Note to the reader: To celebrate Black History Month this year, the Roberson Project is pleased to publish a talk that Sewanee Professor Scott Bates gave in tribute to Mrs. Johnnie C. Fowler around the time of her death in 1990. Mrs. Fowler was a longtime Civil Rights activist and leader in Franklin County, Tennessee, and other parts of the South. Professor Bates, who died in 2013, taught French literature and film studies at Sewanee for some forty-plus years. He was an early supporter of the Highlander Folk School (later Highlander Research and Education Center), the Civil Rights organization near Monteagle, and he served on its board until his death. We are very grateful to his son, Robin Bates, for sharing his copy of this tribute to Mrs. Fowler, a Civil Rights leader who, with other local Black women mentioned in this address, changed Sewanee and Franklin County and deserves to be better remembered. Professor Bates’s words about Mrs. Fowler’s fight to recognize Black history are especially pertinent today, with determined campaigns underway to limit students’ exposure to the history and experiences of African Americans.
In tribute to Mrs. Johnnie Fowler, I’d like to present a brief history of her work with the Franklin County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Our present chapter was formed by Mrs. Fowler, Mrs. J D. (Mikey) Marlowe, and me in the spring of 1958 with the help of Mrs. Septima Clark, who was then Educational Director of Highlander Folk School at Monteagle. Mrs. Fowler had been in an earlier Franklin County chapter of the Association, which was mainly involved in helping blacks who got into legal difficulties; she was in a central position in Winchester to affect public opinion, as she was the leading beautician in this area and ran a small but influential cosmetology school. Her wonderful mother, Mrs. Comer, became the treasurer of the new organization, and did a fine job for the rest of her life of keeping a tight rein on our always limited finances.
A footnote to history here. Recently some of us have been watching the fine Public Television documentary EYES ON THE PRIZE, which gives a moving visual history of the heroic days of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 50s and early 60s. Unfortunately, however, the film leaves out one of the strongest black groups in the South to affect social change, that is, the cosmetologists. As leading citizens in all communities throughout the South, they like the ministers did not depend on white business to thrive; and, again like the ministers – who have been given deserved credit as leading male figures in the movement – they were in a privileged position to reach all elements of black society; and to reach them rapidly!
At this early time in the Civil Rights Movement, the time when the first students were organizing their sit-ins, African-American beauticians were also organizing for social action; they met at Highlander and at other spots around the South to plan desegregation strategies. Of course, Mrs. Fowler was a prime mover among these powerful, effective women, and she soon organized the Fayetteville and Shelbyville chapters of the NAACP through her former students there. Another of her students started our first youth chapter, which did the tremendous – and very dangerous – job of integrating Franklin County facilities, the lunch counters, restaurants, movie houses, bowling alleys, roller skating rinks, and public recreational facilities. Mrs. Fowler was always right in the middle of the battle. To give two examples out of many, she personally, along with Professor Anita Goodstein of Sewanee, sat-in at the Sewanee Inn and finally integrated that facility, which had been the target of desegregation activists for more than two years. She was also a leader in integrating the Otey Memorial [Episcopal] Church at Sewanee during the rectorship of David Yeats.
In addition, at this time, she was helping to organize “Citizen Schools,” the small grass-roots schools that were initiated at Highlander and were springing up all over the South to teach literacy to black constituents so that they could vote and overturn lily-white political systems. Mrs. Fowler started the literacy school on Sewanee Mountain and traveled periodically to South Carolina and Georgia to help with schools down there.
In 1963 and 1964, she, Mrs. Dora Turner, Mrs. Emma Hill, Mrs. Sarah Staten, and Mrs. Ferrell Sisk, along with four white families, brought suit against the Franklin County School Board to integrate the schools in the county. After much hard work and a lot of painful litigation, they won the suit and set up a model system for integration in the South. Later on in the sixties, she also led actions to integrate the school buses and the teaching staffs. At the same time, she was opening up job opportunities for blacks in local businesses, including the Hat Factory, Kuhn’s store, ARO, the Cowan Shoe Factory, Big Kin Tullahoma, and many others. She was literally a one-woman employment office for black workers in our county!
