Vice-Chancellor McCardell’s Convocation remarks minimize Sewanee’s problematic relationship with race

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By Luke Williamson
Executive
Staff

Read Dr. McCardell’s full Foundation Day Address here.

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.

11 comments

  1. Jeez, Purple, would you like some cheese with that w(h)ine… So the VC failed to adequately enumerate the University’s racial history grievances to your satisfaction? Cry me a river. I thought Dr. McCardell did a fine job (per his usual), addressing a variety of topics. To what extent, and to what end, should he have expanded upon the founders’ “own racist ideologies?” It’s no mean feat to divine what’s in the heart of a dead man; so much more convenient to simply assume the worst. I will give you credit, however, for almost swerving into the truth in your last paragraph.

    1. It would appear that the author can divine whats in the heart of others, specifically “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.”
      While it may be difficult for Mr. Williamson to fathom, those of us who matriculated long ago were aware of the University’s past. We live in the real world where issues of racial and ethnic tension and dispute are a part of daily life. We also live in a world where there are any number of other issues that demand attention and effort and deny us the laser-like focus he apparently has on this particular issue.
      This isn’t to diminish Sewanee’s confederate past, or the flaws of its fathers. But to recognize those flaws without also recognizing their achievements is to deny history. To suggest the University is a one dimensional institution furthering a legacy of slavery is to deny reality.
      One would hope the focus of the gowning ceremony would be recognition of the achievements of newly minted gownsmen and a celebration of Sewanee’s academic heritage. As you note, the university has taken steps to re-evaluate its history and make resources available. Perhaps the author should focus his own efforts there and publicizing those resources.
      Barry Bean A’81, C’85

  2. Very well said, Mr. Williamson. It is a terribly disheartening but irrefutable fact that such “redundancy” is necessary. You are absolutely correct that there is no need to speak falsely about the “sins of the fathers” in order to praise what is currently good about the institution; you are equally correct that indulging in such “white-washed” (ahem) revisionist history is dangerous — it is dangerous to the credibility of the institution; it is even more dangerous to current students of color and students who belong to historically (and presently) marginalized groups.

    I said something earlier today in a conversation about the ridiculous rhetoric of certain clerics who are currently adopting a defensive position vis. the abuse scandals in the Church of Rome: there is no room for defensiveness in penitence. The only position that has any integrity is one of honest confession and whole-hearted repentance, followed by the seeking of atonement in whatever forms may be possible.

    The same applies here. We have to be honest, really honest, about our past, we have to take the hit and not in any way attempt to misrepresent, to excuse, or to dismiss the facts of that past, and we must repent of that past, publicly and without qualification or equivocation. Anything less is AT BEST disingenuous, at worst complicit.

  3. I still cannot for the life of me figure out why your picked Sewanee when it could hardly be more clear you do not find the place to your liking.

    Except, destroying what others have built, a thing of great beauty and inestimable value to so many hundreds and thousands since its founding and re-founding, even with the flaws in is parp and its present, has so much more appeal to those who clearly have little by way a reference point for comparison.

    I pity you, Mr. Williamson. You’re missing out on so, so much of what may prove eventually to have been the greatest, most rewarding experience of your life.

  4. Thanks, Luke, for a thoughtful and incisive piece of analysis, and for not descending into the ad hominem sarcasm of your critics—and so many others these days. Essays like yours make the Purple what a student newspaper should be. You are the best argument for a Sewanee education! Keep up the good work.

  5. do we grow out of our past or do we outgrow our past? to stay within the original container is death by being rootbound – keep bringing it – the fact that you can and do implies both you and Sewanee are right for each other ;~}

  6. Funny how two reasonable people can attend the same speech and come to wildly different conclusions. I had the pleasure of listening to VC McCardell’s address on Friday. I thought the speech by Dr McCardell was quite quite frank and illuminating.

    As for the speech, we all know the basic history of the United States. Do we need to rehash the events of the Civil War? However, not everyone in that audience was knowledgable about the two foundings. I for one, had no idea that in 1860, the University of the South had an endowment of $500,000 and that was second only to Harvard at the time. Nor did I know the lofty aspirations that the founders had for the school at that time. I thought that VC McCardell weaved a brilliant, and more importantly, factual tale of the failed first founding and the second founding that succeeded. And, how the founders in 1868 faced almost insurmountable odds. The school matriculated nine students in 1868. Nine students. That matriculation occurred 150 years ago this week, making the Vice Chancellor’s remarks about the two foundings even more timely.

    With that being said, I would ask Luke or anyone else who would call VC McCardell to task for minimizing Sewanee’s problematic relationship with race – what is it that you want? I mean this as a serious and open ended question. Perhaps, rather than “rail against an authority figure with fists of angry prose” you could devote your next column to what you would want to hear from VC McCardell. Do you have a constructive and alternative path?

    Personally, I thought VC McCardell hit just the right balance of acknowledging the past and making a speech that was entertaining, informative and appropriate for the Convocation.

  7. As one of Luke’s professors, I can attest that this curious, hard-working, passionate, articulate young man is absolutely where he belongs.

  8. As another of Luke’s professors, I’d like to second Dr Malone’s remarks. We’re very fortunate indeed to have him here.

  9. Luke Williamson, you have articulated what many of us felt last weekend. Thank you for writing this article.
    I have two sons at Sewanee, am married to a Sewanee alumnus, and am the daughter of a retired Sewanee professor and alumnus. I listened intently to McCardell’s Convocation address and went to the EQB monument dedication. Where was the honor we should be paying to the generations of countless slaves who unwittingly sacraficed their lives in order to make Sewanee’s beginnings possible? Regardless of the degree of guilt ascribed to Sewanee’s founders, these victims deserve to be acknowleded and honored. It is difficult to embrace Ecce Quam Bonum or Yea, Sewanee’s Right (which seemingly sprang from a vision of Sewanee I will never ascribe to), without clear validation of this truth; Sewanee was founded from deep roots in slavery and racism.

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