Polk sculpture removed by student, taken to Archives

By Claire Smith
Editor-in-Chief

In the early hours of Tuesday, March 16, a bronze head of Leonidas Polk, founder and Chancellor of the University of the South, was removed from duPont library. The next morning, the head and accompanying plaque were  found on the porch of the nearby University Archives building in a shopping bag along with a letter addressed to Dr. Woody Register (C’ 80), director of the Roberson Project for Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.

The anonymous letter read, “I have despised the presence of this racist memorial since my first day at Sewanee and due to the recent events on the Domain I felt a call to action.” The writer continued , “I can no longer sit by while these symbols of white supremacy stare over my and my fellow students shoulders as we pursue our education.”

The letter then expressed respect and trust for the Roberson Project, writing, “I have no desire to destroy or damage the bust and plaque as that would sweep its history under the rug. It has a place in the archives where it can be historically contextualized but has no place hanging above the heads of students of the University of the South.

During student protests over racist acts on Sewanee’s campus on Monday, several art pieces on campus were labelled “RACIST” with cardboard placards, including Polk’s sculpture and a portrait of Jessie Ball duPont. Students also used gowns or protest signs to criticize or cover up portraits of Confederates in Convocation Hall, including a “f—- racists” sign under a portrait of Polk.

In addition to the duPont sculpture, Polk has three portraits on campus, including one in Convocation Hall, one in the Sewanee Inn, and a reproduction of Sword over the Gown that is stored in the University Archives. Both Sword over the Gown and the Polk sculpture are not “life portraits,” and were created decades after Polk’s death in 1864. Register said that, while the duPont sculpture was identified by the Roberson Project for research, it was not not a priority among the list of monuments on campus. “But this action precipitated some crash research, and it’s a good thing it did,” he said.

Polk’s bust was easily visible in the center of the main floor of the library, and faces visitors as they enter duPont from the ground floor. Associate Provost for Library and Information Technology Services, Vicki Sells, said that she had no information about how the sculpture was taken, and that there will be no administrative investigation into the matter.

Director of University Archives and Special Collections Mandi Johnson said that no students should face investigation or punishment over this action. Johnson explained: “It needed to come down, and so now it’s here in the Archives where it can be stored and provided with the context we know about it now.” 

Polk sculpture and plaque in storage in the University Archives. Photo by Claire Smith (C’22).

Johnson alerted administrators that the head and plaque were delivered to the Archives building. She then stored them inside the Archives along with the letter to Register and the cardboard “RACIST” placard recovered from duPont. Johnson said, “We don’t have a plan yet, because information is forthcoming. But it will be stored in the Archives and then we will certainly document what we know about it, what we have since found out about the sculptor, and when it was removed.”

“There is every reason to scrutinize Polk’s record and how his memory is preserved and honored on this campus. I encourage that,” Register said. “I do not encourage acts of civil disobedience like this, but I was impressed by the reasoning and moral force of the person who took it upon themselves to do this.”

The anonymous student contacted The Purple and included a copy of the letter previously sent to Register. The student explained their choice in removing Polk’s sculpture: “The reason this one was chosen is not that it’s the most egregious symbol on campus, but that it’s the most public space used by students. So that’s what felt so wrong about it. Polk isn’t particularly important to me except that this object was in a very public student space. I’m of the opinion that these should all come down.”

The student pointed to the monument “Silent Sam” on the University of North Carolina campus as a source of inspiration. After years of deliberation over the statue, they said, “Nothing of substance really happened until people got so pissed off from the school’s inactivity that they went and topped it.”

They continued, “I think that’s a bad way to do it. That’s not a way that fosters community. At the end of it, it still ends up leaving frustration between the University and the students. I’m trying to start this process and give the University the opportunity to take things down themselves.”

At the beginning of March, Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety announced that a committee will be formed in June 2021 to “evaluate the names and stories behind buildings monuments, and places on the Domain identify naming principles and practices and ensure that, in every instance, there is an appropriate balance between the contributions of the namesakes and the values of our University.” Recommendations will be presented to the Board of Regents in June 2022.

Letter sent to Register and The Purple. Courtesy of anonymous.

The Purple has published a follow-up on the origin of the Polk sculpture, which was donated by prominent segregationist and white supremacist Jack Kershaw.

