The Project's History

The roots of the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation are in the work begun during the 2015-2016 academic year, when students, faculty, and staff began a robust engagement with campus issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, especially concerning race. In response to these initial endeavors, the Provost appointed ten task forces in the spring of 2016 to study an array of related topics. One of the task forces focused on identifying campus monuments and memorials to the Confederacy and making recommendations on how the university such treat such tributes to its past. The provost followed up on these reports by appointing the Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Cohesion to evaluate and guide initiatives that emerged from the task force studies.

St. John’s Episcopal Church, completed in 1842 on the Rev. Leonidas Polk’s Ashwood plantation near Columbia, Tennessee, is an enduring testament to the labor, ingenuity, and craft of men and women held in bondage. St. John’s was not a regular Episcopal church, but a “plantation chapel.” It was built to realize Polk’s aspiration for an upliftingly beautiful place of worship, where he could minister to the members of the Polk families, including the 200-plus persons they held in slavery on their four plantations. Constructed between 1839 and 1842, the chapel was entirely the work of the slaves at Polk’s plantation, who made every component, from the bricks in the walls to the pews inside. A Union army officer, Captain Adolph Metzner,of the 32nd Indiana, drew this sketch of the chapel as his troops passed through Maury County in early 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation Project grew out of these early and important efforts. In late summer 2016 Vice-Chancellor John M. McCardell, Jr. and then-Provost John Swallow, C ’89, arranged for Sewanee to join the “Universities Studying Slavery.” This international consortium consists of public and private institutions that have begun examining the “historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality” on their respective campuses. Woody Register, a 1980 graduate of the college and currently Francis S. Houghteling Professor of American History, and Tanner Potts, C ’15, administrative assistant in the Executive Offices, attended the consortium meeting at the College of William and Mary in September 2016.

Upon returning to campus,  Register immediately began planning Sewanee’s own institutional initiative. The following March  Register submitted a proposal for a six-year project, beginning July 2017. That endeavor aims to explore and make public Sewanee’s history, before, during, and after the Civil War through the century of Jim Crow segregation. In accepting the proposal, Vice-Chancellor McCardell and Provost Swallow named  Register the Project’s director and Mr. Potts its research and administrative assistant. Sewanee’s Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation is now among the most ambitious and far-reaching undertaken by a liberal arts college.

Why Sewanee?

Sewanee has a distinctive history that compels attention to the questions and challenges the Project undertakes to address. The University of the South has had two “foundings.” The first, in 1856-1857, was led by the Episcopal bishops in the southern states and occurred in the midst of—and in response to—the social, cultural, and political crisis prompted by the impassioned and increasingly violent conflict over the future of slavery in the United States. The second founding, in 1867-1868, was launched in the aftermath of the Civil War, the political and military destruction of the Confederacy, the collapse of the slaveholding society and liberation of nearly four million enslaved African-Americans. Sewanee’s earliest history, then, was inseparable from what historians have called the “second American Revolution,” which destroyed slavery and temporarily established equal citizenship in the United States without reference to race.

The local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the funds to erect a memorial to CSA General Edmund Kirby Smith. The memorial, draped in flags of the Confederacy, was dedicated on May 16, 1940, at a ceremony presided over by Vice-Chancellor Alexander Guerry and the Rt. Rev. Henry J. Mikell, the university’s chancellor and Bishop of Atlanta. Uniformed cadets from the Sewanee Military Academy watch from the left. Recently the university relocated the memorial  to the University Cemetery from its prominent place on University Avenue.

The earliest histories of the University have omitted or downplayed the ways in which slavery was knit into the very fabric of its design and founding, emphasizing instead the spiritual and religious mission of launching an Episcopal Church university to train young men for ministry in the South. But for the founding bishops—Leonidas Polk, James H. Otey, and Stephen Elliott—and the hundreds of men and women who pledged their wealth to the “southern university” project, the defense of slavery and the belief in its morality were at the core of their sectarian aims and their understanding of themselves as dutiful Christians. The three bishops were eloquent defenders of slavery and believed that bondage was—in Elliott’s words—a “sacred charge” and “a great missionary institution … arranged by God.” Otey denounced those who called slavery a sin against God “infidels.”

In recent years scholars have given greater attention to the subject of slavery and the University. The Project goes beyond this work by foregrounding the subjects of slavery, race, and race relations in its examinations of the University’s first 150 years. Compiling this scholarship is essential to our understanding of the origins of the University of the South as an institution of the Episcopal Church that was founded by slaveholders, for the benefit of slaveholders, and to serve and advance a slaveholding society—a civilization based on bondage. As important, a more complete understanding and recognition of that history and its legacies will enable us to meet our obligations to educate students and members of this community past and future and to realize our pledge to be an inclusive university of and for the diverse citizenry of the twenty-first-century South.

Project Objectives

Sewanee’s endeavor has four broad objectives:

  1. To conduct comprehensive research into the history of slavery, race, and racial injustice in connection with the University of the South and to publish its findings;
  2. To work with existing campus groups to develop courses and programming in the College and the School of Theology that enrich our respective curricula and create research and internship opportunities for the University’s students;
  3. To develop programming that reaches beyond the Domain to enlist the residents of neighboring communities in the exploration of the University’s impact on the region and the non-University populations’ impact on the University.
  4. Finally, as the word “reconciliation” in our title suggests, to consider the obligations that Sewanee’s history places on us in deciding how we can become a more equitable, inclusive, and cohesive university community—one that aspires to the high ideals of our motto, Ecce Quam Bonum.

Working Group

Woody Register, C'80, Project Director
Francis S. Houghteling Professor of American History

Liesl Allingham
Associate Professor, Department of German

John Grammer
Professor, Department of English

Nicky Hamilton, C'99
Senior Associate Director, Office of Civic Engagement

Mark Hopwood
Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy

Murdock Jones, T'20
School of Theology

Livia Karoui, C'20
College of Arts and Sciences

Ben King
Associate Professor of Church History and Director of the Advanced Degrees Program, School of Theology

Hannah Pommersheim, T'19
Research Associate, Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation

Sarah Sherwood
University Archaeologist; Associate Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Systems

Klarke Stricklen, C'22
College of Arts and Sciences

James Tengatenga
Visiting Professor of Global Anglicanism, School of Theology

Courtney Thompson
Assistant Professor, American Studies and Women's and Gender Studies

Eric Thurman
Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies

John Willis
Jessie Ball duPont Professor of History; co-director, Yale-Sewanee Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies

Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation

The University of the South
(931) 598-1934 | slaveryproject@sewanee.edu

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