Vice-Chancellor Brigety announced that the University will launch a number of initiatives in response to a Board of Regents statement categorically rejecting the University’s past veneration of the Confederacy.
Today, Sept. 8, 2020, the University of the South released a statement “categorically rejecting its past veneration of the Confederacy and of the ‘Lost Cause’ and wholeheartedly committing 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.”
This comes as the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation at the University of the South continues its research, begun in 2017, to investigate the University’s historical entanglements with slavery, its legacies, and white supremacy. The project’s name memorializes Houston Bryan Roberson, the late professor of history and Sewanee’s first tenured African American faculty member. Learn more about the project here.
After nearly four years of exacting research, the Roberson Project has delivered a Research Summary that provided the Board with a detailed history of the University’s relationship with slavery. The authors of the summary are Dr. Woody Register, C’80, Francis S. Houghteling Professor of American History and director of the Roberson Project; and the Rev. Dr. Benjamin King, professor of Christian History and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Theology. The Roberson Project Working Group, composed of students, faculty, and staff, also contributed to these findings. You can read the full Research Summary here.
The Board of Regents statement explained that the University’s history is complex, not unlike the history of the United States of America. “In this long-overdue American moment of confronting systemic racism four centuries after Jamestown, two and a half centuries after the founding of the American republic, a century and a half after the Civil War and the launching of this University, and more than half a century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the University acknowledges that a compelling task of our time is repairing the damage caused by the enslavement and exploitation of Black people by intergenerational racism, by inequality of opportunity, and by the perpetuation of the gap between America’s ideals and the undeniable inequities bound up in identity, chiefly racial identity.”
“In recognizing without equivocation what Sewanee once advocated, the University liberates itself to embrace a new role for which its story has in fact granted it special provenance: to lead in embracing equality and inclusion because the stark lesson of our own history shows us that only in recognizing our common humanity can we become what we are fully capable of being,” stated Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety. You can read Brigety’s letter here.
The University will undertake several initiatives in the months and years to come. These include focusing on diversity among the student body, staff, and faculty; developing a comprehensive truth and reconciliation program around race; evaluating the names and history of monuments and buildings on campus; and supporting faculty to incorporate fresh innovations in teaching and mentoring.
On Sept. 9, the Very Rev. James Turrell wrote this letter to the School of Theology Community:
Yesterday’s announcement by the Board of Regents, confessing the University’s complicity in slavery, Jim Crow, and the ideology of the “Lost Cause,” has made news far beyond the Mountain. (The press release is here, while an example of coverage in the church press is here.)
But I want to draw everyone’s particular attention to two things.
First, the Regents’ statement was only possible because of the long, hard work of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, and especially the work of Professor Woody Register of the History Department and our own Professor Benjamin King. While the Regents’ statement has gotten the most press, I earnestly hope that everyone will read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the research report from the Roberson Project that accompanied it (available here). Ben’s work on this report was considerable, and the report in turn drew upon work by the Rev. Hannah Pommersheim, T’19. Both of their efforts represent the commitment of the School of Theology to this important undertaking
Second, Vice-Chancellor Brigety’s letter, released with the Regents’ statement, sets the direction for the university as a whole—and for the School of Theology within it—to follow through on the Regents’ statement. Words matter— we are here at this School because we think they matter—but words without deeds are empty promises. I hope that everyone will read the Vice-Chancellor’s letter, available here, and begin to imagine how we at the School of Theology might contribute to the enterprise of helping the university live up to its commitments.
Thank you for all that you do.