Sewanee Strives to Transform Its Culture

Sewanee students walked out of class on March 15, 2021, to protest a hate-speech incident | Sewanee photo

By Kirk Petersen

After Sewanee refused to admit Black seminarians in 1952, seven faculty members of the School of Theology resigned

Despite an embarrassing setback caused by racial slurs shouted at a lacrosse game, America’s most Episcopal university is working methodically to transcend its history and become a more diverse and inclusive institution.

Sewanee: The University of the South — founded by slaveholding Episcopal bishops just before the Civil War — has hired an experienced chief diversity officer from a large university. She has the rank of vice provost and heads a six-person diversity, equity, and inclusion office.

A committee of scholars, students, staff, and alumni is studying all the historical figures whose names are on buildings and places on the 13,000-acre campus in Sewanee, Tennessee, so that renaming decisions will be based on sound research.

The university’s six-year Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation has assembled a wealth of information that takes an unflinching look at the institution’s history.

The tagline of the Roberson Project website is “Confronting Our Past: Seeking a More Just Sewanee.” This assessment of the university’s progress in that regard is based on hours of interviews over several months with faculty, staff, and students at Sewanee, and extensive reading in the Roberson files.

To explain this unusual level of research for a single story, I need to step into the narrative.

When news of the lacrosse incident hit the national press, I knew very little about Sewanee, beyond the fact that an Episcopal seminary was there.

On March 13, 2021, some students repeatedly shouted racial epithets at members of a visiting lacrosse team, to the extent that play was halted while all spectators were cleared. The Episcopal connection meant TLC should cover it.

I learned that Sewanee is owned not by the Episcopal Church as a whole, but by 28 southern dioceses. In an effort to explain the unusual structure, I looked into its historical roots.

And I was utterly appalled. The three primary founding bishops collectively “owned” hundreds of enslaved people. They were champions of slavery who preached that it was an institution blessed by God. One of them became a major general in the Confederate army. The university was slow to admit Black students, and to this day is well below the national average.

Sewanee was founded under the jurisdiction of 10 statewide dioceses of the Episcopal Church | Roberson Project

After nearly five years of covering news for TLC, I felt thoroughly steeped in the governance and culture of the church. Racial issues have been a recurring theme.

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry has made racial reconciliation one of his top priorities. He led the Executive Council on a daylong pilgrimage to a museum of the horrors of lynching. George Floyd’s murder was a TLC cover story. There have been multimillion-dollar reparations commitments in the dioceses of New York, Texas, and others, and at Virginia Theological Seminary. I wrote many of those stories.

If I had no clue about Sewanee’s historical entwinement with slavery, I realized there must be lots of other Episcopalians who are equally unaware.

I set out to fix that.

Under the headline “Sewanee Confronts Reminders of Its Racist Past,” my article on the lacrosse incident began:

“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.”

Harsh language, but a close paraphrase from the Roberson Project.

Sewanee was in the news again when its vice chancellor and president, Dr. Reuben E. Brigety II, abruptly resigned in December 2021 after 18 months on the job, and when he later was named ambassador to South Africa. Even though the events had little or nothing to do with slavery and racism, I took the opportunity to remind readers about the university’s early history.

Rob Skirving

While researching the current article, I interviewed Bishop of East Carolina Robert Skirving, who since 2018 has been the university’s chancellor. The chancellor is elected for a six-year term from among the bishops of the university’s 28 constituent dioceses, and chairs the Board of Trustees.

I started by admitting sheepishly that I may have been a bit too hard on Sewanee in my prior coverage. The bishop was gracious. He said that while he had been approached by people demanding that he “do something” about the tone of the coverage, “I wasn’t put off by what you had to say,” because he saw truth in it.

Skirving added, “I think at Sewanee we get tired of that being the only truth that gets communicated.”

Point taken. Here is some additional truth.

Sibby Anderson-Thompkins

Dr. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins spent 14 years as a diversity and inclusion administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has about 18 times as many students as Sewanee. She was recruited to “the Mountain,” as Sewanee’s vast forest campus is known, as the university’s first chief diversity officer, starting in August 2021.

“I would not have taken on this role if I truly did not believe that we were at this pivotal moment as an institution where we were all committed to bringing about and bringing forth real change,” she said.

She has focused in her first few months on researching the demographics and culture of the university. “This is a new direction for Sewanee,” she said, and there is a lack of data. Anderson-Thompkins said the student body is about 4 percent Black, compared to a nationwide average of 12 to 13 percent. There is no recent data on the racial composition of faculty and staff.

Beyond demographics, the university also is participating in the National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates, an initiative of the University of Southern California. According to a survey conducted before the lacrosse incident, half of white students reported feeling moderately or completely welcome in the surrounding community, compared to only 20 percent of students of color.

“Before there is a real campaign to bring in more diverse students, there’s some work that we need to do on building a healthy, supportive culture and climate where students can feel safe, can feel a strong sense of belonging and connection and community,” Anderson-Thompkins said.

