It is why the small Christian liberal arts school perched on the western edge of Tennessee’s scenic Cumberland Plateau is laying bare its past, even the ugly parts.
The well-respected university, known familiarly as Sewanee, has educated students and trained seminarians for more than 150 years. It was designed not only to uphold the slaveholding society of the South, but to help it flourish.
If the university ignores or minimizes its roots, then it is dismissing the legacies of those hurt and excluded by it, said Brigety, who is Sewanee’s 17th vice chancellor and president, but the first African American to hold the top office. The school wants it to be abundantly clear that all are welcome, he said.
“If there is any doubt remaining whatsoever that there is even a shred of institutional support for the ‘Lost Cause’ and slavery and the white supremacy that underline all of it, then we are not adhering to the Christian faith of the Episcopal Church on whose traditions we stand and we’re not being faithful to the values of the institution that we want to be going forward,” Brigety said.
“You can embrace the future, or you can embrace the Confederacy, but you cannot do both. And we chose to embrace the future.”
The university is not alone. Across the country, institutions of higher learning are grappling with their own ties to slavery and segregation as well as the threads of racism still present on their campuses.
The work gained steam this year as a shocked nation saw Black men and women, like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, die at the hands of police. The cataclysmic events caused Americans in communities all over the U.S. to confront the country’s racist history and the discriminatory systems still in place today.
They marched for justice, tore down monuments in public spaces and called on institutions to improve diversity and inclusion within their own communities.
Sewanee reckons with its past ties to Confederacy
This summer, the University of the South’s board of regents made a historic statement. They committed to reckoning with the university’s genesis while rejecting the institution’s veneration of the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause” mythology.
“At its best, the university has lived up to the humane values it has long professed and acted upon,” the Sept. 8 statement says. “At its worst, the university has been associated with the most repugnant aspects of our national and regional history. We are not flinching from that hard truth, for the truth, as we were assured long ago, can make us free — free from the prejudices and the passions of the past.”
The regents intend to continue this reckoning.
Brigety does, too. He hoped to have his first year as vice chancellor and president behind him before delving into race and related issues at Sewanee. But just as he did not expect a global pandemic to mark the start of his tenure at the college, the events of 2020 prompted Brigety to adjust his plans.
He has called for the academic year to be one of discernment. Diversity and difference, specifically how the university can be intentional about creating a welcoming and open environment for all, will be an area of focus, Brigety said. He wants this discussion to yield actionable next steps and shape Sewanee’s path forward.
In the meantime, Brigety has already committed the university to seven related initiatives.
They include recruiting students and faculty from historically underrepresented communities. Although more diverse than it was a decade ago, the university’s 1,800-plus student body is still overwhelmingly white and majority southern.
Some of Brigety’s other initiatives will focus on creating a model program about truth and reconciliation as it relates to race, teaching the full history of the South and working with the board of regents to fund these efforts.
Sewanee’s endowment is more than $400 million. Tuition and fees cost nearly $48,000, but the university provides more than $34 million in scholarships, need-based grants and other aid annually. Eighty-eight percent of new students received at least some university funding this year.
Brigety also committed to appointing a commission to assess the names of buildings and statues on campus.
He has fielded questions about whether the name of the University of the South will change. Not on his watch, he said.
“We’re going to change the meaning of the name,” Brigety said. “We can either be the University of the Old South as we were dedicated to being for the first century plus of our existence. Or we can be the University of the New South as that’s dedicated to seeing the full beauty of the totality of the peoples and influences that make this glorious region of the country.
“And we chose to be the latter.”
Historian: Campus is a ‘kind of Confederate memorial’
To help with this continued reckoning, the university’s top leaders are turning to the research already underway on campus.
“Sewanee’s campus as a whole is a kind of Confederate memorial,” said Woody Register, history professor and director of the university’s Roberson Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation.
Started in 2017, the aim of the six-year Roberson project is to investigate the university’s entanglements with slavery and tell a more complete version of the school’s history. It is named for late history professor Houston Bryan Roberson, the first African American to earn tenure at Sewanee.
The school, located about 50 miles northwest of Chattanooga on 13,000 acres replete with woods and vistas, also is a member of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium. Today, about 70 schools have signed on to be a part of this academic collaboration open to those considering or already examining how slavery is woven into their institution’s legacy.
The vast majority of the members are in the U.S. and several are located in the American South. They include the universities of Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia as well as Harvard, Brown, Rutgers and Georgetown universities.
“It started as a support group,” said Kirt von Daacke, a history professor at the University of Virginia, which is one of the original members. “If there’s a project trying to launch at a school, you can go to your administration and say, ‘Look, here are all these other schools doing it. It’s okay.'”
Historical entanglements with slavery are not unique to institutions of higher learning. It’s everywhere, said von Daacke, who also is co-chair of the University of Virginia’s President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.
“Slavery and racism are actually features of American history. They’re not side projects,” von Daacke said. “You can’t understand the American Revolution, but not understand how central slavery is to that story. Universities are not the problem in this story, they exhibit the exact same symptoms.”
The University of the South’s connections to the slaveholding society of the region were not a secret, but the motivations for Sewanee’s formation have become clearer and given more depth because of the Roberson project.