During this time, she continued to run her beautician’s school and her own private business, while organizing fund-raising lunches and sales and attending state and national meetings of the NAACP. She also ran the annual Black History Week programs every February, and brought to them some of the most dynamic speakers of the Civil Rights Movement. John Lewis, Kelly Miller Smith, Ruby Hurley, and many others. Indeed, Mrs. Hurley, our regional chairperson in charge of the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, always cited Mrs. Fowler as one of the most effective workers in the south – with one of the most active chapters. Which was also one of the smallest!
With the Nixon-Reagan backlash in the seventies and eighties and the return to power of many of the white segregationists, we lost more than two-thirds of our black teaching staff, job layoffs for blacks became frequent, the Ku Klux Klan was organizing in Franklin County, and we no longer could get recourse from the Federal Government when we complained to their Civil Rights Division; so the work of the chapter became all the more important in meeting all these setbacks. Needless to say, Mrs. Fowler never gave up. In 1979 and 1980 she led the fight against the largest Klan organization in Tennessee, which was meeting in Estill Springs. Three years ago [in 1987], she initiated the Martin Luther King birthday celebrations in this area, which are still going strong.
At the discussions at the University of the South around Dr. King’s birthday, some of the young people were saying, “We want to work for African-American rights, but it’s hard to find the lunch counters now. Where are the lunch counters? Where are the places that need demonstrations, action, hard work?”
Well the NAACP can tell them, and Mrs. Fowler actually did tell them many times, those places are still there and still need hard work – even harder work, now that the government is no longer on our side. Black children are still discriminated against in the schools. Black teachers are given the left-over and substitute teaching jobs, just at the time when black role models are needed more than ever – for both black and white children! Black teachers who retire or who move on, are replaced by whites. Most school textbooks have nothing but white faces in their illustrations and white history in their texts. Good jobs for blacks are scarce, and there are always “reasons” to take white over black applicants. Black house workers are underpaid, etc.
But in all our pressing needs, you can be sure that the spirit of Mrs. Fowler will be with us, working for us, leading us. We came a long way under her incredibly dynamic, responsible leadership; and since we are all beneficiaries of that spirit, we can inherit it, we can pass it on. Her great, unstinting work lives in us: we must not fail her great trust in us to see that work through.
Editor’s note: We were saddened to learn only this past week that Mrs. Betty Wilkerson Hill, another person active in local Civil Rights and photographed with Mrs. Fowler at the NAACP bake sale in 1966, died this past January 14. Her obituary can be read here.
The following remarks were given by Sewanee student Plum Champlin before the University of the South’s Inaugural Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. To honor this day, the Office of Inclusive Excellence partnered with Sleep in Heavenly Peace, inviting the entire Sewanee community to help build beds for children in the local community who otherwise would not have a bed to sleep in. This piece has been revised for clarity of message, and to include accessible sources.
I first want to thank all of you who rose early to join in this morning. I’m so excited to get to work on constructing these beds, but I wanted to take a moment on this day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss the ways the community service we engage in today relates to the driving forces behind the Civil Rights Movement.
Many of my friends will be able to corroborate the fact that I say, frequently and unabashedly, that I do not think that justice is real. I believe it is a word which stands for subjective, arbitrary points of view informed by human social norms, biases, and flaws (both overt and subconscious) prevailing in a given time — components which have ruled over our emotions as a species for tens of thousands of years. I believe the word justice can, more times than not, be replaced with a more candid word, the other side of the coin: “punishment.”
That is not to say that subjectivity and compromise are not necessary to maintain order in any given society; rather, in refuting “justice” as a term, I seek to stake a claim to a major ideological shift that I and many others believe to be necessary: in broad strokes, to craft a society which consistently makes the choice of love, of forgiveness, over revenge? The choice to override the instinctual desire for power over others, and instead embrace them as equals. The choice to share joys, share the pleasures of life, and make our world safer and more loving for all of us, rather than taking joys away from our fellow human beings through acts of punishment.
