By Colton Williams, C’21 Research Assistant for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2019
In Woodville, Wilkinson County, Mississippi, fourteen years before the state seceded from the Union, the planter and slaveholder Daniel Prosser and his wife Sarah welcomed their son into the world. Ralph Hylton Prosser’s birth in 1847 may seem unfortunate in terms of historical timing, but by the time he came of age Prosser saw it as an opportunity. Prosser was sixteen years old and enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute when the Civil War erupted. With his father’s permission, he left VMI and enlisted in the Confederate Army as a private. He served in Company F of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, better known as Mosby’s Rangers.[i] On October 8, 1864 — Prosser’s seventeenth birthday — he was captured by Union forces and held at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., and later in Boston Harbor, where he remained until war’s end in June 1865. By this time, Prosser was still a young man, four months shy of both his eighteenth birthday and the anniversary of his capture. But he was not a young man destined to return home according to the now-familiar trope of the destitute and threadbare Confederate, vowing as Scarlett O’Hara did to “never be hungry again.”[ii] That was not in Prosser’s future. Prosser already had the prestige of serving with the Gray Ghost himself, the mythologized John Mosby, and had studied at VMI, a premier military institution for Southern boys of high social standing. With that record, and a changing world before him, Ralph Hylton Prosser’s next step was to prepare for the Episcopal priesthood. In order to do so, in 1869 he became the thirty-sixth student to matriculate at the new University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.[iii]
[Click here to go directly to the interactive map.]
Across the United States today, many of the nation’s oldest universities and colleges have, for the first time, begun researching their historical ties to slavery and uncovering the ways their institutions relied on enslaved persons for the labor performed on their campuses or as the basis of fortunes they tapped for funding.
The University of the South is at the start of its own six-year investigation, led by its Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. Today the Project shares part of the research it has amassed by introducing an interactive map feature entitled ‘Within the Pale of the Plantation States’: Slavery and the Governance of the University of the South in 1860.
Our aim with the publication of this mapis to gain a better understanding of the significance of slavery in the campaign to establish the University of the South. The Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk, launched that drive in July 1856, when he wrote a letter to nine of his fellow southern bishops, rallying them to join forces in founding a southern and Episcopal university. This great center of learning would be the equal of any other in the world and centrally located, he explained, “within the pale of the plantation states.”
With that telling phrase, Polk rooted the identity of the planned university in the region defined by slave-based plantation agriculture, its enslaved population numbering some 4 million persons, and the phenomenal wealth it generated. Polk’s bold proposal later materialized as The University of the South, chartered in 1858.
By Tanner Potts Research Associate Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation
How well do we really know our campus landmarks?
For example, take Thompson Union. Standing on University Avenue directly across from All Saints’ Chapel, it is one of the Sewanee campus’s legendary and most recognizable buildings. Originally a science hall and later the storied student union and still the location of the SUT (Sewanee’s movie theater), it has served the last two decades or more as the home of the university’s fundraising arm.
But how did it come about? And whom does its name honor?
In this interactive slideshow (available at this link), the Project’s researcher Tanner Potts, C’15, shows why we need to follow his lead in taking much “closer looks” at this building and our campus as a whole to understand the histories of the memorials it retains to the leaders of the antebellum slaveholding order and to their resurgence to wealth, power, and influence as they succeeded in defeating Reconstruction.
By Woody Register, Professor of History and Director, Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation
Back in November, on a drizzly, blustery Saturday morning, an architect and three historians from Sewanee – John Runkle, Jody Allen, Ben King, and I – drove two hours west to a place near Columbia, Tennessee, to visit the church at the Rt. Rev. Leonidas Polk’s Ashwood plantation. Polk’s neoclassical mansion house burned in the 1870s, but St. John’s Church, completed in 1842, endures. Continue reading “Builders and Buildings”
By Tanner Potts Research Associate The Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation
John Armfield (1797-1871), who made his fortune in the 1820s and 1830s in the slave-trading firm of Franklin & Armfield, was a critically important operator in the founding of the University of the South in the late 1850s. However, much misinformation and exaggeration surround his involvement and contributions.
This slideshow feature, prepared by the Project’s researcher Tanner Potts C’15, outlines Armfield’s importance to the founding of the university and in light of his formative influence in shaping the slaveholding order of the antebellum southern region.