Memory on the Sewanee Campus

sewaneeflags.jpgIt doesn’t take a lot of skill to predict that this New York Times article about the controversy over what we used to call “The University of South” and what’s now called “Sewanee: The University of the South” is going to generate, well, a lot of controversy.

First, some background. A few years ago, apparently motivated by a marketing study, the University of the South began emphasizing the “Sewanee” part of its name. Alumni have been concerned (to put it mildly) that it’s not just about the name, however. They think there is a lot more at stake on the campus–like how the University deals with its distinguished and complex history. At the center of that history is the University’s founder, Leonidas Polk. Bishop Polk was, also, a general in the Confederate States Army.

And so in discussions about Polk, we can see the cultural war over the memory of the Civil War in miniature. Polk was responsible for building the University, with much help and sacrifice by the Episcopal church; generations of its alumni have enriched the nation. Polk is, however, seen by some people as a man who fought to maintain the institution of slavery. How can the University reconcile those competing interpretations?

This involves incredibly complex issues of how we remember our ancestors and how we make sense of our past. Even a cursory exploration of the issues involves questions of respect for tradition, honoring the contributions of ancestors, recognizing their faults, and trying to reconcile the competing claims of people to a space on the Sewanee: The University of the South’s campus. The University has already done some other things, like remove Southern state flags from the Chapel; some alumni fear that the stained glass windows in the Chapel, which include the seal of the Confederacy, may be next.

sewaneefall.jpgI have not yet had the opportunity to visit Sewanee: The University of the South, though I hope to someday soon, in part because my friend Margaret Howard tells me that it is one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. And, since Margaret teaches at Washington and Lee, she knows something about beautiful spaces.

I wish the students, alumni, faculty, and administration all the best of luck as they try to reach a reconciliation. This is going to be hard.

And for those of you interested in these kinds of issues, the spring’s going to be busy–it will bring the report by Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, more debate on naming Sewanee and related issues of the memory of the Civil War on that campus, and further discussion of UNC’s acknowledgement of its connections to slavery.

[The picture is of the flags of Southern states in the University of the South’s chapel, which were removed a few years ago. The image appears here. The chapel without the flags appears here.]

You may also like...

8 Responses

  1. kristine says:

    For the record, we Sewanee alumni have been calling the place “Sewanee” for a very long time. It is my understanding that the “Sewanee colon” name was not meant to change the official name of the institution but was rather a publishing/marketing standard.

    Of course, it is being used far more widely than that, but I believe that is contrary to it’s original purpose. College guides have been garbling the name of the school for years, and the name thing was supposed to curtail that. (Of course, it appears not to be working even when more widely used — the NY Times messed it up in their little slideshow, with one caption reading “Sewanee: The School of the South.” Sigh.)

    Visit Sewanee in the spring, by the way, when the cherry trees and dogwoods are blooming.

  2. I lived in Sewanee (the town, not the school) when I was in high school. People who live and work there just call both the school and the town (which are virtually the same) “Sewanee” anyway. It’s a beautiful town and a good school. As a native, I think the name change is a good thing.

    While it is a valid argument that Sewanee has a right to be proud of its history, Sewanee’s “traditionalists” often don’t know where to draw the line. They have clung to the past more than any other liberal arts college. Professors still teach in academic gowns, and they reject adding new majors that are too “practical”.

    I loved living there; it’s a beautiful place. But I would never go to school or teach there. There was a time when Sewanee was the elite college of the South. They considered themselves the “Harvard of the South.” Times have changed, but rather than changing with the times, many in Sewanee simply cling to the past.

  3. Monument Law

    Ah, public monuments. They’re how we remember important events and help define who we think we are. Dan Solove’s recent posts on courthouses reminds me of how much we’re concerned with presenting the right image to communities. And there’s…

  4. Michael Mathis says:

    I sent my son Michael Jr. to the Univ. of The South- Sewanee. It appears to me that the Board of Trustees must have “bowed” to political correctness. We are related to Bishop James Hervey Otey and I think both Bishop Otey and Bishop Polk would not approve of the name change.Today is Christmas eve and many places do not want to even acknowledge Christmas. A sad time for this country. Generally speaking, many people express their dis-satisfaction by voting with their feet and check books.


    Michael D. Mathis Sr., Raleigh, NC

  5. Ruth S. Widmer says:

    I recently visited the U of the South’s campus with my daughter. We live in NJ (I am a Independent Liberal), I was afraid that Sewanee might be too conservative and regressive. My observations proved otherwise. It is conservative, but also progressive. I was especially impressed with the fact that it integrates minorities fully into the Sewanee community rather than encouraging segration, as most of the northern “liberally diverse” colleges do, with their offering of Afro-houses, and Hispanic Casas. Reverse segregation of this type is equally damaging as a college with a Caucasian-only dorm. Real life merges all races, religions, sexual persuasions, etc. and college students may as well get used to it. Sewanee also insists on student decorum and respect via dress code and ethical conduct via an honor code. Wow, now that is really a backward concept these days. Again, after college there are few work environments that will support sweats as the fashion statement on a Monday morning because you had a “rough Sunday night”. Encouraging self-respect and fostering community respect is one of the responsibilities of an institution offering a liberal education. Celebrating Christmas is appropriate (and based on pagan ritual of the solstice) and acknowledgement of other world religions is also essential, especially today. Sewanee addresses Christianity and offers numerous world religion classes to help students lappreciate other spiritual paths. They even hold Unitarian-Universalist meetings in their Episcopalian chapel!

    My daughter applied, was accepted, and will enroll at Sewanee. At Sewanee I believe she will experience the best of our past, come to better understand the worst of our past, and be prepared to face the challenges of her future.

    A friend of mine who went to Exeter and Princeton sent his daughter to Sewanee and she is now a Fulbright Scholar studying in Brazil. Not too shabby. As far as I know she doesn’t fly a Confederate flag or a have a white robe hidden in her closet. Erasing any trace of the Confederacy will never erase the events leading up to the Civil War. Acknowleging and accepting our history reminds us to never make those same mistakes in the future.


  6. Sally Platt says:

    Note to Ruth Widmer: Christmas is Christmas, not a ”pagan ritual of solstice”. What liberal jargon. Seriously lady, get it right.

  7. Meredith McDonald says:

    My family were Harrisons we had at one time a Chapel named for the family. What happened to it????

  8. Jake says:

    My second son will attend “that” school. I think I will call it Sewanee because it’s easier to say, quicker, I look forward to saving a lot of time now that he’s made up his mind.

    Now about this living in the past thing. I doubt if the people in the education business at Sewanee are no more Stalwarts of the Confederacy because they are in TN with the historical accoutrements of the universities past, than I am a Methodist Yankee Carpetbagger because I attended DePauw in Indiana. Sometimes a school is just a school.

    They will pop out of that place having enjoyed the benefits of a good Greek system, a traditional broad based liberal arts survey and fellowship that goes with a campus centered four year maturation process. They will be able to tell the difference between the Wall Street Journal editorials and the NYT opinions – and choose for themselves.

    And I think that “Seriously lady, get it right” comment was nasty.