I’ve chosen to share this outline of my own ideology because I have been deeply influenced by the wisdom of many great philosophers and leaders working in social movements from the Civil Rights Movement, to Black Lives Matter, to abolitionists who have tirelessly battled slavery, the police, and the prison industrial complex. But even moreso, I share my own criticisms of justice’s illusory nature in order to properly frame my relationship to one quote which uplifts justice, one which I keep close to my heart:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love” (38).
Taken from Where Do We Go From Here, the final book he penned before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote this passage as a direct reply to, and refutation of, points on power and Christian love by Friedrich Nietzsche. Dr. King wrote that the “misinterpretation” of love’s relationship to power is not only Nietzsche’s, but “one of the greatest problems of history…” — namely, that “…the concepts of love and power are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power and power with a denial of love” (37). Yet, again, King’s refutation holds undeniable weight, bringing together rather than pushing away: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
To think of these things in connection is, for me, to accept the possibility of a return to form; to turn away from retributive justice, which itself stands against love, and towards the restorative. The compassionate. The brave.
Stepping towards a restorative justice looks like providing care for those we disagree with, including those who cause harm. A Dr. King asserted in his Nobel Lecture in 1964, the true solution to violence cannot be more violence: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”
I cannot begin to encapsulate the nitty-gritty of restorative justice or prison abolition in these few words, and I will not try (though I would encourage anyone to start with the words of Angela Y. Davis, who encouraged us at her University of Michigan Keynote in early 2020 to reflect on the unsung facets of Dr. King’s legacy: “They remember King the Dr. Orator, but not Dr. King the disrupter of unjust peace.”). But in short, in my own mind and heart, the essence of restorative justice is one of recognition: seeing oneself as a flawed human being, recognizing the humanity in those we disagree with, and extending compassionate care to all parties instead of choosing vengeful condemnation, shaming, or violence. This violence doesn’t just look like physical confrontation or psychological torment, but also the silent dehumanization which is created by racism, sexism, other homophobia, transphobia (and other identity-based biases), and by the prison industrial complex.
As with all good things, the path towards uniting power and love begins with a single lesson: learning from those like Dr. King who spread the message of love, so we might be able to teach it to ourselves, our communities, and our world. To let the message of loving, powerful justice truly affect us is to rethink everything about how we treat ourselves, and one another. Because this ideology, the mission to devote our individual and collective agency to bolster joy and betterment for the oppressed, is its own kind of activism — it is why I call myself, after Adrienne Maree Brown, a pleasure activist in all that I do.
And today, in working with Sleep in Heavenly Peace, we engage in taking this very sort of collective action: to bring more joy into the world.
I would bet (or at least, I sincerely hope) that most folks in the audience know, from at least one night in their life, the comfort of a warm bed, the pleasure of a good night’s rest. It is a thing of loving. And it is an act of love, the verb, for us to work towards bringing that joy to another human being.
I hope today, as we engage in this work, each of us can reflect on the roles we as individuals hold by acknowledging our agency, our power, and putting it towards good. And, perhaps, towards a justice which centers betterment, joy, peace, and love.
I’ll end by giving my sincere gratitude and thanks to every person who worked to provide the supplies we will work with today, all those in attendance, and all those who will receive joy from resting in these beds — and especially all those who created the infrastructure and programming that brought us together today. Thank you very much!
Plum Estella Champlin is a scholar, writer, and pleasure activist from Memphis, Tennessee. They are a Senior year English and Creative Writing major with a special focus on character-driven fiction, and worked as a research intern for The Roberson Project this past summer. They currently serve as a student leader for the Sewanee Literary Society, a member of the Q&A House, an intern for the Sewanee Interfaith Council, an Editor-in-Chief for The Mountain Goat Journal, and a doting babysitter.
All of us at the Roberson Project were deeply saddened to learn on Saturday that Father Joseph Green had died the day before in Norfolk, Virginia. He was 96 years old.
