Sewanee’s Archives and Archivists

Dr. Woody Register

The University of the South — its students, alumni, local residents, and employees on the faculty and across its many offices and divisions — is most fortunate to have the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections. In my long academic career, I have spent countless hours working in archival collections across the United States. Few collections documenting the history of the host university or institution are as rich in resources and materials as ours here at Sewanee. 

Our collections, I like to say, are unusually deep and wide. But they are far from complete. 

Recently, in an article about the summer interns working for the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, I was quoted in the Purple describing Sewanee’s collection as a “Jim Crow archive,” assembled and preserved by white people for white people. You “have to turn our Archive upside down and inside out,” I said, “to discover any knowledge” about the generations of African American residents who lived in Sewanee, labored for the university or the families of university employees, and contributed in decisive and memorable ways to the flourishing of this college town. All of this, from my experience working in these collections, is not only true but also unsurprising. 

Archives are products of history, and they reflect the decisions, choices, and values of historically situated people who decide what is worth collecting and what is worth ignoring; what should be saved, and what discarded. Our archive, like all other archives, is not a record of the past so much as a reflection of the past. Like the numerous Confederate memorials in cities and towns across the South, they tell two, often very different and conflicting stories: one concerns the subject preserved in the archives, but the more robust usually concerns the historical moment and circumstances when an archivist or collector or donor made the decision to commit these records to posterity. 

That is why anyone looking to our collections to learn about the history of Sewanee’s African American residents has to perform research gymnastics to discover information about Black lives and experiences. For many generations at Sewanee, the white custodians of Sewanee’s history thought what African American people did or thought was incidental to the university’s existence — that is, unless their stories could be shaped into a form that affirmed and complimented the benevolence of Sewanee’s population of superior white people. Rely uncritically on these sources and you will produce a funhouse mirror version of Sewanee’s history. (For more on this topic, I recommend the late Dr. Houston Roberson’s essay, “The Problem of the Twentieth Century: Sewanee, Race and Race Relations,” published ten years ago, or my own contribution to the most recent issue of The Sewanee Review.)

What I should have made absolutely clear in my comments about “Jim Crow” archives is that I was describing our archives, not our archivists. We are fortunate today to have professional and professionally trained archivists — director Mandi Johnson and associate director Matthew Reynolds — who know as well as anyone that our archival collections are incomplete in ways that must be acknowledged and addressed. They also are full and essential partners in the work of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. Hardly a day goes by that someone with the Roberson Project does not turn to them for guidance, assistance, or insight. They are both skilled archivists and knowledgeable historians. They also are fully committed to the larger goals and vision of the Roberson Project. Whether we are on the faculty or staff or among the many students who go there to do research, all of us who are seeking to know more about the university’s history and especially the history of the generations of African American people who helped make Sewanee what it is today are fortunate to have Ms. Johnson and Mr. Reynolds there to work with us. 

These remarks are not meant to cast a shadow on earlier archivists at Sewanee. They, too, made indispensable contributions to diversifying our collections and diversifying whose lives are preserved and represented. These earlier archivists, too, are still valuable resources to whom we turn for help with our research. 

And, finally, in regard to African American history and Sewanee, our archival collections are not totally bereft of records or information. With effort, a sharply critical eye, and patience, much can be learned from our records. Those of us working with the Roberson Project or in kindred endeavors on campus have not exhausted these possibilities. We already have done a lot of work, but there is still more that needs to be done. Lucky for us, we have the support of our archivists to do this work. 

If you are interested in supporting or joining this research project or in helping to collect, preserve, and save Sewanee Black history, please contact us at robersonproject@sewanee.edu to learn about the available opportunities. And visit the online virtual archive, blacksewanee.org, to see how we are working with people from Sewanee’s historic Black neighborhoods to collect, preserve, and disseminate their history.

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