By Fleming Smith
On Wednesday, December 7, Dr. Woody Register and Tanner Potts (C’15), graduate of the history and American studies departments, held an initial interest meeting for a new endeavor that will examine Sewanee’s history with slavery and the influence of race on the institution. Currently, the two are accepting project ideas from students and faculty and plan to gather resources and a research team by the end of next semester.
“This past summer, the University joined a formal group, which is called Universities Studying Slavery. It’s a consortium of universities from Pennsylvania, Georgetown and Washington D.C., University of Virginia, all the way down to the University of Mississippi,” said Register. “They’re trying to understand and come to term with their respective institutions’ history with slavery.”
The endeavor follows on the heels of similar projects at Sewanee, such as a formal exploration by faculty and students that took place last year. One facet of the exploration examined the history of problematic symbols, artifacts, and memorials on campus, such as the Confederate flag in the stained glass windows of All Saints’ Chapel. Register also noted an Archives exhibition on Sewanee manhood that he and Potts created, which also addressed the history of slavery and race in the antebellum and postbellum periods.
“People ask, what is the University’s history with slavery? And the most common answer I’ve heard in my 20-plus years has been that the University’s history with slavery is really nominal, minimal,” Register explained. “One reason is because the University did not really open its doors officially until 1866. People say that Sewanee didn’t really technically exist except on paper [before the abolition of slavery].”
He compared this argument to the perspective many hold of the Civil War: that the war was not “about” slavery, but rather states’ rights. In terms of Sewanee, some believe that despite the interests of the slave-owning founders, the vision for the University itself did not include slavery.
“My contention is that slavery was actually at the heart of the University—at the very center of its founding in the 1850s—and that the legacy of that founding has influenced the development of the institution in the generations since,” Register explained to the students at the interest meeting. “The University of the South was the only institution of higher education that was expressly founded for a slave society, to represent a slave civilization that was not ashamed of itself and believed it had an indefinite future. The University was founded to be that civilization’s principle cultural marker and institution.”
When one student asked what types of projects other universities have begun on these subjects, Potts named the College of William and Mary’s Lemon Project as a successful model. “Lemon is the name of a slave that William and Mary as an institution owned, and their project has been going on for seven on eight years. Their project really consists of a three-pronged approach to studying slavery and its legacy at their institution,” said Potts. “The first was exploring its history to the fullest extent, enlisting students, graduate students, professors to go into the Archives and perform the writing and research. The second step was that William and Mary made a commitment to include the history they were studying into their curriculum. The third approach meant reaching out to the community, which much like Sewanee has had a distinct history of division between town and gown.”
Register has invited the Lemon Project’s director, professor of History Jody Allen, to campus next semester to discuss her project and offer thoughts on Sewanee’s historical context.
“We are a kind of Confederate graveyard here, in terms of the names of buildings and monuments, the names of parks and the names of bluffs. We are a kind of memorial to the antebellum South, which is to say the slave South, and it’s the perpetuation of its memory in a very foggy way that suppresses or obscures the more troubling aspects of that memory,” Register said on his feelings of Sewanee’s current place in the national discussion of the legacy of slavery.
“So for me, this is a vital endeavor not to tear down the University or to blacken the name of the men who founded it, but instead to understand them, to respect the world from which they came, even if it’s a world we now condemn and now see as morally indefensible. And then to carry that history forward, think about the history of race, the history of African-Americans and their vital but overlooked and rarely told contributions to the University,” Register added.
One student in attendance, Gabby Valentine (C’17), said of the meeting, “I think it’s a really brave and necessary endeavor. We are a school steeped in Southern history and I think to not address it head-on in all the ways that we can is to do a disservice to ourselves. I also like that we’re joining a network of schools that are also dedicated to addressing their history. We’re in good company and I think it could open a window of collaboration.”
Anyone interested in becoming involved in this endeavor, which is in the early stages, can contact Potts or Register to offer ideas or help in future projects.