#savesewaneeblackhistory: Sewanee Archives Redefined

Kristopher Kennedy
Contributing Writer

For the 2021 summer, the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation had four interns: Kate Cheever (C’23), Lillian Eels (C’22), Noah Shivley (C’24), and Delana Turner (C’24), who worked to research Sewanee’s black history. 

Shivley and Turner worked on a trail project for the historic Black neighborhood of Sewanee, St. Mark’s; Cheever worked on gathering information on African-American students who have attended Sewanee since 1961; and Eels worked on a project to create an interactive map of the historic Black cemetery in Sewanee.

This was the first summer since 2019 that the Roberson Project had summer interns; there were none in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Woody Register, director of the Roberson Project and history professor, says the internships are part of the Project’s plan “to engage students in real, hands-on research in summer.”

Register explains, “This summer, we had a grant to support . . . the Roberson Project’s work on the history of Sewanee and slavery, so we ended up being able to have four interns,” compared to three students in past years. Register stresses, “It’s not just a faculty project — we want students contributing.”

The Roberson Project is working in conjunction with the forestry department to construct a trail through central campus all the way to Highway 41 (near where the Sewanee Market is) in order to “memorialize different spaces and places that were significant to the St. Mark’s community, the historically black community of Sewanee,” says Turner. 

This will be called the Heritage Trail, and it will also memorialize the specific paths that members of the St. Mark’s community took. “For example,” Turner says, “they didn’t have running water in their homes — they had to get their water from the duct that’s in central campus — so they took pathways through the woods.” 

During the summer, Register and Dr. Tiffany Momon, a visiting professor of history at the University of the South, led the interns on a campus tour of Sewanee’s African-American community and their history.

“The idea is to alter how students conventionally see this University: they see it through their own experiences, they see it through a history they imagine the University has, but they don’t see it as a place where African-American people have lived and have made contributions,” says Register. “It’s not just a part of the campus, it’s a part of the campus that has meaning because of the memories that people have growing up there and living there.” 

Register says the point of the tour was to give the student interns a second set of eyes for thinking about and imagining the campus.

Turner says, “We don’t want to take the stories of these community members and have the University own it. We want to make sure that the community members have full ownership of their heritage and their story,” and to ensure that “the University is not further invading and intruding — more than they already have — on the black community.” 

Turner adds,  “You have to tailor the work and the way you interact to this particular community, because they’re hurting in a different way.”

According to Turner, an example of an average day working for the Roberson Project looked like this: “You wake up, go to the office, talk about the daily agenda, go to the Archives, find next to nothing because the black community was not recorded on. It’s crazy because we know that it existed; the community knows that these places existed — why is there no record on it?” 

“The historic impact of our Archive is that it is a Jim Crow archive,” says Register. “So even though there were many generations of African-Americans living here and contributing and working and making necessary contributions to enable this University to function . . . up through the 1970s, you have to turn our Archive upside down and inside out to discover any knowledge about these people . . . anything about their lives and experiences.” 

The St. Mark’s community is so poorly represented by the University Archives that the Roberson Project’s summer interns frequently had to stitch things together themselves, based on nothing more than pictures alone. 

Looking ahead at the Roberson Project’s agenda for the coming 2021-22 school year, they have planned an array of events, focusing on the subjects of historic reckoning, racial reconciliation, and reparations. In particular, they will have programming on the nature of archives and libraries: how they operate and limit what is known.

“We also have extensive programming planned on the subject of reparations; not just in terms of colleges and universities, but in terms of the country as a whole,” Register says. ”These are issues of national importance, of beyond national importance, not just the little island of Sewanee here. So for us to be educators and y’all to be students too, we need to participate in these conversations.” 

Turner, in completing a snapshot of the average day working this internship, continues on the St. Mark’s community:

“They’re an aging community . . . a shrinking community,”Turner says, “And sometimes when you can reach them on the phone and you say, ‘I’m a student at the University of the South —’ they hang up, because they want nothing more to do with the University. So it’s like, before I even want to tell them that I’m a student at the University, I want them to know that I’m calling them because I care, and I’m calling them because my intentions are pure, but I can imagine how hard it is for them to believe when every other time before this, the intentions have not been pure, or they’ve been called about a project, and the project never came to be, so they don’t want to be bothered.”