In 1965 Father Green and his first cousin William O’Neal became the first African Americans to receive a Sewanee degree.
In September 2018, Dr. Woody Register, Director of the Roberson Project, spent two days talking to Father Green and his wife, Evelyn, in their warm and inviting home in Norfolk.
The following is a transcription of remarks Dr. Register made at the dedication ceremony for the installation of a portrait of Father Joseph N. Green, Jr., T’65, at the School of Theology, The University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, on September 15, 2020. Concern about the COVID pandemic prevented the Greens from attending the ceremony in person in Sewanee, but they were able to Zoom in for the occasion.
It is a particular honor and delight for me to have this opportunity to say a few words today on this occasion. Two Septembers ago I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Father Green and his wife Mrs. Evelyn Green at their home in Norfolk, Virginia, which they generously opened up to me for two days and then allowed me to pester them continuously with questions for the next two days.
This event, for me at least, this meeting, this time I spent with the two of them, was one of the highlights of my professional and academic career, and it had a profound and lasting effect, the stories they told and that I heard, that they shared with me and through me with others in the Sewanee community, changed my perspective on the history of this University, and on the reasons why I became involved with this project to begin with.
Let me say a few words to try to put Father Green’s career, before, during and after Sewanee, and he was here only for, I think, five summers out of the long course of his life. Let me try to put those in a little context here.
In 1965 there were two young African American men who were first cousins and who had grown up together, gone to school together, and I imagine even picked cotton together, on their family farms in the tiny and nearly all-Black town of Jenkinsville, South Carolina, 25 or so miles northwest of Columbia.
In 1965, these two young men, Bill O’Neal and Joe Green, both priests in the Episcopal Church, earned and received the Master of Sacred Theology Degree from the School of Theology of the University of the South.
To my knowledge, neither of them attended a formal ceremony here on the Mountain that late spring, to receive those degrees, but they became on that day the first African Americans to graduate from this University. That’s 100 years after the end of the Civil War and the actual emancipation of nearly four million people held in the bonds of slavery, and that was 97 years after the first students matriculated at this University of and for the American South.
It is entirely fitting that we focus on that historic moment in honoring Father Green as we are today, but the right way to do it — the right way to honor that moment and those achievements 45 years ago — is not to isolate them, but to see their achievement in Sewanee in 1965 in the stream of two lives that were dedicated — long before they started at Sewanee and even longer after they finished at Sewanee —
Two lives that were dedicated to what Father Green told me two years ago was “the only way to know the kingdom, right here, right now” — that way was “to fight for justice in this world.”
And let me add here that Father O’Neal died tragically in 1975. And I do not doubt that Sewanee would be honoring him today if he were still with us today.
When Fathers Green and O’Neal started their study at Sewanee in the summer of 1959, they already were veterans of the fight against Jim Crow.
Ten years earlier, when Father Green was in his last year of college at St. Augustine’s, they had joined with other young Black men to fight for justice in the Episcopal Church. All of these men were determined to enter the Episcopal priesthood but all also refused to attend the church’s segregated seminary. Instead, they planned and executed a collective action to attend white seminaries outside the South. Not Sewanee or the Virginia seminary, but those outside the South. Father Green went to Philadelphia Divinity School, and Father O’Neal to General in New York City.
When they entered the summer graduate program at Sewanee in 1959, they knew they were not the first at Sewanee, they knew they were following in the footsteps of young men before them, John Moncrief in 1953 and Merrick Collier in 1954. These two young men had officially broken the color line here. However, neither had finished their studies: Moncrief was killed in an automobile accident in 1955, and Collier had elected to leave Sewanee instead of enduring the hostility he received in his one year of study here at the School of Theology.