37 comments

  1. Dearest student, it is with surprise that I receive this report of your actions with no evidence of your research and findings. Get off your ass and tell me why Bishop Polk deserves removal. Is it due to his slave ownership? If so, erase the vast majority of the landed farmers. Was his ownership of slaves evil? Emphatically, yes! Was his founding of the University in an area bereft of higher education to be the Oxford of the South good? Emphatically, yes! Look; the ancestors of the slaves he owned are now attending and contributing to the educational, moral and social growth of the University!
    The world is complex. Humans are more so. Take the time, to paraphrase you, to “put it in context”with regard to all the men and women of this time period. It is absurd to judge them from the singular perspective of a group of rebel’s without a clue (pun intended) whose minds are set without your vaunted context. And, whose sensibilities are dictated by emotion not reason!
    I appreciate your zeal… now engage your brain. It may encourage your peers to do the same!

      1. No, the ignorant, intolerant Politically Correct fools are THE problem in America today. Study some authentic history and try to understand that no human being who ever lived was perfect. Should Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. be eradicated from our memories because he was a serial adulterer? I don’t think so. He was flawed like everyone else. So was Leonidas Polk, but the moron who stole his statue wouldn’t be attending college there if it WEREN’T for Bishop Polk.

    1. Dearest Bill,

      I wonder, Bill, if you have ever read a book on the horrors of slavery. Have you actually thought about that human beings were actual *property* of other human beings, and that they were so reduced, that they became mere merchandise? That is why Polk deserves removal, Bill. It is not very pleasant or good of him to be seen everywhere on campus when Polk did not believe in unity and equality. Also, it is very clear that you did not get the point that this student is trying to get across, Bill, because if this student wanted to “erase history,” (Bill, P. 1) they would have destroyed the statue. But, instead, the student brought the historical artifacts to where other historical artifacts go. (We love the archives here at Sewanee! During non-COVID times, you should visit it. You might learn a lot.) But, I really appreciate your zeal in wanting to argue with this student. But, please, engage your brain next time you comment on a Sewanee Purple article. It may encourage your peers to do that same!

      With much concern,

      Me

    2. If the ancestors of those slaves are attending the University, they are indeed extraordinary people. The full story of every person memorialized in art is seldom told. Shakespeare wrote, ““The evil that men do lives after them;
      The good is oft interred with their bones.” A monument turns that up-side down, holding the memorialized individual as a paragon of some virtue and ignoring the immorality. An archives or a museum is a good place for such creations, where the full story may be told.

    3. The founders of Sewanee, Polk included, may have set the physical foundation of Sewanee but they in no way represent the ideals and values our beloved University seek to hold and live by today. These people contributing to Sewanee who you’ve somehow determined are the ancestors of Polk’s slaves and therefore should be thankful for him are attending this University in spite of Polk not because of him. Also, the University was not founded to be “the Oxford of the South” but was founded to “materially aid the South to resist and repel a fanatical domination which seeks to rule over us”, that fanatical domination being the American government, this ideology almost led to the dissolution of Sewanee as well as the Nation.
      Polk was also very much a “rebel without a clue”, he only obtained his rank through his relationship with Jefferson Davis, a former classmate of his, and was very inept as both a military strategist and as a leader. He was the sole reason Kentucky, originally a neutral territory, sought federal support after he attempted to occupy it giving the U.S. a strategic and geographical advantage. On multiple occasions he ignored orders from superior officers and failed to disseminate information to his subordinates causing the Confederate army to lose the upperhand on the battlefield. Rather than take responsibility he deflected blame onto his subordinate officers. Is this the man you want our University to immortalize?
      So in summary, Dearest Bill, I encourage you to get off your ass, engage your brain, and do some research.

      Respectfully,

      Alum, Veteran, Advocate for Change

  2. One must ask why this oh-so-enlightened and outraged student felt that Sewanee was the place for him/her/it. Clearly, it is not. The current outrage gives a lie to the sea-change of social, cultural progress and the gigantic efforts by so many who gave their hearts and lives to the University of the South in order to make a Sewanee education and experience available to any and all who are up to the rigor of the academic demands.

