On Saturday, September 4, The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation held its third community history reunion day focused on the St. Mark’s community. The purpose of this event was to not only gather in and grow as a larger community but also to continue to document the crucial role of African-American history in Sewanee.
In addition to providing resources to collect data and documents such as photographs, newspapers, and other personal memorabilia, the event provided a space for open and honest discussion about the Project and Save Sewanee Black History, the archive space where the documents were uploaded. There was also a BBQ lunch in recognition of Labor Day the following Monday.
The students, faculty members, and volunteers involved in the Roberson Project also hosted a Q&A session. The entire Sewanee community was invited to attend to learn more about the project, as well as how to get more involved in the collection of information of still uncovered moments in the past to better understand and lead in the present and future.
The Roberson Project started in 2017 and has evolved to engage with the community in new ways, with, then community reunions beginning in 2019 and the community archive project launching in 2021. Now, there are over 200 items in the archive, mainly family photos and scrapbooks, which illustrate life in Sewanee and the communities here.
Lillian Eells (C’22), a history major, started working with the Roberson Project this summer as an intern. She says, “We each had our own research projects, but I looked at the University Cemetery which was segregated until 1963, and still basically remains segregated today.” She continues, “We are working with a member of the IT team to create an interactive map with biographies and some information about the places themselves. This summer I was working on trying to get general information on the cemetery.”
Eells described the Labor Day reunion, saying, “We’ve had two digitalization days, which also act as community reunions for St. Mark’s, which is a historically Black neighborhood. In the late 90s, many members began moving away, so it’s spread apart. This day is meant to continue to collect data.”
Some of the stations at the event include a mapping activity, where attendees can write about a place in Sewanee that is important to their lives. There is also a family tree project. Eells explained, “We have family trees, but because the entries are mainly through Ancestry.com, they sometimes are missing brackets. This allows people to add to them and provide more detailed information.”
Oral histories are another station, which allows participants to record their stories in their own voice. “This format means that it can also be preserved for years and shared with more people,” Eells says.
Silas McClung (C’24) was at the event volunteering, and says, “We had training for volunteering and working, which involved two info sessions with volunteers. I was trained with everyone to ensure we did this in the best way possible and to make sure we share these stories in the best way possible, to as many people as possible.”
Dr. David Stark, a professor of Homiletics at the School of Theology and volunteer for the event says he wants to “think about how to use what I’m learning during this volunteering in my teaching, and how to integrate this into this Sewanee community as a whole.”
October Kamara is a research associate with the Roberson Project and is completing her masters at MTSU. The express purpose of the community days, she says, include creating a “Digital archive, called Black Sewanee, where residents or former residents can get the community back together and get their information to ensure it’s community driven.”
Kamara says, “We’ ‘ve had a lot of community participation, which is important because the University has overlooked the part that the Black community has played in the history of Sewanee. People have been eager to share what they have.”
She continues, “We’re excited to do more events like this and do more events where University students and faculty come to learn about our collective history…”“We collect this history and these stories, and hopefully the University will start to add this history to the mainstream history. We are also happy for community members to upload or email with items they would like added.”