Fathers Green and O’Neal had known their predecessors. John Moncrief in particular had been their teacher of sorts. So they consciously and deliberately took up the task of finishing the work, the fight for justice, right here and right now, at Sewanee. So there is no accident in any of this. This is a story about agency, about choice, about courage undergirded by faith. As Father Green told me two Septembers ago, the decision to come to Sewanee “was deliberate.” “We wanted to go [to Sewanee] and break down the barriers that we had broken down in other places. And we felt this was our obligation in a sense. The church cannot function as a separate and unequal institution, and the school [Sewanee] certainly cannot.”
No surprise, then, to learn that in the summer of 1961, that they were not only studying, but that Fathers Green and O’Neal joined three white men on the summer Theology faculty and tried — and failed — to be served at the restaurant of the segregated Sewanee Inn.
Sewanee, Father Green told me, helped him “to know that I could deal with tough situations. Because dealing with the Jim Crow in the city of Norfolk that I faced when I came there was the same Jim Crow I was dealing with at Sewanee.” This was part of his education here.
No surprise, either, that throughout the 1960s, Father Green, once he had received the calling to Grace Church in Norfolk, Virginia, expanded his fight for justice in the cities of Norfolk, Hampton Roads, and Portsmouth.
In the 1960s you could find the Civil Rights agitator, Father Green, on the streets of those cities, in the midst of the Poor People’s march in Norfolk, or the successful fight to desegregate the YMCA.
Later you could find him as a member of the city’s school board, working to bring excellence in education, for once, to all of that city’s children.
For many years, twenty I think, you could find him elected to and serving on the Norfolk City Council, leading urban renewal projects to upgrade housing in the city’s Black neighborhoods, to enhance public transportation, to upgrade the facilities and opportunities at Norfolk State University and Tidewater Community College, to renovate the Black neighborhood’s theater into the Crispus Attucks Cultural Center. Travel to Norfolk as I did two Septembers ago, and you will find Father Green’s fingerprints all over that city.
And for the 30 years after he started in 1963, and even quite frequently since then, you could find Father Green in the pulpit, the rector of Grace Church, ministering to his parishioners. Within the four walls to be sure, but also reaching always beyond those walls to the world right here and right now.
There is a tendency people have to make abstractions into historical actors. You see this especially with loyal alums of any college like Sewanee to say that their college did this or that in the past. That the college made them who they are etc. But I think the emphasis there is in the wrong place. It’s the people at Sewanee — the students, the faculty, the others who worked or studied here — they are the ones who did things in the past. They are the ones who shaped this place where we live, work, or study today.
This observation applies to Fathers Joseph Green and William O’Neal. I think we need to remember that it was their choices, their determination and resolve, and their religious faith that saw them through five difficult summers of study in Sewanee to get their degrees and bring change and justice to Sewanee.
And then, enlightened and toughened by those summers here, they continued in the stream of their lives, picking up where they had never left off, fighting for justice and healing in the world. And for this, the whole of the Sewanee community can be thankful.
A short obituary for Father Green can be found here.
Two weeks ago, on August 7, all of us who work with the Roberson Project were stunned and saddened to learn that our friend and colleague, Matt Reynolds, had died. Our deepest sympathy goes out to his wife, Viva, their daughter, Fiona, his extended family, and his many close work associates.
Seven years ago, in 2015, Matt came to Sewanee as Associate Director of University Archives and Special Collections. One of the first tasks he took on was helping Professor Woody Register and his research associate, Tanner Potts, pull together and put up an exhibition in the University Archives: “Founded to Make Men: Explorations of Masculinity at the University of the South.” Neither Register nor Potts had ever done anything like this before. Matt jumped into the project with gusto. He was superhumanly patient and helpful with every aspect, including the transfer of the exhibit to an online platform.
In addition to his expertise in information management and archiving, Matt was a historian by training and inclination. He also was a fast learner, diving into Sewanee’s crazy closet of materials to locate and learn the location of items that have eluded cataloging and systematic organization for generations. If he didn’t know where something was, he usually managed to find it. And if he couldn’t find it, that usually meant it wasn’t there, to begin with. Someone with less energy and love of history would have quailed before the mountainous climb of learning our archival collections demanded. Matt seemed to relish the hunt — the more difficult, the better — and exult in the find.
