A Lot of Truth for a Tuesday Morning
Descendants of a slave trading family come to Sewanee to search for their history and find it tangled up with the University’s own painful truth about its founding.
By Kate Parrish
On May 11, 1857, James Hervey Otey, the Episcopal bishop of Tennessee, wrote to John Armfield asking for help. Otey, along with Leonidas Polk, the bishop of Louisiana, was interested in starting a university for the sons of elite Southern planters—a school that would both build upon the traditions of the Episcopal Church and reinforce slavery as a vital institution to be upheld and protected.
But Bishop Otey couldn’t do it alone. He would need money. And he would need connections.
“The truth is,” Otey wrote to Armfield, “that we need the experience of practical knowledge of men who have engaged in worldly pursuits in the formation and execution of many of our plans connected with the department of education; and I hope you will not withhold from us your aid when we call for it.”
Armfield, along with his close friend and business partner, Isaac Franklin, had once been part owner of the largest and most prominent slave trading operation in the United States, Franklin & Armfield. It is estimated that the pair, in business from 1828 to 1836, imprisoned and sold around 10,000 black individuals from their headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.
More than 160 years later, Susanna Grannis, 80, and her brother Tom Whitney, 82, descendants of the Franklin family, arrived in Sewanee on a search for greater truth about their family, its troubling past, and its connection to the University of the South.
Quiet chatter had circulated throughout the family for years about their relationship to Franklin & Armfield and the slave trading business. Some were more willing to discuss it than others, but for Whitney, a retired pediatrician living in South Paris, Maine, Grannis, a retired educator in Stuyvesant Falls, New York, and four other descendants, the time had come to more publicly own their family’s past.
Isaac Franklin’s niece, Martha, was married to John Armfield. Martha’s brother, John W. Franklin, was the father of Whitney and Grannis’s great-grandmother, Adele. Adele and her two siblings were sent to live with the Armfields and were raised as their foster children after their mother died.
In September 2017, six of the Franklin descendants met in Alexandria at the Freedom House Museum, formerly the office of Franklin & Armfield and a slave pen for people who would soon be shipped or marched to Mississippi and Louisiana. Freedom House, now a National Historic Landmark and owned by the Northern Virginia Urban League, serves as a reminder to visitors of the atrocities of slavery. Increasingly disturbed by their family’s history and subsequent generations-long silence, the descendants, after contacting the museum, met there in an effort to begin their reconciliation efforts.
“We were aware of our ancestry and our complicity,” says Whitney. “We got involved with this museum, and we said we know and we acknowledge, and this is the truth. So, then what happens?”
The family toured the museum, donated the few items they believed to be from the Franklin household still in their possession, and offered written amends to all those who suffered at the hands of their ancestors. There was more work to do, though. There was more to understand.
Rather than take their annual family vacation to Edisto Island, South Carolina, Whitney, Grannis, and their spouses decided to come to Sewanee instead. They were on a fact-finding and fact-facing mission.
“We’re here as an outcome of our encounter in Alexandria last September,” says Whitney. “In my own mind, what I am after at least, is something called the truth, which means the historical truth, and also means a continuum of this history of racial oppression, slavery until the present day. This is an exploration—a tiny, tiny exploration of one family, one tiny segment of a family along that road.”
On May 1, 2018, the group gathered inside All Saints’ Chapel to meet with Woody Register, C’80, the Francis S. Houghteling Professor of American History and director of the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, and Tanner Potts, C’15, research associate for the project. Register and Potts, along with the rest of the contributors to the project, are working “to make public Sewanee’s history before, during, and after the Civil War throughout Jim Crow segregation.”
Born out of a 2016 effort on campus to more deeply examine issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion, the project began initially as a task force to identify campus monuments and memorials to the Confederacy. The task force also put forth recommendations on how to address and treat these tributes moving forward. In July 2017, in response to a need for more clarity and greater insight into Sewanee’s past, the project was officially launched.
Grannis and Whitney’s research into their own family eventually led them to Register and the project.
