dr. Register and I discussed how to make the information public facing.  ArcGIS, a geographic information software that is used to create digital maps, was already a proven tool that Dr. Register and Mr. Potts used to create a map to show information on the 37 original Board of Trustees of the University of the South (Within the Pale of the Plantation States: Slavery and the Governance of the University of the South in 1860). The digital map provides a biography of each trustee, their census information, the value of their property, and the number of people they enslaved. This would serve as a template for what became the Founding Funders Map Project. 

With ArcGIS as the chosen tool, I sought the expertise of Dr. Christopher Van de Ven, director of Sewanee’s Landscape Analysis Lab, and his assistant, Joshua Alvarez. We met often during that fall and early spring. Mr. Alvarez created the first iteration of the Founding Funders Map. By extracting data from a spreadsheet, he created multiple maps layered over the same region. Each map layer reveals a specific data category, such as the number of enslaved owned or funders’ property values. As I identified more names on the list and the map continue to expand, I began to see how these funders represented the multiple walks of life within the late antebellum period’s leadership class. These men and women  included plantation owners, politicians, ministers, newspaper editors, lawyers, doctors, railroad barons, and cotton brokers, with donations ranging from $500 to $25,000. Many owned multiple properties in the South, or homes in the North. Even a Louisiana native studying in a Paris medical school, James Dick Hill, pledged a donation. This was truly a complex network of people. Many later served as civilian or military leaders of the Confederacy during the eras of the American Civil War (1860-1865) and Radical Reconstruction (1865-1877). 

As more and more funders were added to the spreadsheet, we had to decide how to display this information. We didn’t want the map to be “academic,” something that would make sense mostly to college faculty-types. We wanted it to be broadly accessible and meaningful to any potential user. We brainstormed innovative ways to use ArcGIS and determined the following: 

  1. To have three “layers” (enslaved, pledged amount, and personal property) to highlight the demographic profiles of the funders;
  2. To have a pop-up biography (like the back of a baseball card) displaying personal and other information about each funder; 
  3. To include information about primary and secondary professions, because many were plantation owners with an additional occupation; 
  4. To limit each funder, no matter how many properties they owned, to a single pop-up biography linked to location they called home in the 1860 census, which we call their “home” property;
  5. To provide links to census documents to show where we found much of our information about wealth and slave-holdings and to make that information accessible to all users.

Roberson Project 2021-2022 Work Study Students-Klarke Stricklen and Silas McClung.

In Spring 2022, we added two undergraduate students to the team: Silas McClung C’24 and Klarke Stricklen C’22. Mr. McClung worked with me to identify several names and track their census information. As spring turned to summer, we drew closer to the project’s launch. The Roberson Project 2022 undergraduate research interns – Plum Champlin, Sofina Behr, Lillian Holloway, Callista Abner, and Carrie Schupack – worked with me for a few weeks to collect and digitize census records. Ms. Schupack and I uploaded these virtual documents to the database. During the summer, there were many nights that I didn’t leave the office until 10 or 11 after long days of working with the interns on their other work for the Roberson Project. The excitement to complete this project was all the fuel I needed. 

The 2022 Roberson Project Summer Interns: Callista Abner, Lillian Holloway, Sofina Behr, Carrie Schupack, and Plum Champlin.

As the summer continued, Dr. Register and I discussed how to present this information to users beyond the interactive map. We decided to accompany the ArcGIS map with an informative website. Mx. Champlin and I created the first version of this, and then we brought on Dr. Hannah Huber, the Digital Technology Leader and Project Administrator for the Center for Southern Studies, and the website continued to evolve. This experience was enlightening, as I was introduced to the basics of web page creation and digital publishing. In its current state, the website allows users to learn more about the Founding Funders, as each page provides context for the interactive map. The Roberson Project hopes this site helps Sewanee students, staff, faculty, and alumni, as well as the general public, gain greater insight into how and why this institution was created in the context of U.S. slavery.