    This is a waste of time, good will, and intelligence. Tearing down will not make Sewanee better. It will simply destroy at least some part of what people have loved so deeply that hundreds of families have continued to send their children to the Mountain, generation after generation. Hardly anything shows this more than a student deciding to flaunt the Honor Code and act as though he/she/it should be congratulated for their “courage”.

    From Deitrich Bonhoeffer:
    “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

    Vaya con Dios.

  3. Anonymous Students,

    Good on you for effecting change in a space that willingly resists it!

    Bill & Will,

    Try a little harder to veil your distaste with anti-racist movements. Given Sewanee’s historic position as a bastion of white southern aristocracy, things such as this will & should be happening far more often. We of all institutions should be able to recognize “erasure”, and this is not it.

    YSR C’17

  4. @fiat your implication that Sewanee as an institution shouldn’t cater to humanity as a whole shows where your heart is. You should check yourself. If current students don’t desire to see a human trafficker when they go into the library then that’s their right. Your ignorant views are being left behind by history, kindly stay out of student business.

    1. Try reading it again, s l o w l y. I have witnessed changes in the attitudes, and in the numbers holding enlightened attitudes at Sewanee since the 1960s. The people of the last few generations have lost the intelligence to understand that gratitude to the founders of the University is a basic human virtue and duty, regardless of the flaws of someone long dead who is being judged and condemned based totally on modern standards. You don’t have to admire or like them in order to be grateful that they made Sewanee available to you.

      And if you hate slavery so much, which you should, then why aren’t you pounding on everyone about the slavery going on today? There’s a taint of hypocrisy in going after dead men who lived an honorable lives during the era’s the Almighty set them. It’s fairly disgusting, really. You can only hope history judges you more mercifully and with more enlightened understanding when info like this and regarding the murder of children is more commonly understood.

      Rank Country Estimated Number of Modern Slaves (Per 1,000 People)
      1 North Korea 104.6
      2 Eritrea 93.0
      3 Burundi 40.0
      4 Central African
      Republic 22.3
      5 Afghanistan 22.2
      6 Mauritania 21.4
      7 South Sudan 20.5
      8 Pakistan 16.8
      9 Cambodia 16.8
      10 Iran 16.2

      1. Oh, Fiat, sweetie… the issue that we’re talking about are people unwilling to denounce slavery in the past. I know that I, personally, will always denounce slavery, and that it is why Polk should only have a statue that’s visible at the archives. We shouldn’t praise someone who owns slaves like the ones you cite.

  5. Back in my day they called it stealing. But, we called it ‘liberating’.

    I am glad that there is now no more racism. Good on ya, kid!

  6. Thank you anonymous student for standing up for what is just and doing it in a way that showed respect for the property of that university while still taking a stand against racism.

    C’05 alum

  7. George, I assuming that your comment saying, “I am glad there is no more racism” was satirical. That is hindering this conversation, but maybe that was your goal. You are perpetuating the complicated history with racism rather than striving to make our community a better place. You should never be doing that. I know that may be hard, but the Sewanee community will greatly thank you for the change. (You might find a change within yourself too!)

    EQB

  8. Fiat, I personally do not know what went through your mind when you dehumanized the student by called them “it.” When you don’t know someone’s gender, use they/them pronouns, write her/him/them, or just don’t mention it!

    Thank you for letting me inform you of this!

    1. You’re too kind. I was simply trying to cover all the possible pronoun preferences being demanded these days, since “the student” in question has decided to hide his/her/its identity. One wonders at that, since so much pride is expressed in having committed an act of theft.

      1. Quelle surprise: an anonymous lament about anonymity. Always pairs well with pronoun-trolling in the comments section. It’s great to see the old traditions being defended.

  9. Having not been alive during the slave owning era. My thinking is Mr. Polk and the taxpayers should have a say on our history and the combined histories of our Universities. To me the anonymous student stole several objects many in our society have allowed them to have regarding the foundation of the University of the South. Including its main founding proprietor. I feel the same towards other cultural icons memorials, plaques and have a different narrative with regards to them and their past acts but would not break the law. Then state I alone have the right to do as I please. That is a very narcissistic selfish notion to splatter your false narratives against the public domain. For self gratification and aggrandizement of yourself against imaginary foes. You did not invent, build, use your money for the roads and buildings at the University of the South nor facilitate its origin’s in any ways. You’re just blessed to be attending there. Then you should be arrested for your crimes against the alumni, donors and the people of the State of Tennessee. Much obliged for allowing the other side some recourse in the matter U.O. S.

