Students walk out, lay down gowns in protest of racism on campus

By Claire Smith

Sewanee students, faculty, and staff filled the quad Monday morning on March 15 to protest acts of racism at Sewanee. The protestors gathered in response to Vice-Chancellor Brigety’s announcement that Sewanee students had yelled racial slurs and derogatory comments toward the visiting team from Emmanuel College at Saturday’s lacrosse game. However, many speakers at the protest emphasized that the issues being protested were much wider and prevalent than the one incident this weekend.

While a small protest was organized in the hours following the announcement, students began posting on social media and placing posters around campus telling their peers to attend a protest at 10:30. A widely shared post read “WALK OUT OF CLASS. MEET ON THE QUAD. NO ROOM FOR RACISTS.”

Students protest on the quad on March 15. Photo by George Burruss (C’22).

The protest began at 10:30 with University Chaplain Peter Gray reading “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn by NAACP Executive Secretary James Weldon Johnson, known widely as the Black National Anthem. Gray’s reading set the intention of protest with verses like:

“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won”

Gray was followed by Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding President Sambhav Bansal (C’23) and Director of Dialogue across Difference Cassie Meyer, both members of the Interfaith Advisory Council, who remarked, “We are called by our traditions and our identities to stand up against injustice and to work to heal the world. We know that our community as a whole is stronger. When each of us, especially those of us with privilege and with power are working for the full inclusion and flourishing of each other. We cannot truly be inclusive until all of us know and feel the embrace of safety and belonging at Sewanee.”

A sign left on the quad on the night of March 14 reminds students who protested gathering limits in previous weeks to protest racism. Photo by Maria Mattingly (C’23).

Lakeisha Phillips (C’22), Co-Director for Multicultural Retention and Recruitment of the Arcadian Program, followed and asked, “How am I expected to encourage other students of color, whether they be Black, Indigenous or Asian-American to attend this university when I’ve never felt more unsupported on this campus?” 

She continued, “I’m honestly tired. I’m tired of pouring my everything into this argument, into this institution that claims to stand for me in words, but doesn’t put real action behind it. I’m tired of talking. We do so much talking about what we should do and never actually do anything.” Through widespread applause, she pushed through: “It’s time.”

Michaela James-Thrower (C’24), a Posse Scholar and member of the Purple who has previously commented on the prevalence of racism in the Sewanee community, voiced that in the short time she has attended Sewanee she has, “experienced so much hate week after week after week, and I’m tired. I just got here and how am I already having to fight for my life, every day of being on this campus?”

Michaela James-Thrower (C’24) speaks, with Jeremiah Studivant (C’24), Taela Bland (C’22), and Letherio Jones (C’21) behind her. Photo by Maria Mattingly.

She said, “Upperclassmen keep telling me that they’re not surprised, that stuff like this keeps happening… Why are we not surprised? Why is it a standard here to be okay with hate?”

Letherio Jones (C’21), a Proctor, Sewanee Angel, and member of the track team, said, “As a Black man, I feel that I am constantly watched, critiqued, and undervalued as a Sewanee student, and at the same time, whatever accomplishments I do gain are tokens to show what progress is being made. But I do not see progress. I see a cycle of racism, sexism, and bigotry that has been an issue on this campus since its inception.”

Taela Bland (C’22), a theatre student and member of the BSU and 213-A program, opened her remarks by saying, “My name is Taela Lisha Bland, and I am a person of color that deserves to be seen, that deserves to be heard, and that deserves to be advocated for, from not just people that look like me, that walk like me, that talk like me, and that had been oppressed like me.” 

Bland then asked students in attendance a series of questions, culminating with a call to action: “Raise your hand if you are a student at the University of the South, Sewanee. Every single person with their hands up has the ability to make, be, and do better.”

Students listen to speakers under a “Thank You Students!” sign from fall semester. Photo by Beylie Ivanhoe (C’24).

Jeremiah Studivant (C’24), a musician in the Symphony Orchestra and member of Black at Sewanee and HOLA,  spoke about the sadness he felt after coming to campus last fall: “I chose this campus because I thought it would be incorporated, with lots of family. I thought we would all be a family together.” 

