Monday, May 13, 2013

Sewanee History - updated 5/23

I love reading local history.  I found some info on early Sewanee history to be a bit amusing, enlightening, and informative.

I'd always referred humorously to the exclusivity of Sewanee, sometimes referring to a "Master Race."  Prospective residents have to write a 'letter of introduction' to be scrutinized before residence on the domain is granted.


In the book, "The Bishop of the Old South: The Ministry And Civil War Legacy of Leonidas Polk" by Glenn Robins, I found some interesting and funny quotes:


Editor of Sewanee's University News, William Harlow wrote in an 1876 editorial that "a false charity" had infected Sewanee and had created a class of dependents "who only wanted a little money now and then to buy whiskey" ... and they contributed nothing to society.   Harlow said they should be driven from the mountain.  (Take heed John ; )~


In 1874, an editorial by an anonymous person by the name of 'Amicus' wrote in the University Record, referred to Sewanee as "a refuge and asylum... for the better classes of southern people."  A place where the dispossessed elite could "escape" the tyrannical carpetbaggers and the social turmoil that raged in the "Africanized" south.


Contrary to today, one of the original tenets of the University, later endorsed by theology Prof. William Bishop, was to house students in private homes, not in dormitories where they were "apt to lose the restraints and refining influences of society."


Professor Bishop also claimed that the Sewanee educational model was a bulwark against the "weak-backed, boneless, substanceless liberalism of American higher education."    Heh... now, most see Sewanee as an island of liberalism.


The connection to slavery among the founders is evident.  John Preston was one of the biggest contributors to the University before the end of the war, he gave the keynote address at the laying of the cornerstone.   He owned over 700 slaves on his LA sugar plantation.  He concluded his keynote speech with this phrase:

"Under the Episcopal banner and the Christian Bible as the cornerstone of the University of the South, the heart [will be] made to comprehend, to regulate, and to apply the vast duties which pertain to the citizens of the slave holding states..."
Leonidas Polk - really the father of the University of the South often spoke of Southern Nationalism and was an unabashed racist.  Paraphrased by Robins, Polk stated:
"We of all men should be the most highly cultivated since we have a special 'caste' to perform our labor, thereby granting us the leisure to devote ourselves to the elegance of literature..."
A more Unionist or moderate tone was sustained by James Otey, the TN Bishop.  However his influence was limited as his fundraising for the University was small compared to Polk's.

Most striking was what Glenn Robins wrote about the original intent of the University founders:

"Without a slave labor system upon which a Herronvolk democracy could be constructed, [Sewanee] school officials were forced to abandon their master class ideology and they no longer aspired to mold the Public mind of the south ... They chose instead to isolate themselves."
Interesting the term Robins uses: Herronvolk Democracy, a term coined by the Nazis in their vision to establish "a master race."  Hmmm... 'master race?'  

Recent controversies about southern university connections to their Confederate past have called for changes as noted in a NYT article:

"It all seemed eminently sensible to university administrators looking to appeal beyond the privileged white children of the South, who have long been the university's base, and become a more national, selective and racially diverse university."
Of course times have changed.  But have they?  Also quoted in the article was a Sewanee alumnus, Dr. David W. Aiken:
"I wouldn't be for changing anything. I think they're doing quite well. What is the purpose of making it a more national school?  Do I want kids from California, New York coming there?  Not really."
UPDATE:
A friend recently quipped that he thought I was calling Sewaneesians "Nazis"... not at all.   I was just stating historical facts in context of the disconnect between the today's modern University community and the heritage, history, and vision of the Unversity founders.

There is QUITE a rub there.  For example:

The University of the South published a full page tribute to Leonidas Polk in the official program of the 2006 General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the USA held in Columbus, OH.  The tribute praised Polk for his accomplishments as a Bishop and soldier, dying in battle for the confederate cause.

Later that year 9/30/06, the publication Episcopal Life rebuked this tribute to Polk by Sewanee in a letter signed by Episcopal Church Historians:


"We find the advertisement's celebration of Leonidas Polk - a slaveholding Bishop who died in battle fighting to preserve a racist social order - and its proud association of Polk with the University ... to be offensive and a cause for great concern.  ...  We reject the assertion that Polk is a 'martyred Bishop'.  We reject the assertion that Polk, through his role in founding the University of the South, was an advocate for the 'religious training for sons of the South', knowing that he intended the school to be an institution for white males only, and indeed only for a select portion of this group." (ref
The publisher of the program apologized, but it's not clear if the University ever did.  Some defended Polk in editorials.   For some, the Civil War rages on...
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Well, now being part of the Sewanee community, I remember what brought me there 20+ yrs ago, the stunning natural beauty of the plateau.  I was naturally attracted to the beautiful architecture of the college as well.  I'm happy to have found the community to be quite inclusive and freethinking.  Jon Meacham, an alumnus jokingly described the university as "a strange combination of 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'Deliverance.'   

After reading some of the University history, it makes me very happy and feel privileged that I went to exclusive private Universities that are known for their exceptional ethnic and cultural diversity - the highly international Berklee College of Music; and ... situated at the 'Crossroads of the Americas'  - The University of Miami.


Go 'Canes.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really interesting .... enjoyed it Bill! Go Canes!!