As with the creation of our nation, the foundation of the University of the South is complicated. The evidence provided by the Founding Funders virtual map illustrates that the University of the South was created by men and women who benefitted from the institution of slavery. Their goal was to raise an endowment to sustain a “Southern institution” that would further southern ideas and industries, primarily agricultural production using enslaved labor. In this way, the history of the University is a microcosm of the history of the United States and its trading partners on both sides of the Atlantic. All were built and prospered on a foundation of enslaved people. Sewanee, like so many ancient universities in the Americas and Europe, was a contributing part of this historical development. While there is much to celebrate about what these institutions have contributed over the generations, that estimation has to acknowledge and reckon with slavery’s role in their evolution. 

Dr. Maginn presenting Founding Funders Map Project on November 1, 2022 for faculty, staff, and students at Sewanee.

Editor’s note: Dr. Maginn will be presenting on the Founding Funders Map Project on March 17, 2023 at the University Studying Slavery Conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In addition, Dr. Maginn is using Founding Funders Map Project within the classroom. His Spring 2023 course, entitled Slavery, Race and the University, encompasses a comparative exploration of Atlantic World institutions of higher education and their foundational ties to the global slave trade.


In 1964, many of the Civil Rights leaders in Tennessee joined forces on the Tennessee Voters Council to fight disfranchisement of Black voters. Among its directors was Mrs. Johnnie C. Fowler of Winchester (second from right).

Note to the reader: To celebrate Black History Month this year, the Roberson Project is pleased to publish a talk that Sewanee Professor Scott Bates gave in tribute to Mrs. Johnnie C. Fowler around the time of her death in 1990. Mrs. Fowler was a longtime Civil Rights activist and leader in Franklin County, Tennessee, and other parts of the South. Professor Bates, who died in 2013, taught French literature and film studies at Sewanee for some forty-plus years. He was an early supporter of the Highlander Folk School (later Highlander Research and Education Center), the Civil Rights organization near Monteagle, and he served on its board until his death. We are very grateful to his son, Robin Bates, for sharing his copy of this tribute to Mrs. Fowler, a Civil Rights leader who, with other local Black women mentioned in this address, changed Sewanee and Franklin County and deserves to be better remembered. Professor Bates’s words about Mrs. Fowler’s fight to recognize Black history are especially pertinent today, with determined campaigns underway to limit students’ exposure to the history and experiences of African Americans.

In tribute to Mrs. Johnnie Fowler, I’d like to present a brief history of her work with the Franklin County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

Our present chapter was formed by Mrs. Fowler, Mrs. J D. (Mikey) Marlowe, and me in the spring of 1958 with the help of Mrs. Septima Clark, who was then Educational Director of Highlander Folk School at Monteagle. Mrs. Fowler had been in an earlier Franklin County chapter of the Association, which was mainly involved in helping blacks who got into legal difficulties; she was in a central position in Winchester to affect public opinion, as she was the leading beautician in this area and ran a small but influential cosmetology school. Her wonderful mother, Mrs. Comer, became the treasurer of the new organization, and did a fine job for the rest of her life of keeping a tight rein on our always limited finances.

A footnote to history here. Recently some of us have been watching the fine Public Television documentary EYES ON THE PRIZE, which gives a moving visual history of the heroic days of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and early 60s. Unfortunately, however, the film leaves out one of the strongest black groups in the South to affect social change, that is, the cosmetologists. As leading citizens in all communities throughout the South, they like the ministers did not depend on white business to thrive; and, again like the ministers – who have been given deserved credit as leading male figures in the movement – they were in a privileged position to reach all elements of black society; and to reach them rapidly!

At this early time in the Civil Rights Movement, the time when the first students were organizing their sit-ins, African-American beauticians were also organizing for social action; they met at Highlander and at other spots around the South to plan desegregation strategies. Of course, Mrs. Fowler was a prime mover among these powerful, effective women, and she soon organized the Fayetteville and Shelbyville chapters of the NAACP through her former students there. Another of her students started our first youth chapter, which did the tremendous – and very dangerous – job of integrating Franklin County facilities, the lunch counters, restaurants, movie houses, bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, and public recreational facilities. Mrs. Fowler was always right in the middle of the battle. To give two examples out of many, she personally, along with Professor Anita Goodstein of Sewanee, sat-in at the Sewanee Inn and finally integrated that facility, which had been the target of desegregation activists for more than two years. She was also a leader in integrating the Otey Memorial [Episcopal] Church at Sewanee during the rectorship of David Yeats.