Researchers discover key clues in university archives
The small team of researchers happened upon a key clue in the early days of the project. In the summer of 2017, Register sent his research associate into the university’s archives to comb through documents. He discovered a critical piece of the puzzle on his first day.
“He found this extraordinary document,” Register said. “There was no effort to hide it. So far as I could tell, no one had ever paid it any attention.”
Written in elegant script, it was a list of 292 people who pledged money to the founding of the university and how much they planned to contribute. It totaled nearly $1.2 million.
The researchers decided to follow the money. Although it appears as though little of the pledges actually materialized, the list of donors became the road map for their research.
The university, owned today by 28 mostly southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church, opened its classrooms in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended and the Confederacy collapsed.
Sewanee through the years
But slaveholding Episcopal bishops and their lay supporters started planning the college in 1856, five years before the fight over holding humans in bondage would explode into a violent conflagration with the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
“The organizational blueprint for the institution indicates the founders envisioned the university as a leading center of scientific scholarship proving white racial superiority and the ‘aptitude’ of people of African descent for enslavement,” a research summary written by Register and Christian history professor the Rev. Benjamin King states.
In a campaign led by bishops Stephen Elliot of Georgia, James Hervey Otey of Tennessee and Leonidas Polk of Louisiana, they solicited financial pledges from the region’s powerful and elite in order to launch the university. Polk would later become a general in the Confederate army.
The Roberson project researchers identified more than 180 of the names on the list.
“Together these donors enslaved at least 34,000 persons in 1860,” the summary states. Many of the pledges came from the “Great Planters,” who enslaved more than 100 people, as well as slave traders, like big donor John Armfield, who trafficked thousands of enslaved people as a partner in the Franklin and Armfield firm.
In the decades that followed the Civil War, the university — called a “child of the Confederacy” — found its leaders and donors from among the secessionists and slavery defenders, the summary says. The Roberson project also found that campus policies and practices during portions of the 20th century “perpetuated Jim Crow, white supremacy, and mythologies about the honorable causes represented by the Confederacy.”
Through its ongoing work, the Roberson project is making the university’s archives more inclusive and more complete, Register said.
“It’s certainly not about blackening the name of this university or about indicting this university. Rather it’s about understanding its origins and then understanding its history,” Register said. “This isn’t just about focusing on white people and what they did … We are determined to incorporate the experiences and the history of African Americans.”
One example is the portrait of the Rev. Joseph N. Green Jr. that now hangs in the School of Theology. One of the first Black students to graduate from university, Green’s likeness was unveiled in September as Sewanee embarked on its year dedicated to honoring African-American alumni.
Sewanee student Klarke Stricklen, a research assistant for the Roberson project, is helping tell these stories. She also has made it her mission to engage with other students about the history of their school.
A young Black undergraduate from Chattanooga, Stricklen initially got involved with the project through its student group. A couple of her friends encouraged her to join and the experience grounded her and provided her with a place of belonging on campus.
Stricklen also wanted to be a part of helping her university tell its full history.
“It needed to be done,” Stricklen said. “Future students needed to know that there were people who look like them that not only did well in university and broke down barriers for the things that they enjoy now, but also to have representation.”
Representation matters, Stricklen said. The day she found out Brigety would be her school’s new vice chancellor and president, it took her a second to believe it. Stricklen and her friends rushed to meet him at a reception.
“We knew that things were changing,” Stricklen said. “I still can’t put that experience into words, but I can say that Vice Chancellor Brigety, he cares. He is an amazing leader. He’s only been in office a few short months, but he has already shown us that student voices matter.”
Brigety called ‘gift to the university’
The hiring of Brigety was a proud moment for the university, said Bishop Morris Thompson Jr., who leads the Episcopal diocese of Louisiana and serves on the university’s board of regents and board of trustees.
“That was a huge step and it’s been a gift to the university,” Thompson said.
He would like to see Sewanee hire more people of color, too.
“Sewanee is intentional about moving forward, about looking at who we have been and ways that we can change that and give life to a new form of being a university that is both academically strong — which it continues to be — but also is a broad image of what I keep referring to as the ‘kingdom of God,’ where everybody is welcome,” Thompson said.
Brigety, a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union and naval officer, was working as the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University when he was approached about the top job at the University of the South.
“The very first thing I asked the recruiter is, is Sewanee ready for a Black president? Because if they’re not ready, we don’t need to have this conversation,” Brigety said.
His appointment was announced in February. Brigety, an ordained elder in Presbyterian Church USA, called himself a “son of the new South,” in his address to the school’s trustees.
“Born in 1973 in Jacksonville, Florida, I am a member of the first generation of African Americans that was born fully free and equal under the law to all of my fellow citizens,” Brigety said, according to a video of his speech.
He said the university community has welcomed him and his family, and he wants everyone to have the same experience at Sewanee.
“We will spare no effort to ensure that there is ample space and a warm welcome for anyone who seeks its insights and who hungers for its inspiration,” Brigety said. “As a community, we will muster the courage to be honest about who we have been so that we may have the wisdom to become what we aspire to be.”