He continued, “But my last semester here, there was a racial situation that happened that made me very sad. This semester, there were multiple. It seems like it’s getting worse but I don’t want it to get worse…I want to see us unite as one.”

Nisrine (Lala) Hilizah (C’21), Order of the Gown Parliamentarian, began by comparing the protestors in front of her to those who worked three years ago to revoke Charlie Rose’s honorary degree from the University. “I helped organize the protest, a community-wide rally, demanding that the University rescind the honorary degree for Charlie Rose. And it worked.”

Hilizah, however, said that the weekend following her work protesting Charlie Rose, she experienced a racist incident at a Sewanee fraternity, when a student used a racial slur against her. “I was dehumanized on this campus.That happened my freshman year. I am a senior, I’m planning to graduate and go to graduate school, but that experience has stayed with me for my entire Sewanee career.” Hilizah shared this experience with the Purple in a powerful opinion.

Nisrine Hilizah (C’21) shares her story with protestors. Photo by Maria Mattingly

She emphasized, “I just want to say one thing: the psychological impact that racism has is real.” Hilizah then asked white students to take on the burden of witnessing and calling out racism: “I want you guys in your circles, if you hear anything racist, say something about it… I’m tired of white people coming to me and telling me that they heard something racist and them not being able to do anything about it. That’s not my problem.”

After these reflections, students followed up with calls to action. Caroline Graham (C’21) of the Community Engagement House (CoHo) said “Allyship does not end today. Allyship is not standing on the quad. This is the first of many actions that we are calling you to take.” Ben Sweeton (C’21), OG Parliamentarian, said that white students must engage actively with racism on campus and examine how their own behavior contributes to systems of oppression. The Order of the Gown has also encouraged students to view the CoHo’s Allyship in Action Project.

Order of the Gown President Mandy Tu (C’21) announced that the resolution for an OG Conduct Council, which will allow the Order to revoke gown privileges due to violations of the EQB Guide, passed with 81 percent of the vote. 

Vice-Chancellor Brigety addressed protestors by thanking them for “choosing to stand here today against unspeakable and intolerable acts of racism by some of our students, against that we invited to our Domain,” and expressed his pride for the students who came before him and shared their stories

Brigety then expressed: “When I met with the lacrosse team from Emmanuel College on Saturday afternoon, I did my duty as Vice-Chancellor to apologize to them on behalf of the entire Sewanee community for the racial epithets that were hurled against them by some of our students. As a Black man, having to apologize to other young Black men for the vile, racist epithets that were hurled at them by some of our white students… is the most distasteful thing that has ever happened to me in my life.”

“Believe me when I tell you, that literally what we do in this moment, over the course of the next several hours, will define this university for a generation,” Brigety said. He followed, “It must start with the identification of those people who are responsible for hurling those epithets today,” and emphasized that, “Before the sun sets on the Memorial Cross this day, those who are responsible must come forward.”

A gown left in Convocation Hall with a sign calling for the expulsion of students who used racial slurs on March 13. Photo by George Burruss.

Graham then invited members of the Order of the Gown to lay down their gowns in Convocation Hall until those who used racial slurs at the lacrosse game are identified. Convocation, which hosts the portraits of several slaveholding founders of the University, was chosen to highlight the pervasive history of racism in Sewanee.

Students concluded the protest by filing silently into Convocation Hall and laying down their gowns and protest signs. As students prepared to leave, Graham recited: “In the abandonment of such a valued symbol on this campus– a symbol of excellence, a symbol of studentship, a symbol of unity– we hope to illustrate that we refuse to continue to be a part of a community in which these actions take place.”

Alondra Ramirez (C’21), Alexis Carillo (C’22), Jeremiah Studivant (C’24), and Fernando Totti (C’24) stand among gowns strewn across Convocation Hall. Photo by George Burruss.

Anyone who has information regarding the identities of those who used racial slurs this weekend is encouraged to report it anonymously here. Intimidation or the threat of lawsuits against students who report this incident will also be investigated by the University.