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]
We had a productive summer kicking off our Save Sewanee Black History initiative. The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation hosted two “digitization days” for present and former residents of the historical African American community of Sewanee and their descendants. The events have been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Common Heritage Grant.
The goal of the events was to build a foundation for a community-based archive of Sewanee’s African American history by capturing and preserving the historical records and memories that are mostly missing from the official stories of Sewanee.
By Hannah Pommersheim, T’19 Research Assistant for the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2018
[Editor’s note: Hannah Pommersheim here adds a reflection that follows from her earlier post on the resignation of eight of the faculty members of the School of Theology over the university’s decision not to desegregate its graduate program. She urges us to reconsider these events, not as a “crisis” that the university was fortunate to survive, but as an example of Christian witness that remains powerfully meaningful to the Sewanee community today. It is the sacrifice, not the crisis, that Sewanee needs to remember. Read Part 1 here.]
During orientation when I entered the School of Theology in 2016, the new class of students was sent home one night with a copy of the Sewanee Theological Review from 2003 and instructed to read it. Within these pages, I found a surprising story about the racial desegregation of the School of Theology in 1953. I learned that the process of change was instigated in part by the willingness of the Theology faculty to stand up to the university’s governing Trustees and ask for Christian action. When in June 1952 the university refused to desegregate the School of Theology, the Theology faculty published a letter asking the university to reconsider. The letter was not well received by the administration, and under duress from the Vice-Chancellor and the board, the faculty resigned, all leaving before actual desegregation took place in June 1953. This blip in my seminary orientation stuck with me. It seemed to be a story everyone knew, vaguely, but that we didn’t discuss much outside of orientation and Church History class.
By Hannah Pommersheim, T’19
Research Assistant for the Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, Summer 2018
This summer I had the privilege of serving as a researcher for the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. As I am a student at the School of Theology training for Episcopal priesthood, this internship was perhaps not the most obvious way to spend a summer. Yet it was my position as a seminarian that interested me most in this work. From this research, I have written two posts. Part One, below, is a historical account of what occurred in 1952-1953 and led to the desegregation of the School of Theology at Sewanee. My approach differs from more familiar accounts because it focuses on the faculty who protested Sewanee’s racial segregation, how they framed their dissent, and how Sewanee leaders’ veneration of the university’s antebellum founders was used to oppose desegregation. Part Two, which will be published later, is a more personal post, in which I grapple with my position as a seminarian relating to this history. What unites these posts is my desire to reframe our memory of this period by recovering the perspective of the professors whose protests led them to leave the university. What I seek to uncover in my two posts are the underlying principles at stake for the seminary faculty. What were the protesting faculty fighting for? How did students’ and university leaders’ understanding of Sewanee’s history and its founders’ vision shape their defense of segregation? How important were questions of Christian ethics and witness to the protests and conflicts? Continue reading “‘The Real Issue’: A Reconsideration of the Turbulent Desegregation of Sewanee’s School of Theology, 1952-1953, Part I”
[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”