By Claire Smith
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.”
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.
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.