Walking Willie Six Road: Thoughts on Sewanee’s relationship with the people of its black past

By Richard Pryor III
Executive Staff

As I was walking back to my dorm McCrady Hall on a humid Sewanee evening this summer, I decided to take a back route and instead of going down University Avenue to turn on to Mitchell, I took a right onto Sartain Road to avoid the hustle and bustle of University.

As I made my way toward McCrady, I made a left at the end of Sartain, I did not recognize the street onto which I turned nor did I notice a street sign. Imagine my surprise when, a good few feet past where I had turned, I noticed the street listed on someone’s mailbox: “Willie Six Road.”

If you’ve ever listened to Vice-Chancellor John McCardell give his “Launching of a New Year” speech, you will recognize this familiar name and anecdote, taken directly from the transcript of the speech: “Willie Six is a Sewanee legend. For 40 years he served as an athletic trainer. According to the University narrative, ‘he worked tirelessly to keep Sewanee men on the field, whether as stars or as scrubs.’ Upon his retirement in 1947 this beloved figure was made an honorary member of the ‘S’ society, and received a varsity athletic letter. Willie Six Road memorializes his service to the University.”

McCardell continues, “A reporter asked Willie, at the time of his retirement, what was the best year in Sewanee athletic history. This man, who had seen many great teams and many great moments answered without hesitation: “the best year? The best year is the one comin’ up.”

It is, of course, a very nice anecdote that emphasizes one of Dr. McCardell’s favorite themes – looking to the past to inspire and guide our future. But what does it tell us about Sewanee’s history? And who was Willie Six? 

So that I don’t bog this down with footnotes or other citations, much of this information comes from the online version of Dr. Woody Register (C’80) and Tanner Potts’ (C’16) exhibit “Founded to Make Men: Explorations of Masculinity at the University of the South,” of which I encourage you to explore.

Willie Six was not just “Willie Six.” In fact, he was actually Willie Sims. Born in Pelham in the late 19th century, his parents were probably former slaves. According to Register and Potts, Sims possessed no more than an eighth-grade education and spent his entire career as a trainer for Sewanee’s athletes for almost four decades. 

His nickname of “Six” came from the number on his second-hand jersey he wore while working. Let me be blunt with you for a second – the character of “Willie Six” as we are told about him is a tom, but it is important to denote that he is only a tom in the imagined history of Sewanee – it was certainly attempted (and relatively successfully too) to make him one in our common consciousness.

Toms are defined by film historian Donald Bogle as black men who are always “chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, [yet] they keep the faith, n’er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very-kind.” And there is no better description of this attitude of “Six’s” than in the November 24, 1947 article about Sims’s retirement in The New York Times

Reflecting on the ceremony of his retirement, which featured a number of former players telling him “you’re a better man than I am, Willie Six,” paraphrasing the paternalistic and racist poem Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling, the following is written in conclusion: “It is not likely Willie ever heard of Gunga Din. But the boys sounded mighty nice and kind. It made him feel good. After all, he had worked right hard. He remembered how, as a young fellow, he had started on a morning job with the gang building the chapel. In the afternoon he got to helping out the football coach. All he had to do was report at the gym, fire the furnace, clean up, lay out and repair uniforms and equipment, rub and bandage the teams, bank the furnace, lock up, and, often without supper, start on a round of the dormitories to massage injured players that sometimes ended only at midnight. Saturday, though, he quit earlier. Yes, sir, it had surely been a wonderful day. There wasn’t a prouder Negro or a justly prouder man in all Tennessee.”

As a man with multiracial heritage and raised by a scholar of African-American History, the black men I grew up learning about were not the Willie Simses of the world. No, they were the MLKs, the Malcolm Xes, the John Carloses and Tommie Smiths, and the Granville Woodses of the world. 

And yet, “Six” is one of only three people to have their full name used as a street name in Sewanee, an honor he shares with John Allin, the Sewanee alum and civil rights advocate who later became Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church; and Girault Jones, the 16th Chancellor of this University and interim dean of the School of Theology. But should he be?

The first thing that we must do is reclaim the story of Willie Six as the story of Willie Sims. In her acclaimed book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Canadian author and critic Margaret Attwood (of The Handmaid’s Tale fame) quotes Virgil’s invocation in Book VI of the Aeneid: “Grant me to tell what I have heard! With your assent, / May I reveal what lies deep in the gloom of the Underworld!,” to which she comments, “Grant me to tell. May I reveal. These are the prayers of a writer, and you’d almost think he’d been there himself.”

It’s not just the poem of the writer – it’s the poem of the historian and the storyteller and the journalist. Near the beginning of her final chapter, she writes that the chapter’s “hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring someone or something back from the dead.”

We must bring Willie Sims back from the dead. His earthly body and soul perished in 1950, but I would argue that Willie Sims himself was dead by the time of that 1947 article – only Willie Six remained, at least to the rest of the white world, which certainly was the definitive world at the time. Potts and Register write – “that ‘Willie Sims’ – who was not solely ‘Willie Six’ – eluded the record-keepers, but it is important, out of respect for him, to imagine that he had a realm of meaning and an identity unconfined by being ‘Six.’” Changing the name of the street from Willie Six to Willie Sims is a good start.

But ultimately, we must become aware of the emasculation or hypersexualization of black men of Sims’s era and Sewanee’s complicity and advocacy in some cases for it, and the similar treatment of black women through hypersexualization or mammification. Only then, I believe, can Willie Sims, much like many ghosts as portrayed in fiction, rest in true peace.