In addition, at this time, she was helping to organize “Citizen Schools,” the small grass-roots schools that were initiated at Highlander and were springing up all over the South to teach literacy to black constituents so that they could vote and overturn lily-white political systems. Mrs. Fowler started the literacy school on Sewanee Mountain and traveled periodically to South Carolina and Georgia to help with schools down there.

In 1963 and 1964, she, Mrs. Dora Turner, Mrs. Emma Hill, Mrs. Sarah Staten, and Mrs. Ferrell Sisk, along with four white families, brought suit against the Franklin County School Board to integrate the schools in the county. After much hard work and a lot of painful litigation, they won the suit and set up a model system for integration in the South. Later on in the sixties, she also led actions to integrate the school buses and the teaching staffs. At the same time, she was opening up job opportunities for blacks in local businesses, including the Hat Factory, Kuhn’s store, ARO, the Cowan Shoe Factory, Big Kin Tullahoma, and many others. She was literally a one-woman employment office for black workers in our county!

Mrs. Betty Wilkerson Hill and Mrs. Johnnie C. Fowler raise money for the Franklin County NAACP with a bake sale in front of the University Supply Store (now the Wellness Center) in 1966.

During this time, she continued to run her beautician’s school and her own private business, while organizing fund-raising lunches and sales and attending state and national meetings of the NAACP. She also ran the annual Black History Week programs every February, and brought to them some of the most dynamic speakers of the Civil Rights Movement. John Lewis, Kelly Miller Smith, Ruby Hurley, and many others. Indeed, Mrs. Hurley, our regional chairperson in charge of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, always cited Mrs. Fowler as one of the most effective workers in the south – with one of the most active chapters. Which was also one of the smallest!

With the Nixon-Reagan backlash in the seventies and eighties and the return to power of many of the white segregationists, we lost more than two-thirds of our black teaching staff, job layoffs for blacks became frequent, the Ku Klux Klan was organizing in Franklin County, and we no longer could get recourse from the Federal Government when we complained to their Civil Rights Division; so the work of the chapter became all the more important in meeting all these setbacks. Needless to say, Mrs. Fowler never gave up. In 1979 and 1980 she led the fight against the largest Klan organization in Tennessee, which was meeting in Estill Springs. Three years ago [in 1987], she initiated the Martin Luther King birthday celebrations in this area, which are still going strong.

At the discussions at the University of the South around Dr. King’s birthday, some of the young people were saying, “We want to work for African-American rights, but it’s hard to find the lunch counters now. Where are the lunch counters? Where are the places that need demonstrations, action, hard work?” 

Well the NAACP can tell them, and Mrs. Fowler actually  did tell them many times, those places are still there and still need hard work – even harder work, now that the government is no longer on our side. Black children are still discriminated against in the schools. Black teachers are given the left-over and substitute teaching jobs, just at the time when black role models are needed more than ever – for both black and white children! Black teachers who retire or who move on, are replaced by whites. Most school textbooks have nothing but white faces in their illustrations and white history in their texts. Good jobs for blacks are scarce, and there are always “reasons” to take white over black applicants. Black house workers are underpaid, etc.

But in all our pressing needs, you can be sure that the spirit of Mrs. Fowler will be with us, working for us, leading us. We came a long way under her incredibly dynamic, responsible leadership; and since we are all beneficiaries of that spirit, we can inherit it, we can pass it on. Her great, unstinting work lives in us: we must not fail her great trust in us to see that work through.

Scott Bates

Sewanee, Tennessee

Editor’s note: We were saddened to learn only this past week that Mrs. Betty Wilkerson Hill, another person active in local Civil Rights and photographed with Mrs. Fowler at the NAACP bake sale in 1966, died this past January 14. Her obituary can be read here.

The death notice for Mrs. Fowler in 1990.

