By Luke Williamson
During the 2018 gowning ceremony, I remember smiling and breathing a sigh of relief when Dr. McCardell addressed an uncomfortable fact that we as students, faculty, and alumni should never shy away from: our University has a historically problematic relationship with race. This relief didn’t last long.
I recognize that as Vice-Chancellor of Sewanee, Dr. McCardell necessarily appeals to many different people with many different points of view during any of his addresses. I recognize that one audience McCardell must always consider is that of the decades-ago Sewanee matriculate who enthusiastically and perennially donates to the University, but who may also foster a very specific nostalgia for Sewanee, one that leaves no room for critically reassessing Sewanee’s history with race.
I also recognize that Dr. McCardell is a very intelligent man with an impressive array of degrees and former higher education positions before his here at Sewanee. Dr. McCardell obtained a Ph.D. in history at Harvard University in 1976. I could not stop thinking about this as he omitted incredibly important details and highlighted others that were deliberately constructed to suggest Sewanee’s institutional innocence regarding our history with race.
During his remarks, McCardell worked towards emphasizing a distinction between the first and second foundings of the University, assembling two very disparate profiles of each. McCardell admitted that the first founding was rife with racial tension (with slaveholding founders, donors, and more) but proceeded to fashion this first founding into an ideological scapegoat, comfortably maneuvering claims about our racist past unto the back of the first founding, what he repeatedly referred to as the “failed founding.”
The second founding, were we to believe McCardell’s recounting of the events, had by 1868 — just three short years after the Civil War had come to a close and ravaged the morale and physical landscape of the United States — been alleviated of racial tension. This is an intellectually reckless retelling of history and one that is overtly fabricated. The issues of white supremacy, race and racism, slavery and the Confederacy were not forgotten by the time of the University’s second founding.
As McCardell acknowledges in his remarks—but asks attendants to forgive on account of his human imperfection—Bishop Quintard was formally associated with the army of the CSA. Again: the issues of white supremacy, race and racism, slavery and the Confederacy were not forgotten by the time of the University’s second founding.
Sewanee did not forget why it was founded or who it was founded for on the day that Bishop Quintard organized our institution’s famed refounding. In the decades following 1868, Sewanee blossomed into an institution that in many ways remained dedicated to the racially-problematic motivations behind its conceptualization. One must only look around to see the highly visible remnants of this reality: there seem to be countless dedicatory portraits, buildings, and plaques around campus that memorialize racist individuals — many of whom were involved formally with the CSA army.
Perhaps there were, in a literal sense, “no slaves” and “no confederates” at Sewanee’s second founding (as McCardell pointed out), yet that most assuredly does not mean that there were not racist individuals driving the motivations and agenda of the University. Race remained an important and relevant factor in fundraising efforts and for affiliates of the University well into the twentieth century. The issue of race and race-relations did not evaporate by the refounding; it lingered and festered.
Dr. McCardell enthusiastically pointed out time and time again with very little subtlety that the University, though originally intended to further the institution of Slavery, was — even then! — interested in more noble pursuits of education and intellectual curiosity. It is difficult to imagine why McCardell felt compelled to defend the vision for Sewanee that the original founders nursed.
McCardell cherry-picked details. He stated that the dioceses of Tennessee were never formally part of the Confederate church, but failed to mention that Bishop Stephen Elliott, one of our founders, was the Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the CSA. He valorized the founders and refounders and their fundraising efforts but failed to expand upon their own racist ideologies — many of whom were themselves at one point slave-owners.
I don’t mean to imply that Dr. McCardell should have gotten knee-deep in unpacking just how fundamentally racist our founders and refounders were — but I do continue to feel deeply frustrated at just how far he went out of his way to defend Sewanee’s past. There are things to admire about Sewanee; there are things to lift up and to praise about Sewanee — but our founders are not one of these things. Leveraging their mythic status and absolving them of their racist pasts in the process, in order to elevate the status of a gowning ceremony, is absolutely shameful. Delivering these remarks in a chapel already racially charged (with slaves and Confederate flags depicted in the clerestory windows, to start) is irresponsible.
It doesn’t escape me that I’ve fallen into the role of the student who rails against institutional authority figures with a fist of angry prose. Nor does it escape me that the rebuttal I’ve presented above does not comprise of new arguments or observations. Those who care to know about Sewanee’s history with race generally have the resources to familiarize themselves with it (help the project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation by looking at related archival materials!) But when these important reminders about our past are systematically silenced, watered-down, and presented with a foggy nostalgia, it feels utterly irresponsible not to stop and challenge the friendly representations of a dark reality — even if it means being a bit redundant.