And speaking of enthusiasm, the Roberson Project has not had a more generous and supportive friend than Matt. And we have leaned on him unsparingly over the last five years. And we usually could have been much more considerate about getting our requests to him in a timely manner. It is no exaggeration to say that Matt was a right arm of the Roberson Project. He found what we requested, and he found a lot of things we didn’t know to request. The density of our research reflects his many contributions.
One big example: three years ago, we staged the first of several digitization events at the St. Mark’s Community Center here in Sewanee to launch a much bigger project to work with local residents in collecting, preserving, and telling Sewanee’s “Black History.” Again, the Roberson Project had never done anything like this before, and there was Matt, again, ready to help us with the nuts and bolts of it as well as the bigger picture. He helped train volunteers in the technologies and methods of taking oral histories, scanning and photographing documents and memorabilia, and organizing the first stage of an online archive that officially launched a year ago: https://blacksewanee.org/. All of us needed some serious hand-holding on this project, and Matt was there for us. We have him to thank for this project’s continuing successes in rebuilding the historical resources of what we call the #savesewaneeblackhistory initiative.
If it is not already clear, allow us to underscore what made working with Matt so rewarding and enjoyable: his good cheer, hearty laugh, love of historical inquiry, faith in education, fondness for college students, and dedication to archives as priceless resources to be used for understanding the past and the present. We could continue in this vein.
We mourn Matt’s death and give thanks for the seven years of collegiality, intellectual partnership, and friendship that he gave to us both as individuals and as a program. We miss him, and we will remember him in all the work we do for the Roberson Project.
Remembered, Not Forgotten: Recognizing Racial Inequity in the Sewanee Cemetery
Editor’s note: This summer the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation is fortunate to have five talented and hardworking undergraduate research assistants working with us: Callista Abner, Sofina Behr, Plum Champlin, Lillian Holloway, and Carrie Schupack. We asked each of them to contribute to the project blog some reflections on their work and experiences this summer. We begin with the thoughts of Lillian Holloway, who will start her second year at Sewanee this fall.
Less than a year ago, I began my freshman year at Sewanee. I was enrolled in “Finding Your Place,” an intensive first-year program that focuses on local issues and history and begins a few weeks before the start of the semester. To help the class get situated, my professor led us on tours of campus and the surrounding communities. One of the earliest sites we visited was Convocation Hall. Dedicated in 1886, it is among the oldest academic buildings on campus. It was and is a stunning space, filled with the musky aroma of academia, but some feel unwelcome. Depending on the experiences and identity of visitors, the portraits of white men that line the walls can be alienating.
William Porcher DuBose, George Rainsford Fairbanks, Francis Asbury Shoup, Hugh Miller Thompson, Nicholas Hamner Cobbs, Leonidas Polk, Charles Todd Quintard, Telfair Hodgson, James Hervey Otey, Henry Champlin Lay, Thomas Frank Gailor, Alexander Gregg, Richard Hooker Wilmer, Edwin Gardner Weed, and Wylie Blount Miller. They’re just names, but in Convocation Hall, they’re fifteen faces surrounded by Episcopal vestments and gilded picture frames. The institute has proudly decorated these historic walls with their images to honor the religious, financial, intellectual, and social support they gave to the University of the South. These men have names, and faces, and many are subjects of Wikipedia pages, websites and books; in other words, their lives are well-documented and publicly accessible.
This summer, I’m working as a student research assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. Launched five years ago, the Roberson Project aims, among other goals, to recover, preserve, and tell the histories of Sewanee’s Black residents. My research is primarily focused on the Black Cemetery Project and the recovery of the names and personhoods of those interred in the burial ground the University’s white leaders set aside for African Americans. The “Sewanee Negro Cemetery,” as it was called for most of its history, is beside the University cemetery, which for nearly a century was separated from its neighbor by a stone wall. I say “recovery” because the few sources that document this history, and African American history in general, are often incomplete and disorganized. During the first week of work, we spent most of our time in the Sewanee Archives, transcribing information from the registers of the local Episcopal Otey Memorial Parish (recently renamed St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s, to disassociate it from its slave-owning and slavery-defending namesake) and the cemetery records of Franklin County. Now, we’re filtering through this data and collecting census records to more thoroughly understand the lives of Sewanee’s Black residents.
