University History

As the University celebrated the 150th anniversary of its founding in 2007–2008, it looked back on a rich history and forward to new opportunities for the next generations. With a spectacular natural setting, a collaborative scholarly community, and a commitment to educational excellence that has made it one of the top liberal arts institutions in the nation, the University of the South faces a new era confident in its mission and its capacity to adapt to changing circumstance.

Sewanee was founded in 1857 by clergy and lay delegates from Episcopal dioceses throughout the south. They selected a site in Sewanee, atop the Cumberland Plateau about 50 miles west of Chattanooga, and local landowners and the Sewanee Mining Company donated nearly 10,000 acres for the enterprise. On October 10, 1860, the founders laid the cornerstone for a campus that would eventually grow to house 1,500 students on 13,000 forested acres.

Its planned opening delayed by the onset of the Civil War, the University successfully opened its doors in 1868 with the help of benefactors in America and England who supported the vision of a new Episcopal university in the southern United States. The first Opening Convocation on September 18, 1868, boasted a total of nine students and four faculty. By the turn of the century the University was firmly established with a preparatory school, college, and seminary programs.

Successful athletic teams and a thriving cultural life testified to its emergence among mainstream colleges and universities. In 1891 royal purple was adopted as the school color, and Sewanee played its first intercollegiate football game. The 1899 football team was undefeated, winning 12 straight games—including five games during a six-day, 3,000-mile road trip.

During the 1920s, both a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and a movie theatre were established at Sewanee. The University persevered through the difficult years of the Great Depression and both world wars. The newfound optimism and growth of higher education following World War II opened doors for many people seeking educational opportunity.

The 1950s saw the completion of All Saints’ Chapel and other campus landmarks, as well as the airport (where students now can earn PE credit for classes in sport aviation). Musical traditions were begun in the same decade with the first Sewanee Summer Music Center and the first Festival of Lessons and Carols performance. Women were admitted to the University as fulltime students in 1969; today’s freshman classes are about half women, and include diverse students from around the world.

The last 40 years have seen campus facilities built, renovated and upgraded, including a new student union (1974), fitness center (1994), dining hall (2001), sciences building (2008), and forestry and geology building (2010). Enrollment has grown. The University has set some additional goals, aiming to be a national leader in environmental studies and sustainability. And yet as Sewanee passes its sesquicentennial milestone, some things have not changed: the University remains purposefully small, and dedicated to providing a top-quality liberal arts education while building a sense of community and lasting relationships.