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.

Respectfully,

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. 

2 Replies to “A Year Later, A Letter of Explanation”

  1. Glad to hear Mr. Burruss’ nuanced understanding of preserving elements of our past that are embarrassing, violent and an indictment to our deep human flaws in the interest of education. To preserve an accurate history of our past is crucial and I admire the courage and intelligence demonstrated by Mr.. Burruss in the delivery of the Polk’s bust to the Archives of The University of the South and the Roberson Project: an act of thoughtful opposition to the public celebration of Sewanee’s racist history. Thank you sir. And an additional thank you to Dr. Register and the members of the Roberson Project for the continued expressions of courage in publishing these documents. Beyond my own personal experiences of explicit racism while a seminary student at the SOT in the early 1990’s I continue to learn the depth and intricacies of the racist structures that existed through the people of offices of the University of the South through the work of the Roberson Project. Thank you for that willingness to reveal a more honest history of our complicity in the system. that continues to infect our nation and erode hope for a future of national health and opportunity.

  2. George, this letter is a powerful reminder of how far we need to go as a society to rid ourselves of any form of racism.

    I salute your courage to take the action in removing the bust, the wisdom to protect it, and the integrity to take responsibility and explain your reasoning.

    Cheers, Bill
    billhensley@earthlink.net

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