    1. Did you invent, build, or use the money to build the roads? You’re just one very entitled, privileged alumni who is so bitter over things changing. The thing wasn’t destroyed, and it wasn’t vandalized. It was simply removed with a hope of it being repurposed.
      Glorifying a racist and a slave owner in the hallways of the library is so much worse than destroying it, and again, to remind you (it seems like you failed to read that part of the article), it is not being destroyed at all, simply moved from one building, to the other one next door.
      And please, what is the false narrative here? This is not for self gratification, this is an act of desperation from a student that actively feels unwelcome in the environment that Sewanee cultivates. Remember, Sewanee wants to be a modern university. It wants diversity, and tries (although terribly) to embrace diversity. Well enlighten me please, how can university strive towards that racial, national, gender diversity, when you have racist slave owners glorified on the walls?
      You managed to use a lot of big words, and still say nothing.

  10. “[S]ince the student in question has decided to hide his/her/their identity.” Again, do not refer to someone as an it! Do not dehumanize someone especially since this is a discussion surrounding racism and slavery. Slaves were dehumanized and were often described as ‘it.’ But, this is all coming from the assumption that that you’re wanting to learn how to not be narrow-minded anymore. It would not be very Sewanee of you if you refuse to learn from your mistakes.

    Again, it was great teaching you!

  11. “You did not invent, build, use your money for the roads and buildings at the University of the South nor facilitate its origin’s in any ways.” Cool, so did you do any of that? Current students are just as, if not more so than us alumni, entitled to shaping Sewanee and its values. Arrest the student? You’re ridiculous. Accept that the Sewanee you knew, where racism wasn’t confronted and everyone was “just blessed to be there”, will die and justly so. The foes aren’t imaginary, in fact you’re one of them. Get lost, Tmiles.

    1. What a gigantic and unspported assumption. Many of us confronted racism on campus and elsewhere decades ago, half a century and more ago, before all you brilliant social warriors existed anywhere except within the mind of God. You look like petulant children putting in a big act to look good and gather approval rather than actually fixing a problem.

      Blaming the problem of racism at Sewanee on dead men, whatever its true magnitude is these days, is your way of dodging your own personal duty and responsibility for loving your neighbor as yourself.

      1. Wrong, sir. You missed the mark so bad. Nobody is blaming dead men. Dead men are dead. But why should dead men be glorified if they were evil? I don’t care for the weak “that was back then” argument, if I recall the history books, a decent bit of the country was against slavery, so a moral compass did exist? hm who knew.

        Refusing to create a safe environment for students of different race because the old alumni cannot stand change, is the direct opposite of loving your neighbor. You’re big on “loving” them in theory, but when it comes to taking action, you fall flat. No wonder Sewanee’s history is rooted in racism, and it is evident what are the opinions of many, now that we have a black VC, and people are finally speaking up and taking action.
        But go ahead and tell me more about how you confronted racism decades ago 🙂

  12. I think it’s funny how simple minded some people can be. I mean come on people, without Polk we wouldn’t even be at this school. Stealing is stealing! I don’t care what your cause is behind what your doing. What my fellow student has done is an act of breaking the law. If I went and stole a car that I finder offensive out of a parking lot but returned it to another I would still be in trouble. This man has done so much more in his life that has benefited all of us. This school, the biggest benefit. Should we just tear down the school now because it was founded and built by a confederate general. If you chose this school then you chose what a confederate general, who was also a Bishop thought would be great school for the south. That way smart kids back in the day could have a place to go in the south that was as prestigious as the schools in the north. Bill I support you 100%. Will I will also say that yes I agree with you but I wouldn’t have said it like that. I would’ve told Andrew that his way of thinking was part of the problem because his statement lacked backing or proper evidence that supports why Bill is part of the problem.
    Thank you, and have a nice day!