Recently, the Roberson Project teamed up with archaeologists from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to conduct a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) scan of the Black side of the University Cemetery. An analysis of the data collected from the area, which covers a little more than an acre, shows about 300 graves. Some 156 conventional gravestones have been documented, and field stones seem to indicate another 16 burials. Those numbers suggest that about 130, or a little less than half, of the graves are unmarked. Presumably, when these Black citizens were buried, their resting place was identified with a small curio—like a shell or broken bottle—but over the span of the past 150 or so years, the traditional markers the Black community used to remember their dead have been forgotten or removed. Time has worn away some markers, like the words on standard gravestones, but white conservationists and groundskeepers, unaware of Black cemetery practices, have also removed burial markers, mistaking them for trash or debris. These landscaped ruins lie adjacent to the white side of the University Cemetery and its well-preserved family plots.
Graveyards are durable, and in the years since the legal end of Jim Crow, as memorials of racial segregation disappear, sites like the University Cemetery continue to cast a shadow over today’s society with visual reminders of the severity of racial inequity within the United States. In 1963, white students and community members moved the wall that separated the cemeteries and used the stones to rebuild the wall on the far side of the Black cemetery, combing the two1. Today, remnants of the wall that used to separate the Black and white cemeteries still remain in their original place. I’m not sure how I feel about this fact; it doesn’t seem practical to destroy the individual stones for being abiotic constituents of racism, but it doesn’t seem right to reuse them. To anyone aware of the cemeteries’ history, this repurposing, especially for use in the same space, seems to forget the racial oppression faced by the Black community members buried on the “historically” Black side of the cemetery. Sure, the cemeteries are now united under one name, but even without an official divide, the two sides of University Cemetery are racially distinct. These tracts of land hold some of the most influential people in Sewanee’s history—both white and Black, yet the respect with which these bodies are or are not treated is not measured by respectability. The Black community still holds a place in Sewanee’s history, but individual identities have been lost. Instead, their legacies are defined by race; meritocracy be damned.
I know I sound angry. I guess I am. The men on the walls live on. Their steely eyes continue to look down on University visitors, while their Wikipedia pages color their “Life and career” with pictures and references to books and websites that detail their exploits. The unnamed men and women buried on the Black side of the cemetery, on the other hand, are lucky to survive on a single line of the hand-written burial records from St. Mark’s Chapel, tucked away in a folder in a box on the well-organized shelves of the William R. Laurie University Archives & Special Collections. Convocation’s fifteen portraits forget the person and remember a face, while so many of the University Cemetery’s Black gravesites no longer remember the person at all. Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist and author of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, writes about the national misunderstanding of race in the United States, saying, “I understood that the absence of 1619 [the first year enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia] from mainstream history was intentional… I was starting to figure out that the histories we learn in school, or more casually, through popular culture, monuments, and political speeches, rarely teach us the facts but only certain facts.”2 In most narratives, the study of history uses an Anglo-centric microscope that’s blind to the rich past of African American communities at the national level, as discussed by Hannah-Jones, and in local settings like Sewanee. The increasing number of people of color in the student population and faculties of the university has increased the need for honest histories that include populations who have never been welcome in the canonical history of the United States or Sewanee.It’s also important to remember that this institution is part of a larger community and has a responsibility to respect the needs and wishes of Black Sewanee.
I started writing this blog post with the intention to study Convocation Hall and the fifteen portraits it contains. I wanted to list their moral failings and involvement with the Confederacy and slavery, but I’d rather promote Sewanee’s Black community. I think it might be a good idea to “pack the court” and supplement these white men with people of color who deserve well-informed respect—not the uninformed esteem afforded to those fifteen men by formal portraiture. Their visibility in the University’s mock hall of fame hasn’t been offered to Sewanee’s Black community members. White privilege protects these individuals and their moral legacies, while the Black community struggles to prevent the erasure of their names from the historical record.