Commemorative Remarks by Plum Champlin C’23 – Inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, January 16, 2023

The following remarks were given by Sewanee student Plum Champlin before the University of the South’s Inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. To honor this day, the Office of Inclusive Excellence partnered with Sleep in Heavenly Peace, inviting the entire Sewanee community to help build beds for children in the local community who otherwise would not have a bed to sleep in. This piece has been revised for clarity of message, and to include accessible sources.

I first want to thank all of you who rose early to join in this morning. I’m so excited to get to work on constructing these beds, but I wanted to take a moment on this day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss the ways the community service we engage in today relates to the driving forces behind the Civil Rights Movement. 

Many of my friends will be able to corroborate the fact that I say, frequently and unabashedly, that I do not think that justice is real. I believe it is a word which stands for subjective, arbitrary points of view informed by human social norms, biases, and flaws (both overt and subconscious) prevailing in a given time — components which have ruled over our emotions as a species for tens of thousands of years. I believe the word justice can, more times than not, be replaced with a more candid word, the other side of the coin: “punishment.”

That is not to say that subjectivity and compromise are not necessary to maintain order in any given society; rather, in refuting “justice” as a term, I seek to stake a claim to a major ideological shift that I and many others believe to be necessary: in broad strokes, to craft a society which consistently makes the choice of love, of forgiveness, over revenge? The choice to override the instinctual desire for power over others, and instead embrace them as equals. The choice to share joys, share the pleasures of life, and make our world safer and more loving for all of us, rather than taking joys away from our fellow human beings through acts of punishment. 

I’ve chosen to share this outline of my own ideology because I have been deeply influenced by the wisdom of many great philosophers and leaders working in social movements from the Civil Rights Movement, to Black Lives Matter, to abolitionists who have tirelessly battled slavery, the police, and the prison industrial complex. But even moreso, I share my own criticisms of justice’s illusory nature in order to properly frame my relationship to one quote which uplifts justice, one which I keep close to my heart: 

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love” (38). 

Taken from Where Do We Go From Here, the final book he penned before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this passage as a direct reply to, and refutation of, points on power and Christian love by Friedrich Nietzsche. Dr. King wrote that the “misinterpretation” of love’s relationship to power is not only Nietzsche’s, but “one of the greatest problems of history…” — namely, that “…the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love” (37). Yet, again, King’s refutation holds undeniable weight, bringing together rather than pushing away: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” 

To think of these things in connection is, for me, to accept the possibility of a return to form; to turn away from retributive justice, which itself stands against love, and towards the restorative. The compassionate. The brave. 

Stepping towards a restorative justice looks like providing care for those we disagree with, including those who cause harm. A Dr. King asserted in his Nobel Lecture in 1964, the true solution to violence cannot be more violence: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.” 

I cannot begin to encapsulate the nitty-gritty of restorative justice or prison abolition in these few words, and I will not try (though I would encourage anyone to start with the words of Angela Y. Davis, who encouraged us at her University of Michigan Keynote in early 2020 to reflect on the unsung facets of Dr. King’s legacy: “They remember King the Dr. Orator, but not Dr. King the disrupter of unjust peace.”). But in short, in my own mind and heart, the essence of restorative justice is one of recognition: seeing oneself as a flawed human being, recognizing the humanity in those we disagree with, and extending compassionate care to all parties instead of choosing vengeful condemnation, shaming, or violence. This violence doesn’t just look like physical confrontation or psychological torment, but also the silent dehumanization which is created by racism, sexism, other homophobia, transphobia (and other identity-based biases), and by the prison industrial complex. 

As with all good things, the path towards uniting power and love begins with a single lesson: learning from those like Dr. King who spread the message of love, so we might be able to teach it to ourselves, our communities, and our world. To let the message of loving, powerful justice truly affect us is to rethink everything about how we treat ourselves, and one another. Because this ideology, the mission to devote our individual and collective agency to bolster joy and betterment for the oppressed, is its own kind of activism — it is why I call myself, after Adrienne Maree Brown, a pleasure activist in all that I do. 

And today, in working with Sleep in Heavenly Peace, we engage in taking this very sort of collective action: to bring more joy into the world. 

