By Claire Smith
As University Archives employees reported for work early Tuesday morning, they discovered that a sculpture of Leonidas Polk had been removed from duPont library by a student and placed on the Archives’ porch. Director of University Archives and Special Collections Mandi Johnson was pleased that a monument to Polk would be stored in the Archives, where it can be stored and contextualized.
However, as she investigated the history of the piece, Johnson realized it was created and donated in the 1950s by white supremacist Jack Kershaw, who later defended the killer of Martin Luther King, Jr., in court and founded a white nationalist hate group. She said, “I want to be upfront about this history. All I can say is I’m horrified. It’s one thing to have a bust of the founder, but it’s another thing to know that the sculptor was this person.”
Unaware of the history of the sculpture’s creation, an anonymous student decided to remove the likeness of Polk because of his place in Sewanee history as a Confederate general and prominent slaveholder. Dr. Woody Register (C’80), Director of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, explained that, among many Confederate figures, Polk is a particularly powerful figure within University history and Confederate memory.
Polk is remembered in Sewanee history as the Fighting Bishop, who resigned his position as Bishop of Louisiana and metaphorically strapped his sword over his bishop’s gown to serve as a Confederate General in the Civil War. After his death in 1864, Polk became a “potent figure in the Lost Cause and in the neo-Confederacy,” Register said. “Polk was a defender of slavery as an instrument of God’s will, and he was especially hostile toward those who called slavery sinful. His memory has historically been venerated in a way where he in his very body links Christianity and slavery.”
While most founders of the University were both slaveholders and Confederates, Polk was also controversial in his own lifetime for serving as an Episcopal Bishop while enslaving at least 200 people on his plantations in Louisiana. His status as one of the largest slaveholders in the United States made him particularly successful as a Bishop in Louisiana and helped him secure donations from other wealthy slaveholders to endow the University of the South.
Klarke Stricklen (C’22), a student research assistant at the Roberson Project and member of the NAACP and 213-A leaders said, “I think if you’re going to focus on Polk, you have to see him as both a founder and enslaver and you have to question what that means for the University. Why, for so long, was he just seen as a founder instead of an enslaver? He brought so much from his position as an enslaver into the University that they can never be separate.”
Though archivists were aware of Polk’s history, the removal of his sculpture prompted Johnson to search through archival material to find information about the piece’s particular history. One document of art pieces on campus said the sculpture was created in 1952 with the artist “Kerchaw,” a name Johnson could not find elsewhere in databases. “Most of the pieces that we have were donated by a family member or someone with a long association with the University, which is what I was expecting in this case,” Johnson said.
She realized, however, that the listing was a misspelling of the name Kershaw. This led to a handful of archival sources from the 1930s and 50s, including pieces in the Sewanee Alumni News and Nashville Tennessean that announced that a bronze head of Leonidas Polk had been created and donated to the University by “Jack Kershaw, distinguished Nashville sculptor.”
Kershaw donated the sculpture in the spring of 1952, one of the most turbulent times in the history of the University, Register said. Months after Kershaw’s sculpture was accepted by the University, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution opposing integrating the School of Theology, which prompted eight faculty members to resign. Stricklen commented, “I think the timing of the donation is interesting because it was a direct symbol of resistance. It was not only an act of resistance by the person donating it, but by accepting it the College reaffirmed that resistance.”
John Karl “Jack” Kershaw was a professional artist at the time he donated Polk’s sculpture in 1952, and University archival material only includes his connections to the University as an artist. However, when Johnson searched his name online, she was troubled to find that Kershaw was, beginning in the 1950s onward, a well-known and outspoken white supremacist.
Kershaw was an active supporter of segregation in Tennessee by 1956-57, and served as vice-chairman of the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government, the state’s foremost massive resistance group to integration. The Federation was chaired by Southern Agrarian poet Donald Davidson, who wrote an essay advocating for racial segregation in The Sewanee Review.
In the following years, Kershaw attended Nashville School of Law and became an attorney. In 1977, he represented James Earl Ray, who pleaded guilty in 1969 for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. In a new trial, Kershaw claimed that his client had been an unwitting participant in the assassination of the civil rights leader, mostly employing conspiracy theories to support his case. He also served as an attorney for the Ku Klux Klan during its revival in Nashville in the 1970s and 80s, Register said.
In the 1990s, Kershaw co-founded the League of the South, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group described as a Neo-Confederate white supremacist organization. The LOS was founded and remains influenced by white Southern academics who advocate for elite white control of the South through a “veneer of professorial respectability.”
In 1998, Kershaw unveiled a 25-foot-high statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, outside of Nashville, Tennessee. The statue has been widely ridiculed both for portraying a white supremacist figure and for its distorted, cartoonish appearance. Kershaw later defended the statue by saying, “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery.”
Register commented that memorials to the Confederacy like Kershaw’s “aren’t about the Confederacy, they are about the present.” In this case, he says, the history of Polk’s sculpture tells us less about Polk and more about “how college-educated, elite, white Southerners were thinking about race and the changes that African-Americans were trying to bring about in the civil rights movement.”
In a 2003 interview in Southern Cultures, Kershaw described the importance of his art for expressing Southern identity: “Well I feel that art, properly expressed, is a part of a community, in a certain sense. Art is the result of what is around us, and what is around “us” here is not what is around “us” in New York City or Paris. There should be such a thing as Southern art.” He elaborated, “I have never been able to feel surrounded by abstractions… [Art] is movement and conflict and power symbolized, and symbol is the key.”
In addition to his work as an artist, Kershaw was interested in Southern culture and literature, and was affiliated with the Southern Agrarians and the Fugitives. His family obituary lists Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle among members Kershaw knew, both of whom were editors of the Sewanee Review and influential commentators on Southern culture. Tate, Lytle, and Davidson were all authors of I’ll Take My Stand, the Southern Agrarian manifesto that has been widely criticized as defending the Lost Cause.
Kershaw and the college-educated figures he collaborated with believed in political expression that demonstrated respectability and restraint. He said of his segregationist organization, “It was not a collection of rednecks, by any means, which is the charge leveled at all Southern organizations.” He said, “The temptation in having such a group anywhere is to excite the masses, rabble-rouse, in other words, and the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government avoided that approach. We kept the discussion at an adult level, informed adult level.”
The anonymous student who removed Polk’s likeness commented on the discovery: “I’m really excited that we know that now. That’s made it feel really worth it.” They continued, “I don’t think that you can say having racist symbols on campus is the reason we are in this situation right now, but it doesn’t help. People ultimately have a right to say ‘this is the type of environment I want in the school I go to.’ And it shouldn’t just be dictated by alumni who don’t go here anymore.”
Stricklen, sitting in duPont library, said, “This is a hostile working environment. We have a line of white mens’ portraits in the library who believed in Lost Cause narratives, and they’re looking down on you while you’re in a space where you’re supposed to work and be a fully functioning student.”
She said, “For so long, people have gaslighted Black students and faculty in the act of saying racism isn’t here, and now it’s being shown in full force. So, the next question is ‘What are we going to do about it?’”