Potts, who is heading up much of the research component of the project, says they’re working toward three primary initiatives over a six-year period. The first is to conduct archival research to grasp the University’s fuller and more truthful history in regards to slavery and race. The project aims to then help develop new courses and programming on campus. The final piece is to engage the local community, the larger Sewanee community including alumni, and the Episcopal Church in conversation about race and reconciliation.
Seated along the first and second rows of All Saints’, with a student practicing the organ in the background, Register and Potts share with Grannis, a lifelong Episcopalian, her brother, and their guests what they have started to uncover in their first year of archival research into Sewanee’s origins, including the Franklin & Armfield connection.
“Armfield is sort of our most notorious pre-war benefactor,” says Potts. “He is one that we knew about and knew enough about to centralize him in our historical research.”
In July 1856, 10 months before Otey wrote Armfield asking him to join the Board of Trustees of a new university, Polk had written to his fellow slaveholding bishops with a growing concern about the anti-slavery movement. He urged them to support efforts to start a Southern and Episcopal university. Its every aspect, Register says, was to reflect the needs and interests of what Polk called the “plantation States.” Polk envisioned a university press that would produce literature “especially adapted to our field, for the defence and maintenance of our distinctive principles.” No one reading that declaration at the time, Register explains, would have failed to understand that a belief in the moral and Christian rightness of slavery lay at the heart of those principles. The trustees, he continues, would later declare that their vital cause was to build a university “for the land of the sun and the slave” that would “vindicate the Southern States” from the perception that a slaveholding civilization was founded on “ignorance and barbarism.”
Polk and Otey, bolstered by the support of the Episcopal Church, set out to build their board. Two years earlier in 1854, Armfield, retired from slave trading for more than two decades, had acquired Beersheba Springs about 30 miles northeast of Sewanee, with the goal of transforming it into an elite resort town. By serving on the Board of Trustees, Armfield, interested in drawing more traffic to his latest venture, would then be better positioned to reach this goal, though getting from Sewanee to Beersheba would have required a full day's travel.
After the first meeting of the board in 1857, a committee on location was formed to select a site for this new Southern university. Although Armfield was not on that committee, he nonethelss influenced the decision.
“It was like Amazon today picking a city,” says Potts. “Who could give them the biggest break?” Archival records revealed that Huntsville offered $100,000 in cash; Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, also offered cash; Cleveland, Tennessee, offered a stake in its copper company along with land, money, and credit toward freight on the local railroad. But the University, persuaded by Armfield, who had also pledged $25,000, ultimately selected Sewanee, then called University Place.
“The University would be placed here, which would secure Armfield’s gift,” says Potts. “And Armfield, who ran the resort in Beersheba Springs, could then profit by offering the University as an attraction.” The University was intended not only to be an institution of higher education but also as a hub for Southern aristocracy. Beersheba Springs’ proximity to the University would serve Armfield better than the competing cities.
“John Armfield was sought out. Otey was the principal figure here who cultivated a relationship with him. Otey praised him, flattered him for his business acumen, his wealth of experience, his worldliness. All of those talents that he brought with him had come from his earlier career [as a slave trader],” adds Register. “Everyone knew who Armfield was. Everyone knew where the Franklins came from. So Armfield was most valuable, not for the money he gave to the University, but for the connections he had, the experience he had, his ability to persuade and establish this University here.”
For everyone involved in the founding of the University, this was just the beginning of something much bigger. This was an opportunity for the University to become a center of intellectual and cultural life not just of the South, but the world, says Register.
But Armfield was not the University’s only antebellum benefactor.
Potts’s research has uncovered that 292 individuals—including governors, judges, priests, and land speculators—pledged support to the University. About one-third of the 292 names have been identified to date. Register and Potts estimate that the identified third of pledgers collectively held more than 30,000 people in bondage. That number could rise to 80,000 or more when the nearly 300 pledgers are combined.
“The University was founded to be a University for a slaveholding civilization,” says Register. “It was founded in the interest of slaveholders for the benefit of slaveholders. [The founders] were not uncomfortable with the centrality of slavery to this endeavor, just the opposite.”
