Students seek truth in contextualizing the University’s past

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Students, Community Members, and some Faculty came, split off into groups, and discussed. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Klarke Stricklen
Contributing Writer

This week, the student group for The Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation Project hosted its first event, titled “Where is the Truth? Sewanee and Its History” at the Community Engagement House. The event was co-sponsored by the Bairnwick Women’s Center (the Wick), Community Engagement House, Student Government Association, and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.

The function was planned in response to the slew of recent campus-wide affairs regarding the University’s Confederate memorials and monuments, such as the window in All Saints’ Chapel honoring the Confederacy and the discreet removal of the Thompson Union plaque following the publication of Tanner Potts’ (C’15) piece which explored its history. The student group’s purpose was to provide a platform for students to discuss the University’s past, its ties to slavery, and the manner in which the administration has addressed these issues.

Before the event, The Sewanee Purple had a chance to speak with David Johnson (C’19), a member of the student group, about its overall objective. He explained that it centered on “students, faculty, and community members showing their true spirit and enthusiasm for finding truth and addressing the wrongs of the past, our past.”

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Students, Community Members, and some Faculty came, split off into groups, and discussed. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

With friendly faces, the student group began by welcoming each and every individual into the house. As the waiting area began to fill, attendees were guided to the backyard for a brief timeline of the historical events that led to present-day Sewanee. They were then divided into small groups to begin their discussions with their student facilitator.

Discussions ranged from addressing how the University responds to its past and how Sewanee students feel about the Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation Project’s on campus, to how our community can move forward.

In one particular group, the question of how students view history from the perspective of their major was raised. An economics major, who wished to remain anonymous explained that due to her major, she had never had the opportunity to talk about history or its implications on the very place they carried out their studies. In these conversations, they felt confused and asked the group an unexpected question: “Should I just go back to my numbers?” This response caused the group to question whether Sewanee truly fosters safe spaces for its students to ask these questions.

As the event drew to an end, all the groups reconvened in the backyard to give a brief presentation on what they discussed. Lala Hilizah (C’21) explained her group’s dialogue briefly. “I would say that my group had a profound and constructive discussion. We talked about the administration’s poor communication with students and even faculty on various decisions, namely the rededication of the EQB monument.”

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Students, Community Members, and some Faculty came, split off into groups, and discussed. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

After the event, The Purple reconvened with Johnson to discuss the outcome of the event. He believed “the event was nothing short of inspiring. The discussion was for everyone in 1857 and 1868, who believed that Sewanee was living up to the motto of Ecce Quam Bonum. If only those same generous benefactors of the University in the mid and late 1800s, as our administration would call them, could see the beauty of Sewanee in 2018.”

The student group plans to continue creating safe spaces for these important conversations and hopes that it will inspire others to attend future events. In a last word with Johnson, he discussed the future for the group and events pertaining to acknowledging Sewanee’s truth.

“It is not only time for community members to address and acknowledge truth, but for administration, the Board of Trustees and Regents, and alumni to come to terms with our history to rightfully and honestly dwell together in unity,” said Johnson.