I would bet (or at least, I sincerely hope) that most folks in the audience know, from at least one night in their life, the comfort of a warm bed, the pleasure of a good night’s rest. It is a thing of loving. And it is an act of love, the verb, for us to work towards bringing that joy to another human being. 

I hope today, as we engage in this work, each of us can reflect on the roles we as individuals hold by acknowledging our agency, our power, and putting it towards good. And, perhaps, towards a justice which centers betterment, joy, peace, and love.

I’ll end by giving my sincere gratitude and thanks to every person who worked to provide the supplies we will work with today, all those in attendance, and all those who will receive joy from resting in these beds — and especially all those who created the infrastructure and programming that brought us together today. Thank you very much!

Plum Estella Champlin is a scholar, writer, and pleasure activist from Memphis, Tennessee. They are a Senior year English and Creative Writing major with a special focus on character-driven fiction, and worked as a research intern for The Roberson Project this past summer. They currently serve as a student leader for the Sewanee Literary Society, a member of the Q&A House, an intern for the Sewanee Interfaith Council, an Editor-in-Chief for The Mountain Goat Journal, and a doting babysitter.

The Rev. Joseph N. Green, Jr. (1926-2023)

All of us at the Roberson Project were deeply saddened to learn on Saturday that Father Joseph Green had died the day before in Norfolk, Virginia. He was 96 years old.

In 1965 Father Green and his first cousin William O’Neal became the first African Americans to receive a Sewanee degree. 

In September 2018, Dr. Woody Register, Director of the Roberson Project, spent two days talking to Father Green and his wife, Evelyn, in their warm and inviting home in Norfolk.

The following is a transcription of remarks Dr. Register made at the dedication ceremony for the installation of a portrait of Father Joseph N. Green, Jr., T’65, at the School of Theology, The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, on September 15, 2020. Concern about the COVID pandemic prevented the Greens from attending the ceremony in person in Sewanee, but they were able to Zoom in for the occasion.

It is a particular honor and delight for me to have this opportunity to say a few words today on this occasion. Two Septembers ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Father Green and his wife Mrs. Evelyn Green at their home in Norfolk, Virginia, which they generously opened up to me for two days and then allowed me to pester them continuously with questions for the next two days. 

Father Joseph Green and Mrs. Evelyn Green on the front porch of
their Norfolk, Virginia, home in September 2018.

This event, for me at least, this meeting, this time I spent with the two of them, was one of the highlights of my professional  and academic career, and it had a profound and lasting effect, the stories they told and that I heard, that they shared with me and through me with others in the Sewanee community, changed my perspective on the history of this University, and on the reasons why I became involved with this project to begin with.

Let me say a few words to try to put Father Green’s career, before, during and after Sewanee, and he was here only for, I think, five summers out of the long course of his life. Let me try to put those in a little context here.

In 1965 there were two young African American men who were first cousins and who had grown up together, gone to school together, and I imagine even picked cotton together, on their family farms in the tiny and nearly all-Black town of Jenkinsville, South Carolina, 25 or so miles northwest of Columbia.

In 1965, these two young men, Bill O’Neal and Joe Green, both priests in the Episcopal Church, earned and received the Master of Sacred Theology Degree from the School of Theology of the University of the South. 

To my knowledge, neither of them attended a formal ceremony here on the Mountain that late spring, to receive those degrees, but they became on that day the first African Americans to graduate from this University. That’s 100 years after the end of the Civil War and the actual emancipation of nearly four million people held in the bonds of slavery, and that was 97 years after the first students matriculated at this University of and for the American South.

It is entirely fitting that we focus on that historic moment in honoring Father Green as we are today, but the right way to do it — the right way to honor that moment and those achievements 45 years ago — is not to isolate them, but to see their achievement in Sewanee in 1965 in the stream of two lives that were dedicated — long before they started at Sewanee and even longer after they finished at Sewanee — 

Two lives that were dedicated to what Father Green told me two years ago was “the only way to know the kingdom, right here, right now” — that way was “to fight for justice in this world.”

And let me add here that Father O’Neal died tragically in 1975. And I do not doubt that Sewanee would be honoring him today if he were still with us today.

