By Meridith Frazee
On September 23, the Vice-Chancellor announced the formation of the Names and Places committee that will examine locations marked with personal honorifics. The Board of Regents authorized the committee to “support their plan for evaluating the University’s past ties to the Confederacy and the ideology of white supremacy underlying it,” stated a letter from the committee co-chairs.
This group of faculty, staff, alumni, and students will carefully examine the way history has been connected to Sewanee’s physical spaces. Their research will be used, in the Vice Chancellor’s words, “to ensure that… there is an appropriate balance between the contribution of the namesakes and the values of our University.”
The committee is headed by a faculty and Regent co-chair, Dr. Deon Miles, chair of the chemistry department, and the Reverend Dr. Gene Manning (T’01). Miles and Manning stated in their letter they began their work in August 2021 and plan to complete the report in June 2022. The report will include an explanation regarding “the appropriateness of existing honorifics” and a “recommendation of whether or not to retain the honorific of each place on the Domain.”
The committee’s report will inform the decisions of the Board of Regents, but the co-chairs wrote that “the Board of Regents have ultimate authority for naming, and renaming, all places on the Domain.” The committee will not be tasked with offering alternative honorifics to places that the recommend to be changed.
They highlighted the importance of collaboration in this process and wanted to ensure that a variety of affiliations with the University were represented in the committee. Student voices on the committee consist of the College’s Student Government Association President, Lakeisha Phillips (C’22) and St. Luke’s Community President Meghan Mazur (T’22). The committee also includes three faculty, two staff, and twelve alumni.
Miles credits the work of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation for helping to guide his awareness of names and history in Sewanee. He notes that a building’s name can serve as “a constant reminder of that person’s history, and what they did in their lifetime, which may not match up with what we see as important values in the University today. That can be a problem for someone who has to study in that building, live in that building.”
The committee is still in the early stages of research and planning. Manning emphasized that they want to be “very intentional about the process.” To this end, committee members have used their meetings thus far to gain a better understanding of the approaches other schools have taken, and the factors that will make Sewanee’s own re- evaluation unique. Miles gave a long and varied list of institutions, from Stanford to Furman to the University of Virginia, that have initiated similar investigations into histories and place names on their campuses. Although these schools’ respective missions are a source of knowledge and inspiration, “We want to develop our own process,” Miles said. “We’re going to be different from any other institution.”
Manning explained that in particular, “the way church is tied into this University adds another element,” that will inform the University’s approach.
As the Names and Places committee begins its work on the institutional level, members of the student body are working to keep these conversations going on campus. The co-chairs have asked committee members to refrain from sharing the specifics of the report’s progress to ensure that all communication between the committee and community is clear and accurate.
The committee co-chairs welcome input from the community via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and are developing additional pathways for communication as the committee’s work progresses.
The mission statement of this committee sends a clear signal about a priori assumptions. May we also assume the founders and others with buildings named in their honor had beliefs, qualities, or accomplishments beyond their presumed white supremacy? Should their commitment to the church, education, or other laudable pursuits be considered?
None of us ever knew any of the people these buildings are named after. But to assume they were all horrible people because they owned slaves is ubiquitous. I am IN NO WAY supporting slavery or any of the reprehensible acts, beliefs, thoughts, and mindsets that we all now know that slavery involved. But it was a completely different world back then, and maybe (just maybe?!) people seriously didn’t know better. It was commonplace and accepted THEN. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. And 100% of us are thankful that is no longer the case. What was common then surely doesn’t make it right now. But look at it this way…. 200 years from now, if eating meat is no longer considered appropriate or normal, will those of us who are not currently vegetarians be viewed as barbaric?
I’ve tried to trace my roots and can’t find any evidence that my ancestors ever owned slaves. For that I am thankful. I do know that at least some of my Irish ancestors were slaves. I never tried to figure out the name(s) of the families my ancestors were sold into because it’s irrelevant. Knowing that information wouldn’t change my views of the world.
My point in responding is this: I believe people—for the most part—are not demonic. I look for the positive in everything because dwelling on the negative only makes us negative. Change building names if you must, but do it for the right reasons.
The issues regarding assigned meaningful locations and their mediated interpretations cannot be examined solely for their links to the generations of familial ownership of enslaved Black individuals, but rather; they must be examined for the systemic racism which is deeply embedded in the patrilineal and matrilineal descent of those same generations of familial owners of enslaved Black individuals. There is an insidious narrative that underscores this conflict and it reads: “Oh, that was another time… it was the way things were done… Black slaves had food, clothing, and shelter…. Black slaves were all treated very well.” Nothing could be more appallingly shameful than the suggestion that any family remain honored for their Christian contributions, so deemed as benefits to culture and society, when those contributions were dispensed by privileges afforded to generations of that family because of the blood and sacrifice of the generations of Black lives, which they enslaved. Furthermore, to disregard the cause and effect between Black slave ownership in the 19th century and the suffering of Black lives in the 20th century, is to remain wholly racist in the 21st century. Leave no stone unturned, dear Sewanee, and let your conscience be your guide. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36 KJV.
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