Memory on the Sewanee Campus
It 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.
I 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.