A Sewanee Angel: Shirley Taylor approaches fifty years with University

Derby Carlson 
Executive Staff

Normally, you can find Shirley Taylor on the second floor of Fulford, where she works as the office manager for the Office of Admissions. Currently in her 49th year of employment at the University, Taylor is a Sewanee native with a deep love for her home. While Taylor is out of the office now recovering from knee surgery, she welcomed me to her home to share her story. She sat across from me in a reclining chair, a smile ever present on her face while we talked about her life and family in Sewanee.

Taylor has lived in Sewanee her entire life. She currently lives in St. Marks, the historically Black neighborhood of Sewanee. She attended Sewanee Elementary, Franklin County High School, and then went to Cumberland College in Lebanon, Tennessee. There, she was the first Black person to attend the school.  

“It was good,” said Taylor. “The girls did not mistreat me or anything like that. So, I didn’t have a problem with that.” 

After graduation, she returned to Sewanee and has worked for the University since September of 1972. (49 years and counting!)

“Coming back home… Sewanee is my home and I love it here,” said Taylor. “I love the peace and quiet and everything. I don’t have to worry about the hustle and bustle and everything. I mean, I would be crazy if I lived in Nashville.” 

Throughout our conversation, her passion and love for her family shone through her words. She spoke of her 5 siblings and her extended family, all of whom have left Sewanee. (At one point, she showed me photos of her niece, who is a toy model!) She says her family members who have moved away still consider Sewanee their home. 

“We had a thing going on when my mother was alive, that every two years, the whole family would come home, and we’d have a big Christmas dinner,” said Taylor. “But my mother died in 2015, and so it’s been harder on all of us.” 

As it became harder to join the family together in Sewanee, Taylor started to visit her family to make up for this loss. She recently visited her niece in Austin, Texas this May. But, between her work in Admissions and her dedication to working in the Sewanee community, Taylor still has strong ties to her home. 

“Working in admissions for me has been fun,” Taylor said. “I’ve learned a lot, but I supervise 10 to 12 work-study students. They keep me young. I mean, I enjoy it so much.” 

She spoke about how she bakes her work-study students treats for their birthdays: a cake and a batch of cookies to share with all the students. Everything is all homemade with a sprinkle of love. 

Outside of the office, she works on the Community Council, a position she has held for ten years since being appointed by Vice-Chancellor Jon McCardell. The Community Council works to promote civic development resolve issues among the Sewanee community. As a long-time community member and University employee, Taylor sometimes sees tension.

“It’s just that the community… they just don’t listen,” said Taylor. She then spoke on the potential Verizon cell tower that has been in the works for some time now. “It’s painful. Let’s use common sense. We are a campus, a university campus. The students need cell towers to be able to call. Yeah, everybody can’t have AT&T because it may not be in the area that you came from.”  

She also volunteers for the Roberson Project, whose mission is “to recover, preserve, and publicly share the 160-plus-year record of the African American people who lived and worked in this university community and helped shape its history.” 

“Working with the Roberson Project has been really enlightening,” said Taylor. “There’s a lot of things I didn’t know… a lot of things I did know.” 

In 2018, Shirley Taylor went with Dr. Woody Register (C’80) and Klarke Stricklen (C’22), a Truman Scholar and the Roberson Project’s research assistant, to North Carolina for a convention. 

“I said, well, why do you need me to go?” said Taylor. A bashful smile morphed onto her face. “Then, he tells me when we get there: ‘Shirley, you are doing a presentation.’ I said: ‘I’m doing what?’” She laughed. “I said: ‘You didn’t tell me this before.’ I said: ‘I need to get out of work to go with this. I would probably say no. I’m not going because I’m not the best at doing presentations.’”   

She paused and her face stilled. 

“I’m glad that they have been doing a lot more things about Black history,” said Taylor. “I think a lot of people are upset or don’t understand it, you know if you have a town and your Black population gets smaller. You wonder what’s going on, but you know a lot of people act like there were never hardly Black people here, but there were.” 

When she was growing up, there were a lot more Black families on campus. However, they normally only worked for the dining hall (they were called “Cooks” not “Chefs”) or custodial staff. People started to leave. 

“When kids grew up,” said Taylor, “they knew there was nothing for them job-wise.” 

Now, she hopes that the University’s diversity keeps improving. 

“I think the Vice-Chancellor… he’s on the right track and I like what he’s doing. A lot of people don’t like it because people don’t understand it,” said Taylor. She spoke passionately of how the school has fallen from in the US World College and University Rankings. “He’s just trying to get us back up the chain instead of letting us keep falling down the chain. To do that, you’ve got to have diversity.”

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