From the first founding to the second: A reassessment of the University’s history

Created in 1938 by Reverend Thomas Crosby, “2nd Founding of the University.” Photo courtesy of ARTSTOR.

By Jasmine Huang, Junior Editor

Created in 1938 by Reverend Thomas Crosby, “2nd Founding of the University” depicts Quintard amongst a group of men in the woods before a cross. At the foot of it, a woman tends to her child while two more people stand on the sidelines. As noted in a 1938 Sewanee Purple, founder George Rainsford Fairbanks is “dressed in the waistcoat and trousers of a Confederate uniform with a simple black broadcloth frock coat.” Separated by a tree, two figures stand to the side of the crowd. One is black, the other a tanned white man.

Although the painting shows––to an extent––an inclusive depiction of Sewanee’s beginnings, students, faculty, and administration have often had varying perspectives on how the University portrays its early commencement. After analyzing the public ceremonies and shared spaces that pay homage to the school’s past and present, a greater question arises. Ultimately, how does the University characterize its founding members and contributors, and how should they?

When asked how Sewanee should depict its beginnings, Vice-Chancellor John McCardell responded by first highlighting the failures of the first set of founders to establish a school. Although “a lot of slave owners pledged money,” he said, “hardly any of them gave money because they didn’t have money to give.”

Referencing the Crosby painting, he answered, “That painting in the [Sewanee] Inn, I think, is important and also historically accurate. And it may not have been what they achieved in 1866, but you want to know what EQB means, you get a pretty good sense of it in that painting. Young and old, clergy and lay, male and female, black and white, all in that painting. Maybe depicted in a way that we would not like to see them depicted, but they’re all in the picture. That was the second founding. That was the founding that succeeded.”

He continued, “Now, were there vestiges of the Old South? Of course. We all carry our pasts with us. But the second founding wasn’t about perpetuating slavery and it wasn’t about perpetuating planters, and it wasn’t about perpetuating what the first founders anticipated. I think that’s worthy of celebrating…I trace where we are today directly to what the second founders managed to do in such a short period of time. So that’s why I talk about Quintard. That’s why I don’t talk about the first founding, that’s why I talk about the second founding.”

Dr. Shelley MacLaren, director of the University Art Gallery, also shared her perspective on the painting.

“It is definitely representing a view of Sewanee with the men and women, black and white, but it’s also presenting them in an idyllic natural setting, and everybody is in their place,” she explained. “It’s playing up the idea of rebirth, with the child under the cross…In terms of the painting, I would be very careful about analyzing the argument it’s presenting about where people belong in the institution.”

According to MacLaren, “All of the people represented serve to characterize the institution.” Contrasting the two sidelined men against the positioning of Fairbanks, MacLaren noted, “[Fairbanks’] hat is off too, but he’s staring straight at us. His opposite number, which is embodied in both of these figures, are the black man and the poor white.”

They stand in deference, the black man looking down while the white man looks on at the scene. She concluded, “Everyone might have been assigned a name, but the visual argument of the painting sets them apart of the institution.”

MacLaren has worked with the Sewanee Slavery Project, a University-based endeavor which examines the school’s ties to slavery and racial injustice through research and community-wide discussions.

As quoted in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger, her lecture over the windows of All Saints’ Chapel during one such event pointed out, “When art is telling us about the people and events of another time, they are unreliable witnesses at best—they can’t possibly tell us everything—and they’re beautiful and dangerous liars at worst.”

She emphasized that essentially, “Art isn’t transparent, and it’s not a transparent representation of history. It’s presenting an argument of that history, a perspective.”

Dr. Woody Register, the department chair of history and director of the Sewanee Slavery Project, explained, “The University has a complicated history. It’s not reduced to any particular thing. But race was central to the history of the South, and this was and always has been the University of the South. And when I say race, I mean whiteness and blackness, not just blackness.”

Reflecting on an issue most American colleges––including Sewanee––are currently dealing with, Register commented, “You tell a story perhaps about humble but noble beginnings, and there’s a rosy glow and you want to emphasize the ancientness of the institution, that as the more ancient you can make yourself, the rosier the glow of your story.”

He added, “But the more ancient you are, the more implicated you are with the Atlantic World slave-based economy. And that doesn’t easily mesh with the kind of stories you want to tell. For those who’ve been in your institution and those you wish to bring to the institution, it doesn’t make their chest swell with pride. But I think your chest can swell with pride if your institution is honestly studying and accounting for its history.”

For minority students, the acknowledgement of the university’s oppressive past during public events honoring the ideals and principles of its founders and history should be incorporated into the process.

Following the university’s 2016 sesquicentennial commemoration, Armonté Butler (C’17) submitted an op-ed for The Sewanee Purple entitled “The Second Frowning: Words on the second founding celebration,” reminding the community of the less celebratory-worthy side of the school’s origins.

He wrote, “In this quest for truth and justice, it is important to consider and acknowledge who this university was initially founded for; who built this university; and how that relates to a campus of growing diverse community members, faculty and staff, and student body.”

After being asked to comment, Butler reaffirmed his words: “I still stand by that statement.”

A research assistant for the Project, David Johnson (C’19), echoed similar sentiments to Butler’s, saying, “I think it’s imperative to represent history as it is, especially if you’ve empowered people on campus to do that, and you have them in the audience.”

Speaking from the perspective as a black student at Sewanee, he remarked, “We still are painting the narrative that Sewanee is this perfect place and that Sewanee was and always has been a perfect magical place on top of a mountain. Like I said, I understand the business, marketing aspect to it, which keeps the money coming into the university.”

He continued, “But at the same time, it doesn’t do any good for the students that it represents, or the students representing the school. Because it makes no point for me to be who I am, and have Sewanee across my chest, if the university doesn’t stand for me really.”