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Sewanee has a distinctive history that compels attention to the questions and challenges the Roberson 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.

Sewanee’s campus is decorated with more than one hundred tributes, memorials, and monuments to Confederates, enslavers, and supporters of the Lost Cause—the organized campaign white southerners undertook after the Civil War to disassociate secession and its military campaign from its most cause: the defense of slavery. Until 2018 the most visible Confederate memorial on Sewanee’s campus was the Confederate General Edmund Kirby-Smith memorial on University Avenue. The local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the funds to erect the memorial to honor the Confederate, who, after the Civil War, had joined the University’s faculty. The memorial, draped in flags of the Confederacy, was dedicated on May 16, 1940, at a ceremony presided over by University Vice-Chancellor Alexander Guerry and the Rt. Rev. Henry J. Mikell, the university’s Chancellor and the Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta. Uniformed cadets from the Sewanee Military Academy participated. In 2018 the University, at the request of Kirby-Smith descendants and in light of the violent demonstrations against removing a major Robert E. Lee memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia, relocated the Kirby-Smith memorial to the University Cemetery.

– Image of the dedication of the Kirby-Smith memorial courtesy of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections.

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 religious aims and their understanding of themselves as dutiful Christians. Their proslavery Christianity claimed, in historian Christopher Graham’s words, a “beneficial spiritual nurture within bondage” that served the divine plan for all of creation. The three bishops lent their eloquence and influence to the defense of slavery. The Episcopal Bishop of Georgia, Elliott, believed that bondage was a “sacred charge” and “a great missionary institution … arranged by God.” Tennessee’s Otey denounced as “infidels” those who called slavery a sin against God. When Polk, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, joined the Confederate army and assumed command of troops in Memphis in the summer of 1861, he named the defense of slavery as the most important cause for which they fought:

We of the Confederate States are the last bulwarks of civil and religious liberty; we fight for our hearthstones and our altars; above all, we fight for a race that has been by Divine Providence entrusted to our most sacred keeping. When I accept a commission in the Confederate army, therefore, I not only perform the duties of a good citizen, but contend for the principles which lie at the foundation of our social, political, and religious polity.

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 enslavers, for the benefit of enslavers, and to serve and advance a civilization based on bondage.

A summary of the first years of historical research by the Roberson Project accompanied the landmark statement by Sewanee’s governing Board of Regents in September 2020 “categorically reject[ing] its past veneration of the Confederacy and of the “Lost Cause” and wholeheartedly commit[ing] itself to an urgent process of institutional reckoning in order to make Sewanee a model of diversity, of inclusion, of intellectual rigor, and of loving spirit in an America that rejects prejudice and embraces possibility.”

As important as knowing the University’s history, then, is reckoning with it and its importance in the present. We of the Roberson Project believe 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.