Sewanee Black History Digitization Days
Group picture from the July 5th Digitization Day.

We had a productive summer kicking off our Save Sewanee Black History initiative. The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation hosted two “digitization days” for present and former residents of the historical African American community of Sewanee and their descendants. The events have been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Common Heritage Grant. 

The goal of the events was to build a foundation for a community-based archive of Sewanee’s African American history by capturing and preserving the historical records and memories that are mostly missing from the official stories of Sewanee.

Carl Hill, Jr. shows his “Sewaneeian” t-shirt on Memorial Day — including the names of local places dear to Sewanee’s African American residents.

The two digitization days were hosted on Memorial Day and July 5th, traditional times for “Sewaneeians” to return to the Mountain. Current and past residents and their families who came to the St. Mark’s Community Center on Alabama Avenue were incredibly generous in sharing their histories and artifacts. Volunteers (college and seminary students, university faculty and staff, and community members) staffed the three main stations. They recorded oral histories, took down stories for a community mapping, and scanned an impressive array of photographs and memorabilia.

With food and music, the atmosphere was festive as folks shared their memories, pointing out where they grew up on the community map, bringing in family scrapbooks to be scanned, or telling their story in the oral history booth set up in Doug Cameron’s cozy camper outside. In addition to the digitization stations, each day featured a van tour of the historic African American neighborhood in Sewanee with stops at the site of the pool, the cemetery, and the Kennerly School.

In addition to the work of staff, the Project had three energetic undergraduate Research Assistants — Maddy Parks, Colton Williams, and Klarke Stricklen — who helped in a myriad of ways. The planning for both days was done over the course of months with a committee of community members. The Project is particularly grateful to Carl Hill, Jr., Jimmy Staten, Shirley Taylor, Sandra Turner, Jackie Duncan, and Elmore Torbert for their efforts spreading the word and making each day a memorable success. Nor could we have launched this work without the contributions and good cheer of Doug Cameron, Rob Lamborn, and Otey Memorial Parish Church. And, of course, NEH funding was critical to building the foundation for this and future efforts to record and preserve Sewanee Black History.

Overall, the digitization days were a great success in building awareness of Sewanee’s black history and in seeding the community-based archive project. Over 100 African Americans with ties to Sewanee returned to the Mountain over the two days to participate. This was the first step in building this community archive, but efforts will continue this year with a permanent scanning station in the new Roberson Project offices in the university’s Gailor Hall.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article or in the funded project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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