By Kirk Petersen
Recent events have brought into sharp focus the uncomfortable fact — not widely discussed in Church circles — that the Episcopal Church owns and governs the only university in America that was created for the explicit purpose of perpetuating slavery.
On March 13, unidentified students attending a lacrosse game at Sewanee: The University of the South shouted racial epithets at members of the multiracial visiting team from Emmanuel College in Georgia. A month earlier, the first Black vice chancellor and president of Sewanee, Reuben E. Brigety II, disclosed that the campus home where he lives with his wife and two teenage sons had been repeatedly vandalized since he joined the university in June 2020.
The incidents prompted a statement signed by 23 Episcopal bishops in Province IV (“the Province of Sewanee”): “We in no uncertain terms condemn the harassment of the Vice Chancellor of the University last month by, as of now, unknown vandals and the more recent racial epithets hurled at scholar-athletes from a visiting college by young people in the crowd during a lacrosse game.”
In a letter to the university after the lacrosse game, Brigety said “We are also determined to identify those who were responsible for yesterday’s hate speech so that appropriate measures can be taken.”
As an Episcopal consolation of sorts, the students who shouted the n-word and other epithets almost certainly were not seminarians. Mary Ann Patterson, spokesperson for the graduate School of Theology, said the school’s 75 residential students represent about 4 percent of the overall student body. The lacrosse team and the roughly 120 students permitted as spectators under COVID restrictions were all undergraduates, she said.
The incidents can be seen as setbacks in the university’s multi-year effort to come to terms with its profoundly racist past.
Sewanee: The University of the South, usually referred to as just “Sewanee” and located in the town of that name, sits on 13,000 heavily wooded acres in the Cumberland Mountains of the central part of Tennessee. It was founded in 1857 by three Episcopal bishops, all of whom were slaveholders and one of whom later served as a general in the Confederate Army. The university has 1,600 undergraduate students, and its School of Theology is one of 10 official seminaries of the Episcopal Church.
As stated in a research project launched by the university in 2017, “The University was the only institution of higher education designed from the start to represent, protect, and promote the South’s civilization of bondage; and launched expressly for the slaveholding society of the South.”
The university’s Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, named after the late Professor Houston Bryan Roberson, is a six-year effort “to investigate the University’s historical entanglements with slavery, its legacies, and white supremacy,” according to its website. The project tells a historical tale that seems incongruous in the context of a church now headed by a Black man, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, who when he was elected in 2015 established racial reconciliation as one of his three primary ministries.
Among the materials compiled so far by the Roberson Project is a sermon given by one of the school’s founders, the Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott, the first Bishop of Georgia, in which he described slavery as “a sacred trust from God.” The sermon was at an 1862 service to celebrate Confederate victories in the Battles of Manassas, otherwise known as the Battles of Bull Run.
God “has caused the African race to be planted here under our political protection and under our christian (sic) nurture, for his own ultimate designs, and he will keep it here under that culture until the fulness of his own times, and any people which strives against this divine arrangement will find that it is running against the thick bosses of Jehovah’s buckler,” Elliott preached.
After the Civil War, Sewanee remained a bastion of white supremacy well into the 20th century. No Black person received a degree from Sewanee until 1965, when two scholars earned master’s of sacred theology degrees. One of them, Joseph Green, recalled the shock he felt when he first arrived on campus in 1959:
“That there was this Black community set aside, where they lived, they came and did the work for the seminary. To me, the same way that slaves would have done. And to me I saw an example of what the South would have looked like if it had continued on the road of gradually freeing of the slaves. Sewanee was the perfect example. Jim Crow was just as much alive and it was so much alive at Sewanee, I was shocked to see it. You know Black people had their place. White people had their place. And they just didn’t cross over.”
An interim summary of the Roberson Project noted, “There remain many buildings and monuments on Sewanee’s campus that memorialize slaveholders or supporters of the Confederacy, articulators of scientific and other theories of white supremacy, and defenders of Jim Crow segregation.”
The university to this day is owned by the Episcopal Church, specifically by the 28 dioceses that are the successors to the Southern dioceses involved in the founding. The Rt. Rev. Robert Skirving, Bishop of East Carolina, is the chancellor of the university, and among the signers of the bishops’ letter. Brigety told the Episcopal News Service that only about 3 percent of the current students are Black.
In recent years, Sewanee has begun a systematic effort to confront and move beyond the uglier elements of its history. The recruitment of Brigety as the university’s first Black vice chancellor and president is part of that effort, as is the Roberson Project.
In September 2020, after a long summer of racial unrest following the murder of George Floyd, the Board of Regents issued a statement saying “the University of the South categorically rejects its past veneration of the Confederacy and of the ‘Lost Cause’ and wholeheartedly commits 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 for the racial epithets at the lacrosse game, Patterson said the university continues its investigation to determine the identities of the students responsible, but no one has been identified as of March 19.