Overview and History
The Save Sewanee Black History project launched in the spring of 2019 with the formation of an organizing committee of people with family ties to the historic Black neighborhoods, community members, and University faculty and staff from the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. For most of its history, Sewanee had two neighborhoods where its Black residents were clustered. The St. Mark’s neighborhood — bounded today on the North and East by the town’s two cemeteries, and on the South by Highway 64 — was the larger of the two and the location of the community’s “mission” Episcopal church, segregated school, and social center, the “Belmont Club.” The smaller neighborhood was next to the Sewanee Military Academy on Tennessee Avenue (now home of the School of Theology) and called “Essie May” (for SMA). In the early 1970s the African American population in Sewanee exceeded 200. Today fewer than 30 Black residents live in the St. Mark’s area, and none in Essie May.
Funded by a $12,000 Common Heritage grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the committee organized two “digitization fairs” in 2019, the first on Memorial Day and the second on July 5th to collect and preserve local Black history. Tables were set up to scan photographs and other family keepsakes for inclusion in a digital archive. A “participatory mapping” station — a blown-up aerial photograph of Sewanee — invited those who had lived in the neighborhoods to tell and preserve their stories about the places that mattered to them on the Mountain. Thanks to the generosity of Ann and Doug Cameron, a snug and air-conditioned oral history booth operated out of the Cameron family RV, and a steady stream of people donated their life histories to the archive. The Roberson Project’s student associates — Maddy Parks, Colton Williams, and Klarke Stricklen — ferried van-loads of participants on story-filled rides through the St. Mark’s neighborhood and cemetery. A dinner of fried fish and barbecue cooked up by Linda Hale was delicious reward for everyone who participated in the festive events.
The digitization events were governed by what archival scholars call “post-custodial” models of collecting. Instead of institutional archives taking possession and ownership of the documents, photographs, and other items, the SSBH project made digital copies and then returned the actual photographs, postcards, and letters to their original owners. Each “donor” was given a thumb drive containing the digitized images and invited to allow SSBH to put a virtual copy of their keepsakes in an online archive. Most participants agreed to this arrangement, and it is because of their generosity that we are able to offer — to them and for them — this permanent and publicly accessible repository of the history of the people and places that mattered to them in their Sewanee.
Special Thanks to Volunteers: Indispensable and generous support was provided by Mandi Johnson and Matt Reynolds, respectively the director and associate director of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections at the University of the South. They trained and prepared our volunteers to conduct oral histories, provided the logistical support for gathering, processing, and cataloguing the historical materials, and were highly productive scanners, too. We also are grateful to Professor Chris Van de Ven, GIS specialist and manager of the Landscape Analysis Lab, who produced the map on our home page. Finally, we are grateful to many others — students, faculty, and staff of the School of Theology and College and community members — who volunteered their labor and support those days.
Doug Cameron, Sandra Turner Davis, Jackie Duncan, Nicky Hamilton, Rob Lamborn, Hannah Pommersheim, Tanner Potts, Woody Register, Sarah Sherwood, James Staten, Shirley Taylor, Elmore Torbert
The Roberson Project
The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation at the University of the South is a six-year initiative investigating the university’s historical entanglements with slavery and slavery’s legacies. Our Project’s name memorializes the late Professor of History, Houston Bryan Roberson, who was the first tenured African American faculty member at Sewanee and the first to make African American history and culture the focus of their teaching and scholarship. The Roberson Project seeks to honor his inspiring legacies at Sewanee: the devotion to rigorous teaching, the pursuit of scholarship, the dedication to social justice, and the personal example of high moral character. In doing so, the Roberson Project seeks to help Sewanee confront our history in order to seek a more just and equitable future for our broad and diverse community.