Framing Founding Funders

Reflection by Dr. Andrew Maginn, Senior Research Associate and Program Coordinator, Roberson Project.

When the Roberson Project hired me in July 2021, I was a newly minted PhD from Howard University. Coming from a program that trained activist scholars,  I was excited to work for an organization that consciously endeavored to scrutinize its institution’s past. My first assignment was to help research the history of the University’s founding. Eager to prove myself and before I made the move to Sewanee, I ordered two books to be sent to my home in Washington, D.C.: Sewanee Perspectives: On the History of the University of the South (2008) and Sewanee Sesquicentennial History: The Making of the University of the South (2008).  I immediately devoured these books, soaking in as much knowledge about the University’s history as I could prior to my first in-person meeting with the Project’s director, Dr. Woody Register. Impressed by this newfound knowledge, Dr. Register shared with me the Fairbanks List.” Little did I anticipate how much working with this document would influence my development as a historian and scholar in the digital humanities. 

George Rainsford Fairbanks, an original trustee and, after the Civil War, a longtime administrator of the University, compiled his “list” in the 1870s. Tanner Potts C’15, the Roberson Project’s first full-time researcher, uncovered the document in the Sewanee Archives in 2017. It consists of an itemized list, detailing the names of 294 people who, prior to the war, pledged funds to the creation of the University of the South. Despite Fairbanks’ effort to document these pre-war promises, most subscribers did not make good on their pledges.

Unfortunately, the list is not as straightforward as a researcher would like: most of the “founding funders” are listed by surname and donation amount with a spare notation to help identify an individual funder: first name, an initial, a title, or a place of residence. Due to these limited hints, efforts to identify these funders have taken significant time. When I joined the Roberson Project, about half of the funders had been identified. My assignment was the same as many of the tasks undertaken by the Roberson Project: to fill in the gaps in the record of Sewanee’s past that earlier researchers missed, neglected, or chose not to address. 

I began working on the “Fairbanks List”in August 2021 alongside my other tasks for the Roberson Project. Juggling events, last-minute research requests, archival visits, and leading a seminar on arguments regarding reparations for slavery, I made some progress identifying funders in late 2021.  As more biographical and background data was gathered and gaps in previous research were addressed, Dr. Register and I discussed how to make the information public facing.  ArcGIS, a geographic information software that is used to create digital maps, was already a proven tool that Dr. Register and Mr. Potts used to create a map to show information on the 37 original Board of Trustees of the University of the South (Within the Pale of the Plantation States: Slavery and the Governance of the University of the South in 1860). The digital map provides a biography of each trustee, their census information, the value of their property, and the number of people they enslaved. This would serve as a template for what became the Founding Funders Map Project. 

With ArcGIS as the chosen tool, I sought the expertise of Dr. Christopher Van de Ven, director of Sewanee’s Landscape Analysis Lab, and his assistant, Joshua Alvarez. We met often during that fall and early spring. Mr. Alvarez created the first iteration of the Founding Funders Map. By extracting data from a spreadsheet, he created multiple maps layered over the same region. Each map layer reveals a specific data category, such as the number of enslaved owned or funders’ property values. As I identified more names on the list and the map continue to expand, I began to see how these funders represented the multiple walks of life within the late antebellum period’s leadership class. These men and women  included plantation owners, politicians, ministers, newspaper editors, lawyers, doctors, railroad barons, and cotton brokers, with donations ranging from $500 to $25,000. Many owned multiple properties in the South, or homes in the North. Even a Louisiana native studying in a Paris medical school, James Dick Hill, pledged a donation. This was truly a complex network of people. Many later served as civilian or military leaders of the Confederacy during the eras of the American Civil War (1860-1865) and Radical Reconstruction (1865-1877). 

As more and more funders were added to the spreadsheet, we had to decide how to display this information. We didn’t want the map to be “academic,” something that would make sense mostly to college faculty-types. We wanted it to be broadly accessible and meaningful to any potential user. We brainstormed innovative ways to use ArcGIS and determined the following: 

  1. To have three “layers” (enslaved, pledged amount, and personal property) to highlight the demographic profiles of the funders;
  2. To have a pop-up biography (like the back of a baseball card) displaying personal and other information about each funder; 
  3. To include information about primary and secondary professions, because many were plantation owners with an additional occupation; 
  4. To limit each funder, no matter how many properties they owned, to a single pop-up biography linked to location they called home in the 1860 census, which we call their “home” property;
  5. To provide links to census documents to show where we found much of our information about wealth and slave-holdings and to make that information accessible to all users.

Roberson Project 2021-2022 Work Study Students-Klarke Stricklen and Silas McClung.

In Spring 2022, we added two undergraduate students to the team: Silas McClung C’24 and Klarke Stricklen C’22. Mr. McClung worked with me to identify several names and track their census information. As spring turned to summer, we drew closer to the project’s launch. The Roberson Project 2022 undergraduate research interns – Plum Champlin, Sofina Behr, Lillian Holloway, Callista Abner, and Carrie Schupack – worked with me for a few weeks to collect and digitize census records. Ms. Schupack and I uploaded these virtual documents to the database. During the summer, there were many nights that I didn’t leave the office until 10 or 11 after long days of working with the interns on their other work for the Roberson Project. The excitement to complete this project was all the fuel I needed. 

The 2022 Roberson Project Summer Interns: Callista Abner, Lillian Holloway, Sofina Behr, Carrie Schupack, and Plum Champlin.

As the summer continued, Dr. Register and I discussed how to present this information to users beyond the interactive map. We decided to accompany the ArcGIS map with an informative website. Mx. Champlin and I created the first version of this, and then we brought on Dr. Hannah Huber, the Digital Technology Leader and Project Administrator for the Center for Southern Studies, and the website continued to evolve. This experience was enlightening, as I was introduced to the basics of web page creation and digital publishing. In its current state, the website allows users to learn more about the Founding Funders, as each page provides context for the interactive map. The Roberson Project hopes this site helps Sewanee students, staff, faculty, and alumni, as well as the general public, gain greater insight into how and why this institution was created in the context of U.S. slavery.

As with the creation of our nation, the foundation of the University of the South is complicated. The evidence provided by the Founding Funders virtual map illustrates that the University of the South was created by men and women who benefitted from the institution of slavery. Their goal was to raise an endowment to sustain a “Southern institution” that would further southern ideas and industries, primarily agricultural production using enslaved labor. In this way, the history of the University is a microcosm of the history of the United States and its trading partners on both sides of the Atlantic. All were built and prospered on a foundation of enslaved people. Sewanee, like so many ancient universities in the Americas and Europe, was a contributing part of this historical development. While there is much to celebrate about what these institutions have contributed over the generations, that estimation has to acknowledge and reckon with slavery’s role in their evolution. 

Dr. Maginn presenting Founding Funders Map Project on November 1, 2022 for faculty, staff, and students at Sewanee.

Editor’s note: Dr. Maginn will be presenting on the Founding Funders Map Project on March 17, 2023 at the University Studying Slavery Conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In addition, Dr. Maginn is using Founding Funders Map Project within the classroom. His Spring 2023 course, entitled Slavery, Race and the University, encompasses a comparative exploration of Atlantic World institutions of higher education and their foundational ties to the global slave trade.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *