Sewanee residents find a lost photo – believed to be of Willie “Willie Six” Sims – between the pages of a book on their shelf.

The name of Willie Sims is well known to the Sewanee community. He was the most honored African American in the University of the South’s first century – and arguably its entire history. Born in the 1880s in nearby Pelham, Tennessee, likely the son of emancipated enslaved people, and possessing no more than an eighth-grade education, he worked as “trainer” for Sewanee’s athletic teams from 1909 until his employment ended in 1947. Sewanee men nicknamed him “Willie Six,” and often called him just “Six,” after the numeral on a second-hand jersey he once wore at work. Willie Sims died in 1950. 

As familiar as his name is, there are few surviving candid images of him, especially showing him at work. Most of those we have were staged or posed to accompany publicity about the University.

But this past week, a wholly new and unfamiliar image of Sims appeared on the Roberson Project’s doorstep. Really it did. An envelope containing the image was slipped under our office door. 

The sources of the photograph were Sewanee residents Marilyn and Tom Phelps. 

But first a description of the photograph, and then the story of the Phelpses’ role in this important find.

The image shows Sims hard at work on the football field, attending to the nether regions of a Sewanee player who is stretched, face down, on a bench. They are surrounded by other players, a man dressed in jacket and tie, other men idling nearby, and a little girl in a ribboned straw hat. 

We have yet to identify any of these figures, and we cannot even see Sims’s face. But it seems highly probable it is the trainer “Willie Six,” dressed in well-worn trousers and hat, tattered shirt, and workman’s shoes. From the automobiles visible in the distant background, the players’ hairstyles, the photograph appears to date from the 1930s. Sims had been Sewanee’s trainer since about 1909. In team photographs from that era, he is the lone Black man appended to a group of white people. 

A group of football players posing for a photo

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The circumstances of the photo’s appearance also place it in the 1930s. 

The Phelpses discovered the photograph when it fell from the pages of a book in their possession, the Chaplain Moultrie Guerry’s Men Who Made Sewanee, published in 1932. And that copy of the book had belonged to Arthur Ben Chitty, Sewanee’s long-serving historiographer and perhaps most loyal alumnus, who graduated from the College in 1935.

The Phelpses had acquired Men Who Made Sewanee “a few years back” from Em Chitty, the daughter of Arthur Ben and Elizabeth Chitty and who recently returned to live in Sewanee. 

Tom Phelps, Sewanee Class of 1974, fondly recalled, “There were no more stalwart Sewanee supporters than the Chittys in the 70s and 80s.” 

“When I was a student in the 70s, she knew all about me: my goals and aspirations [to be a medical doctor]. She arranged for me and another classmate to go to Nashville to witness one of the first cardiac bypasses performed by Sewanee alumnus Dr. Bill Stony… I remember them with fondness and gratitude.”

Tom later graduated from medical school, and today, “retired” and living in Sewanee, he is a physician at the Tracy City Free Clinic in Grundy County, providing affordable health care to uninsured people living in this region.

The Roberson Project is grateful to Marilyn and Tom for sharing this image with us and donating it to the Save Sewanee Black History digital archive, where it will appear soon. Visit the Save Sewanee Black History archive at this LINK

Most important, they have contributed to the growing record of African American life and experience in Sewanee. This photo helps us diversify and enrich the campus narrative because it contributes to our memory of all who were “makers of Sewanee.”

To learn more about Willie Sims, visit this WEBSITE. To learn more about Men Who Made Sewanee and the Black men who were “makers of Sewanee,” read Woody Register’s 2021 essay in the Sewanee Review.

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