By Richard Pryor III
In an article for The Wall Street Journal discussing the ramifications of protestors at the University of North Carolina, when they tore down the “Silent Sam” statue of a confederate soldier on campus, writers Cameron McWhirter and Melissa Korn bring the spotlight to Sewanee’s cavalcade of monuments, whether they be statues or building names, dedicated to supporters of the Confederate States of America. Before I get into my argument fully, let me state where I am coming from.
I am a mixed-race, passing white man who is a dyed-in-the-wool Yankee from New Jersey and Ohio. I had family fighting on both sides of the Civil War, but have not had any family living in a former Confederate state for at least the last four generations. My mother is a professor of African-American History. I have been in the South for two years since coming to Sewanee.
With that in mind, let me take the opportunity to inform you of a few things: yes, the Civil War was about slavery. Yes, any time someone says, “Heritage, Not Hate,” in reference to the Confederate flag or a statue, they are continuing to prop up the myth of a nation built on the owning of other people as chattel slaves. Is that “living together in unity” like our University’s motto declares?
Vice-Chancellor McCardell told The Journal that he has to, in the words of the authors, “walk a fine line between acknowledging the school’s history while no longer paying homage to [the Confederacy.]” Dr. McCardell, I agree with you that this fine line is important and that we need to stay on it. Allow me to offer a suggestion, though.
I advocate for taking any sort of recognition of these vile men down from our campus. I do not believe we should forget these men – I support the work of Dr. Woody Register (C’80) and the Sewanee Slavery Project in researching and learning more about these men who shaped our University. That information should be made public in a museum. But we can’t give them honors on campus anymore.
If you want to honor heroes of states rights, how about replacing Leonidas Polk’s spot on the All Saints’ reredos with American Saint Ronnie Reagan, who also “fought for states rights,” and technically is more of a saint than Polk because more people venerate him than the “Fighting Bishop.” Or if you want someone to represent the “Heritage, Not Hate” of the South, how about actual Episcopal Saint Anna Alexander, a Georgia deaconess who founded a church in Pennick and a school attached to it? She’s also won the prestigious Lent Madness championship, so I can bet that more people know of her than Bishop Polk. As Caroline Graham (C’21) noted to The Journal, “we don’t have to keep worshiping” the Confederate history on our campus while remembering it.
Let me give you an example. I, as a History major, have taken courses in and am interested in power and influence in modern South Africa (1850-present). H. F. Verwoerd, one-time Minister of Native Affairs and Prime Minister of South Africa, often referred to as the “Architect of Apartheid” has a similar reputation in his country to that of Adolf Hitler. Many of his policies can be likened to those of the Jim Crow South.
Daniel Gross, writing for Smithsonian.com, informs readers that 50 years after Verwoerd’s assassination, Verwoerd’s supporters are only a “tiny minority” and that they are white nationalists. Does that remind you of anything? The remnants of Verwoerd’s legacy are a museum in a white nationalist city-state in South Africa and a number of named building and facilities that have mostly been changed. We’re behind on the times in America.
The Rev. James K. Polk Van Zandt, a former trustee of the University, informed The Journal that he believed that, “If they [Sewanee] got kids from New Jersey who don’t want to go there [because of the issues with the Confederacy and slavery], let them go somewhere else.” Well Father, this kid from New Jersey wants to attend Sewanee. He wants to attend a University that is rooted in the Anglican way of well-rounded thinking and opportunities for prayer to whatever God one may believe in.
You’re right that I would prefer to not go to an institution that celebrates the Confederacy in 2018. But I believe that Sewanee is the place for me and that we (both Sewanee and the South as a whole) don’t have to idolize the Old South of yore. There are signs of progress, like Robert E. Lee’s name being removed from an Episcopal Church, the Confederate Flag becoming more and more unpopular, and, of course, the tearing down of statues. But we have a ways to go.
In closing, I want to take a note from the Cheeto-in-Chief, who seems to have galvanized the population with short, simple, chantable slogans. Allow me to offer one for our usage as we continue this discussion: TEAR THEM DOWN! TEAR THEM DOWN! TEAR THEM DOWN!