When Fathers Green and O’Neal started their study at Sewanee in the summer of 1959, they already were veterans of the fight against Jim Crow. 

Ten years earlier, when Father Green was in his last year of college at St. Augustine’s, they had joined with other young Black men to fight for justice in the Episcopal Church. All of these men were determined to enter the Episcopal priesthood but all also refused to attend the church’s segregated seminary. Instead, they planned and executed a collective action to attend white seminaries outside the South. Not Sewanee or the Virginia seminary, but those outside the South. Father Green went to Philadelphia Divinity School, and Father O’Neal to General in New York City.

When they entered the summer graduate program at Sewanee in 1959, they knew they were not the first at Sewanee, they knew they were following in the footsteps of young men before them, John Moncrief in 1953 and Merrick Collier in 1954. These two young men had officially broken the color line here. However, neither had finished their studies: Moncrief was killed in an automobile accident in 1955, and Collier had elected to leave Sewanee instead of enduring the hostility he received in his one year of study here at the School of Theology.

Grace Episcopal Church in Norfolk, where Father Green was rector for many years.

Fathers Green and O’Neal had known their predecessors. John Moncrief in particular had been their teacher of sorts. So they consciously and deliberately took up the task of finishing the work, the fight for justice, right here and right now, at Sewanee. So there is no accident in any of this. This is a story about agency, about choice, about courage undergirded by faith. As Father Green told me two Septembers ago, the decision to come to Sewanee “was deliberate.” “We wanted to go [to Sewanee] and break down the barriers that we had broken down in other places. And we felt this was our obligation in a sense. The church cannot function as a separate and unequal institution, and the school [Sewanee] certainly cannot.”

No surprise, then, to learn that in the summer of 1961, that they were not only studying, but that Fathers Green and O’Neal joined three white men on the summer Theology faculty and tried — and failed — to be served at the restaurant of the segregated Sewanee Inn. 

Sewanee, Father Green told me, helped him “to know that I could deal with tough situations. Because dealing with the Jim Crow in the city of Norfolk that I faced when I came there was the same Jim Crow I was dealing with at Sewanee.” This was part of his education here. 

No surprise, either, that throughout the 1960s, Father Green, once he had received the calling to Grace Church in Norfolk, Virginia, expanded his fight for justice in the cities of Norfolk, Hampton Roads, and Portsmouth. 

In the 1960s you could find the Civil Rights agitator, Father Green, on the streets of those cities, in the midst of the Poor People’s march in Norfolk, or the successful fight to desegregate the YMCA. 

Later you could find him as a member of the city’s school board, working to bring excellence in education, for once, to all of that city’s children.

For many years, twenty I think, you could find him elected to and serving on the Norfolk City Council, leading urban renewal projects to upgrade housing in the city’s Black neighborhoods, to enhance public transportation, to upgrade the facilities and opportunities at Norfolk State University and Tidewater Community College, to renovate the Black neighborhood’s theater into the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center. Travel to Norfolk as I did two Septembers ago, and you will find Father Green’s fingerprints all over that city.

And for the 30 years after he started in 1963, and even quite frequently since then, you could find Father Green in the pulpit, the rector of Grace Church, ministering to his parishioners. Within the four walls to be sure, but also reaching always beyond those walls to the world right here and right now.

There is a tendency people have to make abstractions into historical actors. You see this especially with loyal alums of any college like Sewanee to say that their college did this or that in the past. That the college made them who they are etc. But I think the emphasis there is in the wrong place. It’s the people at Sewanee — the students, the faculty, the others who worked or studied here — they are the ones who did things in the past. They are the ones who shaped this place where we live, work, or study today. 

This observation applies to Fathers Joseph Green and William O’Neal. I think we need to remember that it was their choices, their determination and resolve, and their religious faith that saw them through five difficult summers of study in Sewanee to get their degrees and bring change and justice to Sewanee. 

And then, enlightened and toughened by those summers here, they continued in the stream of their lives, picking up where they had never left off, fighting for justice and healing in the world. And for this, the whole of the Sewanee community can be thankful.

Thank you.

A short obituary for Father Green can be found here.