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US university founded by the Episcopal Church seeks ‘new era’ after slave-trader history

16 March 2018


A dedication ceremony at Sewanee in 1940 for a memorial to Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who taught maths after the Civil War

A dedication ceremony at Sewanee in 1940 for a memorial to Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who taught maths after the Civil War

A UNIVERSITY in the United States, founded by the Episcopal Church and bankrolled by slave-traders, has embarked on a project to face up to its dark history and rededicate itself to reconciliation.

Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, is owned by the 28 southern dioceses of the Church, and was founded in 1857 by Bishop Leonidas Polk, an ardent supporter of slavery and a slave owner, who resigned his post to become a General in the Confederate army. The university was funded by John Armfield, who owned the largest slave-trading firm in the US in the 1830s.

The six-year project on slavery, race, and reconciliation is being led by Professor Woody Register, who chairs the university’s history department. “We are seeking to understand the university’s history more fully, and that means examining, instead of deflecting attention from, the centrality of slavery to the founding of the university,” he said.

“Our six-year project launched last spring with the aim to investigate the university’s dense entanglement in the slaveholding order of the antebellum era, and to carry that investigation forward to consider the actions of the university and its supporters that contributed materially and intellectually to racial injustice in the century afterward.

“Our additional aim is to prepare the necessary ground for a new era of reconciliation across the Sewanee community — a reconciliation founded on a frank acknowledgement of the university’s deep involvement in the creation of a post-Civil War American society based on racial subordination and inequality.”

CAROLINE CARSONThis monument to Edmund Kirby-Smith was moved last year to the University of the South’s cemetery

The project will also look at the physical monuments to slave owners that litter the university and its grounds. The violence in Charlottesville at a white supremacist, Confederate rally last summer sparked a national debate over Confederate imagery in public places in the South (News, 25, 18 August).

Three days after the violence at Charlottesville, the descendants of General Edmund Kirby Smith, a former maths professor at the university, asked Sewanee to relocate a monument to him, and it was moved to his grave.

Professor Register said that the project may make recommendations “about specific places and memorials on campus”, but would not do so without a “full investigation into the history of the objects and places under consideration”.

He went on: “Those of us working with the project have not made any decisions about renaming monuments or memorials on our campus, but I should make clear that our task is to make a recommendation of a general set of policies and principles that would guide such decisions.

“These recommendations will be presented in draft form to our students, alumni, faculty, and governing boards and administration, and we will be wanting to hear from all these groups before we submit a final document. We still are in the midst of this process.”

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