Sewanee, Polk, and the Old South

Sword over the Gown picture

Photo by Fleming Smith (C’19)

By Fleming Smith

Junior Editor

Last semester, the Permanent Collection Working Group moved the portrait Sword over the Gown, of University founder Leonidas Polk, from Convocation Hall to University Archives and Special Collections. The portrait’s relocation occurred because it did not belong with Convocation’s aesthetic and historic theme, but the move sparked a conversation about what kinds of Confederate imagery Sewanee should or should not be included on campus.

“It seems appropriate to us, historically and stylistically, to have the older portraits in Convocation Hall, which is one of the earliest stone buildings on central campus,” said Professor Mishoe Brennecke of the Art History Department and a member of the Permanent Collection Working Group, which oversees Sewanee’s large art collection. This portrait is a 2003 copy of one painted in 1900 that was commissioned by the Governor of Kentucky for a series on Confederate generals. It came to Sewanee in 1927—apparently after being displayed in a barroom—and later sustained water damage in the late 1990’s.

Professor Chris McDonough, Chair of Classical Languages, believes the portrait’s history should disqualify it from being displayed on campus. “This wasn’t just a portrait of one of the founders of the University, but in fact a racist emblem with a very hostile history that needed to go,” says McDonough. “It’s not a life portrait, so right away it’s a symbol of the ‘lost cause.’ Tied up with that whole idea of the ‘lost cause’ is the idea of slavery, and what could be further from the idea of an inclusive and diverse university than an emblem that is inherently tied up with a rather passionate defense of slavery?” he asked.

While Rachel Rodgers (C’17), who worked in the Archives, agreed that the purpose of such portraits is “honoring and glorifying the Confederate generals,” she still sees Sword over the Gown as a part of Sewanee’s history that needs to be displayed. Rodgers explains, “Sewanee is interesting because we really have no control over who our founders were and what ideals they stood for. I personally hope that we can choose to overcome that as an audience and hang them to represent our own ideals. Polk was very dedicated to the founding of the university and I hope hanging a portrait of Polk will represent that.”

From one perspective, although many may disagree with the ideology that Polk’s portrait represents, it is an ideology in which Polk strongly believed—along with others of Sewanee’s founders, which included prominent slave trader John Armfield. Although this particular portrait of Polk no longer hangs in Convocation Hall, which McDonough referred to as “the nicest room in the house,” two other portraits of Polk currently hang in different locations on campus. One can easily find Polk’s image and influence all over Sewanee—and the Confederate significance linked to Sword over the Gown is not limited to portraits. Beyond the Domain, a debate rages in America over whether Confederate imagery signifies heritage or hate, as well as if such symbols should be removed. The Confederate flag no longer flies over South Carolina’s capitol, but it was merely one emblem among thousands.

Professor David Haskell of the Biology Department believes that moving this portrait of Polk from Convocation Hall should only be the first step. “In the past, we’ve sometimes missed these opportunities, choosing to act but remain silent or to fudge about the reasons for the removal of confederate imagery. I hope that we’ll continue the trend of being bold and clear in our statements of what we stand for, both in word and deed,” said Haskell. “In addition to the portraiture hanging on walls, we have opportunities to rethink the names of places on the Domain.” He referenced Armfield Bluff, named for a prominent slave trader, as well as various monuments to ‘Rebels’ and the Confederacy on University Avenue. Haskell mentioned that to truly uphold the University’s Diversity Statement, “the outward appearance” of Sewanee should reflect this ideal of inclusivity.

“We had a faculty retreat at the very beginning of the year and we were talking about diversity and inclusion. In this meeting back in August…there was discussion about trying to remove things that might run counter to that goal,” said McDonough. “The Polk portrait is a sort of ideological statement… a piece of unsubtle propaganda. Historical documents are things we work with, we interpret—propaganda is something bad, that we get rid of.”

However, Brennecke emphasized that the Permanent Collection Working Group did not relocate the portrait because of ties to Confederate imagery. “It was an aesthetic choice and a historical choice,” she said on the matter.

Regarding Sword over the Gown, McDonough no longer thinks Sewanee should display it in any context any context. “They moved it over to the Archives and I wish it were in the back of the Archives, not on display,” he said out of concern that the portrait could reflect badly on the university. Director of Archives and Special Collections DebbieLee Landi noted that she is unsure how long the portrait will remain in the University Archives and Special Collections due to concerns of potential damage. However, wherever the portrait is moved, she said it will remain visible.

Accessibility to Sewanee’s art collection does not depend on physical location. At any time, Sewanee’s art collection can be viewed on, ranging from sculptures to paintings and beyond; the online collection currently numbers 1,120 artifacts to which more will be added. McDonough echoed Haskell’s sentiment that art which cannot be moved, such as monuments, must also be discussed. In particular, McDonough mentioned the monument to General Kirby Smith located on Texas Avenue. “I think the University ought to hire an artist to make an installation that would sit in front of it, and draw attention to it [to answer] the question of what does it memorialize and what does it remember,” he said. “And that doesn’t have to be a rejection—it can be a sort of open question about, ‘What is it that we remember about the Civil War? What does it mean to us?’”

Leonidas Polk’s portrait, which shows him as both bishop and general—wearing his vestments and displaying his Confederate uniform—illustrates an integral part of Sewanee’s history. Connections to Confederate history did not motivate the portrait’s removal, and Professor John Willis of the History Department noted that many of Sewanee’s portraits display Confederates, just not wearing their uniforms. However, the conversation on which Southern history Sewanee represents will continue. “The name of the university is the University of the South,” said McDonough on the subject. “The Vice-Chancellor’s often says that the question for us is: what South are we the University of?”


  1. The portrait in question was given by the Polk family (of which I am a member) to the University in 2003 to replace the original portrait that was destroyed under suspicious circumstances. I am not at all surprised that it has been removed from Convocation Hall. The University is systematically and methodically “scrubbing” Leonidas Polk from it’s history. Before believing all the denials, go down to the welcome center at the Sewanee Inn and look at the time line. No mention of Bishop Polk. Any historian knows that Leonidas Polk was principally responsible for the founding of the University. In today’s world it seems that we cannot tolerate anything that distracts us from a rational, balanced and thoughtful approach to these matters. All reasonable people support diversity. Does that mean we have to rewrite history?

    1. Rewriting history? No, not rewriting, but repudiating firmly and without equivocation the moral bankruptcy of an unrepentant slaveholder and traitor. A symbolic defrocking and expulsion is in order. Put the painting on public display on any street corner in 2020.
      See how much it is worth afterwards.

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