Benjamin King

The Rev. Benjamin King is professor of Christian history and an associate dean at the Sewanee School of Theology, and a member of the working group of the university’s Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. The project is named after the first tenured Black professor at Sewanee, Houston Roberson, who died at age 58 the year before the six-year project began in 2017.

The extensive Roberson Project research is difficult to find on the Sewanee website. There is no path to navigate to it, not even a bland History link on the About page. You have to know the research is there, and search for “Roberson” or “slavery.”

Sewanee was established under the jurisdiction of 10 statewide Episcopal dioceses — the forerunners of the 28 Southern dioceses that now own the university. The bishops of the dioceses of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas were members of the initial Board of Trustees. All were slaveholders.

“The project is incredibly busy, having just in the past week participated in three conferences, one of which we sponsored at a remote campus,” King said. That involved the team’s “Locating Slavery’s Legacies Database Project” seeking participation from other Southern universities to create a database of Confederate memorials and monuments on American campuses. It’s a Sewanee-led effort to “analyze and understand the impact of Lost Cause movements on higher education in the United States in the 160 years after emancipation.”

“I would argue that the history of the university is the history of the Episcopal Church. It’s not as if the Episcopal Church was enlightened on the question of slavery,” King said. “Very few Episcopalians, North or South, wanted to talk about slavery as an issue, and preferred just to ignore that, because so much of the money upon which these institutions depended was slaveholding money.

“As the Episcopal Church undergoes this reckoning with race, Sewanee’s actually quite well placed to be part of that conversation.”

Gene Manning

The Rev. Gene Manning is a member of the Names and Places Committee researching the namesakes of buildings, streets, and geographical locations such as bluffs. The committee is developing a framework for deciding whether to remove or retain the names of historical figures, or provide additional context about the individual.

Manning said the committee hopes to make its final recommendations to the Board of Regents by the end of the year. “They’ll have a full report on who the person was, their connection to the Confederacy and the Lost Cause or the Jim Crow era; we’ll give them a bibliography and a recommendation,” she said. Manning is a retired subdean at Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, and a member of the Sewanee Board of Regents.

Three students shared their thoughts on the racial climate at Sewanee. Audra Ryes and Yuriria Rodriguez are seminarians pursuing master of divinity degrees, and Klarke Stricklen is an undergraduate who recently became Sewanee’s first African-American Rhodes Scholar.

Audra Ryes

Ryes, a mother of three sponsored by the Diocese of Louisiana, is a first-year student, so she was not on campus during the lacrosse incident. She shrugged off the question of why she would want to attend a seminary with Sewanee’s history.

“Every space has a racist history,” she said, and Black people deal with that daily.

“Sewanee is a white space. And as a person of color who’s getting ordained in the Episcopal Church, there’s a 90 percent chance that I’m going to be in a white space,” she said.

Rodriguez is a mother of two and a musician who immigrated from Costa Rica to attend the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. She was raised Roman Catholic, and while studying in Indiana she was invited to conduct a Spanish-language choir at an Episcopal church.

Yuriria Rodriguez

“When I came to the Episcopal church, I noticed that there was a woman preaching,” she said. “It was powerful, and I said, you know what, this is me! I’ve always been an Episcopalian, I just never joined the church before.” She became director of Hispanic music at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis.

As she was discerning a call to the priesthood, she was invited to Sewanee to sing and conduct the choir. “I realized that Sewanee had a full Spanish eucharist every other week,” she said. “It was beyond aspirational, it was an actual thing that Sewanee was doing.” She had “an overwhelming spiritual experience,” and knew she had to apply to Sewanee.

Stricklen, who will begin her Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford in September, plans to become a civil rights attorney. She knew nothing of Sewanee’s history when she enrolled, and was attracted by the opportunity to study in a smaller community, rather than at a large state school.

Klarke Stricklen

While at Sewanee, she spent a summer working as an intern for the Roberson Project, which she incorporated into her studies. “Part of my senior thesis is looking at the institutions that John Armfield promoted as a slave trader, including the ‘fancy trade,’ which was the sexual trafficking of enslaved women,” Stricklen said, in an interview on the Sewanee website.

Armfield, an original trustee and benefactor, was one of the richest slave traders in the country. A bluff at the far western edge of the campus is named after him.

Was Stricklen bothered that the university closed its investigation into the lacrosse incident without determining who had shouted the racial slurs? “I don’t think I was necessarily upset at the closing of the case. I think I was more upset at the unwillingness of peers who were at the game to come forward,” she said.

Rodriguez and Skirving expressed similar disappointment in what Bishop Skirving called “the kind of culture we’ve had in place for too long, that allows the keeping of secrets.”

“We all would like transformation, especially around racial issues, to come around faster, and sooner. It feels so urgent, not just for Sewanee but for the entire Episcopal Church, and for our society,” Rodriguez said. “But it definitely is work that takes time. It takes transformation of the heart.”

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