The Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation
This project aims to bring together the Sewanee community—students, staff, faculty, alumni, and area residents—
to pursue a comprehensive examination and reflective consideration
of our university’s historic entanglements with the institution of slavery
and its legacies in the long century of racial injustice after the end of the Civil War.
About this map: The image serving as the background for the home page of the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation is a section of map cut from "La Tourrette's reference map of the state of Louisiana" — an historic 1853 chart showing that state's major cotton and sugar plantations and their owners. The map is in the collections of the Library of Congress.
What can we learn about the history of the University of the South from this close-up of a map produced three or more years before the first formal efforts to found the university in 1856?
At the center of this section is the sugar plantation of the Right Rev. Leonidas Polk, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana and the most consequential of the three church leaders who masterminded the founding of the University of the South at the end of the 1850s.
In 1841 Polk was named the first Episcopal bishop of Louisiana. That same year he purchased the 2,100-acre Leighton plantation for $100,000. Leighton was the largest single plantation in Lafourche Parish southwest of New Orleans.
The purchase and sale of Leighton included a large population of enslaved persons. Exact numbers are elusive, but Polk’s most recent (and reliable) biographer, Glenn Robins, conservatively estimates that Polk held 215 or more persons in bondage. During the years that Polk owned the plantation, its enslaved labor force averaged producing more than 760,000 pounds of sugar annually, on average grossing $41,000 each year. Even by Louisiana standards in his day, Polk was one of the major sugar producers in that state.
Polk sold his Louisiana properties in 1854 for $307,000 and purchased another plantation of 2,700 acres and more than 100 slaves in Mississippi. He put his son in charge of overseeing this operation.
The map indicates more than the location and scope of the Episcopal bishop’s sugar plantation. It also maps Polk in relation to other members of Louisiana's powerful planter class whose properties appear in this section of the Bayou Lafourche region and who pledged money to founding the university: P. L. Cox pledged $1,000; Robert Ruffin Barrow, $25,000; R. G. Darden, $2,500; Judge George S. Guion, $5,000; W. W. Pugh, $5,000; and E. E. Kittredge, $5,000.
A view of the map in its entirety underscores this pattern across the state’s rich cotton- and sugar-producing regions up the Mississippi River and west to the Red River region near Shreveport. Polk convinced dozens of Louisiana sugar and cotton planters — some of them the billionaires of their day, holding thousands of black persons in bondage — to pledge money to founding the University of the South. As a group, they promised more money than planters from any other southern state. Their robust contributions to founding the new university suggests how deeply the founding of the university was bound to the slave-based plantation wealth of Louisiana and other regions in the South.
(For additional information on Leonidas Polk, see Glenn Robins, The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry and Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk (Macon, GA: Mercer Univ. Press, 2006).