Turner says regarding the community member’s personal stories, “I don’t know that they’ll ever go into the University Archives. I think it’s best to be kept separate, just so people feel like they have ownership . . . like their history matters. It’s not just being thrown in the Archives, where it was white-dominated.” 

This summer, the Roberson Project also launched its own digital archive, blacksewanee.org, with the stated mission of: “Collecting, Preserving, and Telling Stories to Save Sewanee Black History” and the concomitant hashtag of #savesewaneeblackhistory. 

The University of the South has no ownership over the Roberson Project’s new digital archive.

“That is all, in one sense, repairing the gaps, the exclusions, the omissions of our Archive,” Register says. “But it’s also about working with people who have a history with that neighborhood, who descend from that neighborhood, to build a historical record that’s of value to them, independent of the University, so that they can participate in the creation of something that preserves the memory,the history of their lives and their experiences here at Sewanee.” 

The Roberson Project as a whole is now entering its fifth year. 

“This is not just a quaint local project; it’s part of a much larger conversation, and one that has assumed significant importance in the present day,” Register says. “It’s a highly-politicized, highly-conflicted conversation — whether you’re talking about the uproar of so-called ‘Critical Race Theory,’ or the uproar over Confederate monuments and memorials — all of this is about how we talk about the history of race in this country, the history of racism in this country, and we want our students engaged in these conversations in an informed and meaningful way. 

“They’re not just subjects for the classroom inside the closed doors, these are subjects for our lives and our ability to function as engaged and committed citizens.”

4 comments

  1. Thank you for this.. When I was in seminary at Sewanee–1966-69, I wrote my Optime Merins paper on The Attitude of the Church toward the N*gro: From Slavery to the Present…thank God and you that things are changing..

  2. From January 2020 to July 2021, I was the processing archivist in the William R Laurie Special Collections Library. I will concur that there is not much material that I saw outside of the traditional patriarchal perspective, but for Dr Register to say, “up through the 1970s, you have to turn our Archive upside down and inside out to discover any knowledge about these people” is totally disingenuous to the work accomplished under the auspices of Dr John Grammer and the Southern Studies Program.

    Without looking through ArchivesSpace, off the top of my head, I processed collections about Willie Six, Ely Green, Highlander Folk School AND Houston Roberson himself. The three prior all date to pre-1970.

    Also, as a former journalist, it also annoys me to no end that this reporter spoke to Tiffany and Dr Register (both of whom I liked) and not Mandi Johnson, director of the archive, nor Matt Reynolds, the associate director. Doesn’t it make sense to speak to an archivist about archival collections?

    I have spent my archival career working to build restorative and repairative archives where ideas can be discussed freely concerning archival materials and here this reporter totally craps on the work I did while I was employed at Sewanee.

    1. Apologies, she is Dr Momon. The few times I met her, she asked me to call her Tiffany. Her title was hard earned through her work and dedication and I respect that.

      Also,the university archives does have materials concerning the Saint Mark’s community processed and available for patron viewing in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee Collection. Is it everything? No. Is it what the university has on hand? Yes. Is it a start? Absolutely.

      Your archivists have made incredible gains in the last two years, meticulously documenting the Black Lives Matter movement, the campus protest earlier in 2021, the election and investiture of Dr Brigedy and how COVID-19 is impacting the campus. At the same time, they are reframing the narratives around the already existing, traditional, patriarchal collections for use in reconciliation projects and campus issues– like what happened with the Leonidas Polk bust earlier this year. During my time at Sewanee, the underrepresented voices within the archival holdings were given priority for processing, including the aforementioned collections, as well as progressive female voices from the turn of the 20th century, which are available for viewing. I also processed the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace materials, which are also available for viewing. Just email and ask to see them.

      Archives work is slow, with each collection having specific needs, usually in physically preserving the materials so that they are stable and won’t fall apart when patrons access them. Additionally, we work hard to adequately describe (but not interpret) materials so patrons can maximize their time working in the archive.

      Archivists are often underappreciated in favor of what historians who use the resources have to say. Many times institutions do not have adequate staff or time to process materials at a consistent rate. Sewanee, Tennessee, the US and the world are changing rapidly, so rest assured, Mandi and Matt DO CARE about representation at the university archive and are working diligently to help researchers who come to visit.

      By the way: Matt and Mandi put up an exhibit about the Highlander Folk School in the duPont Library. You all should go check it out.

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