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

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

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

[Editor’s note: Hannah Pommersheim here adds a reflection that follows from her earlier post on the resignation of eight of the faculty members of the School of Theology over the university’s decision not to desegregate its graduate program. She urges us to reconsider these events, not as a “crisis” that the university was fortunate to survive, but as an example of Christian witness that remains powerfully meaningful to the Sewanee community today. It is the sacrifice, not the crisis, that Sewanee needs to remember. Read Part 1 here.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rev. Howard A. Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Thoughtful, measured but not dispassionate, nor should it be
    Telling Christian witness
    The center is aptly the School of Theology, but may I add mention here of Tom Govan, Prof of History,, who threw in his lot with the nine. The name of the Rev Duncan Gray is properly included in a note. Another inspiring character in the big story of Sewanee
    Let us now praise famous men

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