We can’t yet identify any of the unmarked graves located by the GPR scan, but I’d like to start the process of remembering by sharing a few names that can be found on marked and researched burial sites: Dora Irene Turner, Willie Lee “Inky” Turner, Willie Lee “June” Turner, Gail Renata Turner, Bertha Geneva Shedd, Cheryl Diane Newell, Rufus Moseley, George Allen Moseley, Mary Agnes Chappell Moseley, Mollie Sims, Willie “Six” Sims, Clemmie Hill, Grace Childress, Walter Wooten, and Henderson Willis. Fifteen names, fifteen headstones, fifteen people I don’t want to forget to remember.
1. Gerald L. Smith, Sean T Suarez, Samuel R Williamson, and University of the South, Sewanee Sesquicentennial History Project, Sewanee Places: A Historical Gazetteer of the Domain and the Sewanee Area, (Sewanee Sesquicentennial History Project. Sewanee, TN: University of the South, 2010), 396-397
2. Hannah-Jones, Nikole, Caitlin Roper, Ilena Silverman, and Jake Silverstein. “Origin.” Preface. In The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, xx. New York, NY: Random House Large Print, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2022.
Humanities 215: Introduction to Digital Humanities Through Post-Soviet Identity and America’s South
This past spring I designed and taught HUMN 215: Introduction to Digital Humanities through Post-Soviet Identity and America’s South. The comparative focus of the first part of the course juxtaposed the history of Russian serfdom to that of slavery in the United States, and we got at the historical understandings of slavery through readings in books and in digital archives. Through the Roberson Project for example, students learned about recent research to uncover the history of African Americans at Sewanee, including the historical era that is tied to the construction of the university. The Roberson Project, at the same time as being a source of deep historical information, is an exemplary digital humanities platform, and thus a model to incorporate into an introductory digital humanities course. Digital humanities platforms host unique collections, have search functions, and allow for collaboration, among other characteristics. Through hands-on training students learned to use digital tools to create visuals that augmented their research arguments: ThingLink, Omeka, graphing, and to analyze and display text: Scalar and Medium.com. In their assignments and final research projects, students demonstrated their fluency in digital tools by using them to support their claims and historical findings about the comparisons of U.S. slavery to Russian serfdom, rural capitalism in America’s South and Russia, as well as the future of the rural village in Russia.
One component of digital humanities projects involves essentializing and condensing chapters and bodies of knowledge into brief paragraphs (or even into labels and categories or numbers). In addition to employing digital skills to embed annotated images into their public-facing writing, the format of Medium.com’s platform helped students streamline their writing. Students also learned lessons on concision via the art of annotation, which involves not only gaining technical skills, but also critical thinking skills. What does it mean to represent information, in particular historical information, online? When you label a historical document for display, for instance, what agenda are you ascribing to it? Thus, students labeled their chosen historical images after deeply researching their topic. As researchers of contradictory, unjust, and traumatic histories, students collaboratively developed their own definition of reconciliation: We cannot change the past, but we can use today’s technology along with historical research skills to uncover injustices of the past.
Literature woven into the course that led to some of the most dynamic discussions included:
The Way Things Were by a Ukrainian former slave woman who wrote under the pen-name, Marko Vovchok.
For their final project, students wrote research essays based on reading passages that excited them and used visualizations to support their arguments. They displayed their chosen visualizations in a digital exhibition of historical images to highlight connections between US slavery and Russian serfdom. This digital companion to the final essay trained students in an essential digital humanities skill: online exhibition. It also helped students hone their writing skills as students’ exhibits were accompanied by robust written descriptions of the images for this compelling text+image display. The course exhibition can be viewed here: https://humn215.omeka.net.
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,
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.
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.
George Webster Burruss, C’22
About the author:
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.