    1. C’21, with peace and love, please educate yourself.
      Nobody is tearing down the school. nobody is stealing. the student, and many alumni, me included for that matter, support the idea of that thing simply being repurposed. nobody is erasing history, nobody is discrediting Polk for contributing towards this university. But recognize that glorifying him, a slave owner and a racist, in this time and age cannot be excused.
      How are you people so bitter and upset over recognizing a problematic past and choosing not to glorify it.
      Your example with a car is pretty terrible and not at all relevant to this discussion. Here’s an example you might be able to comprehend: Nobody is denying or erasing what Hitler did, nor is tearing down the buildings he built (if any remain). but show me a statue of him in Germany? I mean you might, if there’s one in a museum, but definitely not in the government building for everyone to see.
      Hope this helps 🙂

    2. What anonymous student did is what John Lewis called good trouble. So proud of him/her/them.

  13. Will the carillon be removed from Shapard Tower? Will Sewanee separate itself from the Episcopal Church?

  14. I read the article, and commentary with interest, tinged with incredulity.

    1) Context matters. Polk was a slave owner, a purveyor of human trafficking. Much like the Confederate flag, imagery that has been used recently to remind certain people of the “good old days” is every bit as harmful as displaying a bust of Hitler or Nazi flag. I defy anyone to claim that Adolf Hitler had any positive attributes worthy of commemoration. There are no public statues of any Nazi leaders.

    Where people fail here, is that statues of Confederate leaders should be viewed the same way. Whatever subsequent positive attributes these men had, remain obscured by the simple fact that they never, to my knowledge, accepted that enslavement of human beings was sinful, and a travesty. Their positive actions do not outweigh their negative actions. They should not be lauded.

    2) Moving this bust, and related imagery to an archive or a museum, allows to have an intelligent discussion about the symbolism behind them. Has anyone considered that most of these statues and paintings came at the dawn of Jim Crow? Or that the painting of Polk, sword and gown, how different the conversation might have been had there been no Confederate uniform?

    3) We are living in a time where such statues and paintings are venerated by a violent, diseased minority who believe theirs is the only narrative, that of white supremacy. They like to engage their followers with such imagery to claim the false narrative that this time in our country was just great for them. That it was an honorable time. What execrable nonsense! (Funny thing, the war was fought by the poor, on behalf of the rich, to support an institution that allowed the rich to hamstring the poor: free forced labor always beats a paid workforce). These people do not need statues in the village square, in the town middens perhaps, but not in a public place.

    Bottom line: good for this student to assist the school in its mission to place such symbology in a place where it could be curated and explained to those so interested. Perhaps unorthodox, but still appropriate. May more follow!

  15. Here is the typical illogic, powered by hatred, engineered by faulty logic and intentionally bad education, that is smothering the American culture that nurtured these very imbeciles before their minds were poisoned.
    The misguided student who removed the Polk statue, seems to have attempted some degree of sensitivity, but no sensibility.
    When he (I presume, but either way, I will continue to use “he” when discussing unidentified humans) states in his letter that “Polk isn’t particularly important to me except…”, he is showing the illogic of his thinking. If Polk creating the school where this student has chosen to build his life’s learning is not “particularly important” to him, he must have really neglected any discretion and effort in selecting the school. Of course Polk is important to this student. If Polk’s life work, embodied in the institution that the student is building his life upon, then it is the deepest hypocrisy to deny the credit Polk deserves for his successful efforts, and for the benefits Polk’s success has bestowed on this cheap-shot student.
    People who detest the values and life accomplishments of others need to do the genuinely rejectful thing – boycott the things those they hate left for later generations. When you want, you even strive to use, the things that others have strived in their lives to leave for your benefit, you are a whore if you then attack, demean, and seek to destroy them once you have got what you wanted from them.

  16. No one wants to boycott Sewanee because Polk had something to do with its founding. That would mean Sewanee would cease to exist. We want Sewanee to grow past Polk and the rest of its racist heritage and continue to thrive in the modern world were all people are equal and equally respected. Taking the Polk bust down is a part of that process, and the student, recognizing that fact, helped it along in a very respectful way. There is no reason now to laude the man despite the fact that he was part of the school’s founding. There is perhaps a reason to examine his role in the founding and consider what it means to the Sewanee community today, which the student also recognized and is probably why the student put it in front of the archives building where it could be included as part of the work of the Roberson Project. Seems like perfectly sound, even wise, reasoning to me. My hope for Sewanee’s future has brightened considerably.

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