The Roberson Project wants you to know your history

Bella Francois
Executive Staff

For the past four years, the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, a research endeavor to investigate the University’s history with slavery and the Lost Cause, has been doing meaningful work to promote a better understanding of Sewanee’s past. Now, as a result of the racial epithets uttered at the lacrosse game and the protests that followed, a broader set of the Sewanee community has realized that it must confront the university’s history with slavery. 

Many have focused on the presence of monuments to the Confederacy or Lost Cause in public spaces. One anonymous student removed a sculpture of Leonidas Polk from duPont library that was donated by white supremacist Jack Kershaw, and placed it in the care of the University Archives building with a letter addressed to Dr. Woody Register (C’ 80), director of the Roberson Project. 

This sculpture and many other monuments, paintings, artifacts, and buildings on Sewanee’s campus are all subjects of research for the Roberson Project.  The project not only researches these symbols, but incorporates them into wider understandings of Sewanee’s history, including the long history of Black families on the Domain.

“We provide the context. The historical context for a building like Walsh- Ellett or for the paintings in Convocation Hall, but we also provide the context for the questions that we have to address, important questions like the question of reparations or the question of how to approach the subject of memorials or how or why we need to focus on Sewanee’s Black history,” explained Dr. Woody Register. 

While students have voiced frustration over the presence of Confederate monuments on campus, Register suggested that students can contribute by becoming a more active part of the work of the Roberson Project. The project includes not only faculty and staff, but undergraduate and theology students who can conduct research on Sewanee’s history and share their findings with peers on campus.

“Students need to know that we can’t do all of the work ourselves. They can’t expect to outsource all of these issues to us, they have to help us out. They have to come to our events. They have to seek out ways to learn. It’s not just a matter of us delivering, if they’re interested, there are ways to get involved and there are ways to make a difference,” Register continued. 

With the context that the Roberson Project provides, students can be better equipped to have conversation and make change regarding racial issues in the Sewanee community because they are beginning to understand the University’s history. 

“I think that because we’ve done so much work and because we’ve done so much public education and public history work, it is part of the conversation. The University’s history is part of the conversation” said Register. 

Not only does the Roberson project provide context for the history of the University, it also provides a forum for discussion about race at Sewanee. Recently, they hosted a discussion with former Sewanee students Jumoke (Bubba) Ifetayo (C’87), Southeast Representative of N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America), and David Johnson (C’19), Policy Student at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago and former Thomas J. Watson Fellow. 

In this Zoom forum, Ifetayo and Johnson discussed a variety of issues, including how the University should respond to its history.

“Sewanee has a role in producing elected officials who are going to impact society as well as business leaders and others who shape public policy. So I think that it is very important that part of the reparations that universities can do is by educating people around the issues of systemic racism and including it in the curriculum,” said Ifetayo. 

Ifetayo then went on to praise the work of the Roberson Project, explaining that it is important for Sewanee students to understand the history of the people whom their dorms, parks, and monuments are named after. Once students know their history, Ifetayo says, they can begin to question and reframe narratives of the University founding that include the history of the Black community. 

For those evaluating the history of the University, it is about claiming ownership over your history as a student, an alumnus, or a faculty member, and feeling a responsibility to engage with that history honestly.

“We want to tell this history. We want it to become part of what Sewanee students know about their university. […] It’s about taking responsibility for the place that you are in. It’s about understanding [Sewanee’s] history better and then knowing what you need to do as a student, a graduate of Sewanee in order to respond to that history,” Register concluded.

Staff members of Roberson Project and the Editor-in-Chief of The Sewanee Purple will join for Coffee & Conversation at the Community Engagement House on Thursday, April 1 to discuss Sewanee history and monuments.