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.


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.

Letter about current events from Roberson Project

African American history is not a lesser part or sidelight of American history. African American history is American history.

— Houston Bryan Roberson,
late Professor of African American History
at the University of the South

In this soil, there is the sweat of the enslaved. In the soil there is the blood of victims of racial violence and lynching. There are tears in the soil from all those who labored under the indignation and humiliation of segregation. But in the soil there is also the opportunity for new life, a chance to grow something hopeful and healing for the future.

— Bryan Stevenson,
Executive Director,
Equal Justice Initiative

Dear University community,

The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation condemns the racist violence that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We feel what so many others, from Sewanee and elsewhere, are feeling now: sorrow, grief, and outrage over these needless deaths; an urgent wish that our country’s racial divisions can be healed, and a demoralizing recognition of how far we are from that goal. We stand in solidarity with Black students, alumni, faculty and staff at the University, and we fully support the Sewanee community’s determination to bear witness against racial division and injustice in this nation.

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In Their Own Words: A review from 1857 of The American Citizen by John Henry Hopkins

Sewanee Watercolor by John Henry Hopkins. No. 28, View near Bower’s Chalybeate Spring, February 25, 1860.

Why are we giving so much attention in our blog Meridiana to the words and thoughts of the Bishop of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins? Neither the state nor the diocese of Vermont had anything much to do with the founding of the University of the South, and Hopkins himself was not officially a “founder.” The time in the 1850s that he spent in the actual presence of the two bishops most important to the university campaign, Leonidas Polk and Stephen Elliott, can be counted in days instead of weeks. His grand plan of the university’s campus was supplanted in the late 1880s and 1890s by other visions.

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In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 3)

I have defended, frankly and fully, the lawfulness of African slavery, in the Southern States, from the Scriptures, from the principles of true philanthropy, and from the Constitution.

John Henry Hopkins

Bishop John Henry Hopkins begins Chapter IX, the first of two concluding chapters on slavery in The American Citizen (1857), by summarizing his previous entries on bondage in the United States. “I have defended, frankly and fully,” he continues, “the lawfulness of African slavery, in the Southern States, from the Scriptures, from the principles of true philanthropy, and from the Constitution.” But, he adds, “The expediency of its continuance to the interests of the South and of the Union, is a different question.”

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In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 2)

In the first excerpt from The American Citizen (1857) by John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), the Bishop of Vermont dispensed with the antislavery argument that slavery was “a sin against God, and a crime against humanity.” The Bible, he contended, was mostly silent on the subject of slavery and provided no basis for arguments for the immorality of its practice in the United States.

The following four chapters in his book (VII through X) continued his case for the essential benevolence of slavery and yet the need for its abolition as follows:

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In Their Own Words: John Henry Hopkins, The American Citizen (Part 1)

Resolved: That slavery is a sin against God and a crime against man, which no law or usage can make right, and that Christianity, humanity and patriotism alike demand its abolition.

Anti-slavery resolution proposed
at the 1852 national convention of the Free Soil Party

John Henry Hopkins (1792-1868), the Episcopal bishop of Vermont during the period of the University of the South’s founding, always maintained that the end of slavery was his “fervent desire and prayer.” However, this distinction and self-fashioning as an opponent of slavery were overshadowed by the heart of his writings on the subject of bondage. The real force of his words were directed at refuting those who contended that slavery was, to quote the antislavery Free Soil Party, “a sin against God and a crime against man.” But some of his most impassioned arguments outlined the benefits of slavery in the South to the enslaved.

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