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.