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.