Inside All Saints’, the student practicing the organ has stopped for the day. It is quieter now. Franklin’s descendants listen intensely. It is a lot of truth for a Tuesday morning.
In what would become a providential encounter, while walking through campus the day before, a fifth member of the descendants’ group, Bill Dickinson, a friend of Whitney and a Freedom House supporter, commented on the school’s beauty to a passerby. The passerby was Vice-Chancellor John McCardell, who invited Dickinson and the rest of the group to his office the next day to share more about their journey.
“As your work proceeds and as you establish more connections that we may now know about between your family and this University,” McCardell tells the group, “I want to be sure that is acknowledged in an appropriate and in a generous way that pulls no punches, that is based on the historical record, and assists you even as it assists us in wrestling with our past, which we can’t change but we can learn from.”
As the group departs Walsh-Ellett Hall, led by Register and Potts, groups of twos and threes break off into separate conversations. There is much to discuss and still more to take in.
Later in the University Archives and Special Collections building, the group hovers around the various documents Register and Potts have pulled—letters from Otey to Armfield, maps of Sewanee, and architectural plans for the to-be-built University.
On Oct. 10, 1860, the cornerstone for the University was laid. Less than six months later, the Civil War would begin. Building plans ceased as everyone’s attention turned to the war. After the war ended in 1865, the founders were left to build a university in the absence of its original and primary purpose.
“Without slavery there’s really no purpose for the University. They had to reinvent a new purpose after the Civil War,” says Register. “We still think there’s more work to be done to understand how they reformulated it. They had tremendous difficulty opening the University.” Time was running out on the land charter from the Sewanee Mining Company and there was no money. Few of the people who had offered financial support before the war made good on their pledges, and after the war, convincing people to contribute to a University was no longer the easy sell it had been in the late 1850s.
But on Sept. 18, 1868, with the help of American and English benefactors committed to supporting a university rooted in the Episcopal faith, the University of the South opened. John Armfield died three years later. Isaac Franklin had died in 1846, years before Beersheba Springs, the notion of a university, or the Civil War. His wife, Adelicia, went on to marry Joseph Alexander Smith Acklen and later became the wealthiest woman in Tennessee. The Acklens, like Armfield, were among the original 292 pledgers, also pledging $25,000 to the University.
Over a late lunch in McClurg Dining Hall, Grannis and Whitney go back and forth, trading the unexpected turns of the day. Grannis is surprised by both the depth of commitment of the Church to preserve slavery and the relationship between Armfield and the founding bishops.
“It wasn’t a matter of money,” says Grannis. “It was using his expertise to help them get started.”
“And that [Armfield] had a vision for the region and the South,” adds Whitney.
As the discoveries of the day continue to add up, the difficult and complex nature of the project settles in around the Franklin descendants. “This is much more complicated than other universities,” says Grannis. “It’s a real challenge.”
Once home from Sewanee, Grannis planned to gather the next generation of descendants, eager for an update, to share what she and her brother learned on their pilgrimage for the truth about their family. They will continue to support Freedom House in whatever ways they can. For Register and Potts, as they approach the first anniversary of the project’s kickoff, they’ve only begun to scratch the surface of their work.
“The ultimate aim [of the project],” says Register, “is to know our history better, and then to determine as a community what obligations that history places on us if we are to fulfill our stated mission as an educational institution—as one that shapes the character of our students, as an institution that aims to be inclusive, and to be [an institution] for the South, and the nation, in the 21st century.”
As for the truth?
“We’re historians, so our approach to it is that you never arrive at truth finally. We have an empirical approach: the evidence and material of this era. We start from a basic position—call it a belief if you want—that slavery was not and could not be peripheral to an endeavor like this. No relationship in the antebellum South could be separated from slavery,” says Register. “It’s like trying to remove threads from a piece of cloth. It’s all bound together.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Armfield served on the committee selecting the University's location; he did not. The current story also has been edited to clarify the "distinctive principles" of the University that its proposed press would disseminate through its literary publications.