By Amelia Leapheart
The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, formerly known as the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, entered its third year on July 1. The name change honors Sewanee’s first tenured African-American professor, Houston Roberson, who passed away in December 2016. Dr. Roberson was also responsible for focusing on African-American studies to Sewanee’s curriculum when he joined the faculty in 1997.
“He was a very close friend, so when he died, it was a very personal as well as professional loss,” Dr. Woody Register (C’80), director of the Roberson Project and Professor of American history says.
The name change also seeks to memorialize Dr. Roberson’s legacy. “Now I get to say Dr. Roberson’s name all the time. Most memorials are stone or bronze things that don’t speak, and people come to ignore them,” Dr. Register says.
This project began with a group of other universities seeking to understand how slavery contributed to their institutions.
“Our history shapes us to understand why the university’s here. 70 years ago, I wouldn’t have been here” says student research assistant Klarke Stricklen (C’22).
Stricklen’s work focuses on the St. Mark’s Community, Sewanee’s African-American congregation which merged with Otey’s Parish in the 1960s. She began her work late spring semester and did an internship this summer with the St. Mark’s Community. The internship focused on telling the stories of people within St. Mark’s.
“History is written by people in power. This project started with wanting to get people out of the shadows and hear their stories,” says Stricklen.
“The founders of the University didn’t just happen to own slaves,” says research associate the Rev. Hannah Pommershein (T’19), “they had a theology of how being a Christian slaveholder was a Christian vocation. We’re researching how slavery has been treated in the Episcopal church, and what that means for our values now and our current Episcopal values and how that can transform Sewanee.”
Pommershein began her studies as a student where she researched the School of Theology’s integration. As and Episcopal deacon and intended Episcopal priest, “working on this project is essential for a white clergy person in the South.”
Register sees this project as an intellectual and personal pursuit. Despite being a Sewanee graduate and scholar of American history, certain discoveries still surprise him.
“This is a project where we learn something new every week, sometimes several times a week. Especially learning about the depth of commitment of the slave-holding founders,” said Register, “the University synthesized a religious and educational superstructure for promoting the interests of the slave holding civilization in the planning stages in the 1850s.”
Register believes this project is important beyond the Mountain, and it contributes to our understanding of American history as a whole.
A question in the heads of those within the Sewanee community is how the university can move forward with pride in Sewanee’s Episcopal heritage with the knowledge of its disturbing foundation.
“Our Episcopal church and identity does have something to offer. We’re doing the truth-telling now, and I hope that the church can be a part of the reconciliation. I think the church is having conversations about race and reconciliation, and Sewanee’s part of that conversation,” Pommersheim said.
The national Episcopal church has formerly apologized for its participation in slavery and held a “Day of Repentance” in 2008.
“It’s fair to say that the Episcopal church wants to be a part of the reconciliation,” said Register.
“The history that we’re uncovering, we need to ask as a community what obligations that history has given us. If we aspire to be a university that is defined by inclusion and diversity that honors in deed as well as thought,” and Register went on to note how “this project has been central to that.”
Student engagement is necessary on the road to reconciliation and Stricklen emphasized that “Sewanee still has a long way to go.”
“The word reconciliation means that this history doesn’t just have to do with the past, but with the future too,” Pommersheim concluded.
On November 5-7, Sewanee will host “Confederate Symbols and Episcopal Churches,” an event Pommersheim and Register will help lead.
I wrote my Optime Merins paper in 1969 for the School of Theology entitled The Church and the Black Man focusing on the role the Episcopal Chruch played in slavery and the ensuing 300 years.
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