Historians have linked the presence of African Americans in Sewanee after emancipation to enslaved individuals who were held in bondage in Sewanee and nearby towns such as Pelham, Decherd, and Cowan, Tennessee. After emancipation and over succeeding decades, most African American families settled in two distinct areas of Sewanee. Some settled in an area near the Sewanee Military Academy, affectionately known as “Essie May.” Others lived south of the university in an area that white residents knew by various names: the “Bottom,” “Negro Town,” “Happy Hollow,” and, after 1945, “St. Mark’s,” after the segregated Episcopal mission church in this neighborhood. However, Black residents knew where they lived simply as “Sewanee.” Streets such as Alabama Avenue and the dirt roads and trails later improved and named Palmetto, Oak, and Magnolia streets in the 1950s nurtured Black life on the mountain. These streets held the earliest homes and institutions of the African American community and offered a sense of permanence to newly freed men and women and their descendants.
The 1870 United States Census recorded the names of the earliest members of the African American community. Among them were the Arledge family, the Colyar family, the Jordan family, and others. Information on the first decade of free African American life in Sewanee remains scant, but the 1880 United States Census revealed distinct neighborhood boundaries in Sewanee, permitting today’s researchers to understand familial relationships and connections to the university fully. During this era, many African American men worked in support roles at the university. Most African American women and young girls worked as servants, cooks, and washerwomen for local white families.
These community members left behind stories of their experiences, including newspaper articles detailing the sports pursuits of the Sewanee Black Tigers football and baseball teams. On Christmas Day 1910, the Winchester Wolverines faced off against the Sewanee Black Tigers with 800 onlookers in attendance. According to newspaper reports, members of the Black Tigers team included Yum Yum (Poss Trigg), Logan Phillips, John Moseley, McPharland, and Landes Rankin. Other articles recall the optimism of the 1912 Black Tigers team led by Hugh Hill. That year, the Black Tigers challenged university teams at Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tennessee, to a Thanksgiving Day Game. According to Hill, the Black Tigers vowed they would “be there whether we get a game or not.”
African American community members would form bonds with nearby Black communities sharing hairdressers such as Ms. Eugenia Bonner, the Poro Hair Culturist and Manicurist of Sewanee, and they attended each other’s parties, weddings, church services, and homegoing celebrations. For example, the February 22, 1918 edition of the Nashville Globe included an article titled “Sewanee’s Great Loss.” The article detailed the death of Clifford Keith and described him as “one of Sewanee’s most popular men.” Additionally, the article noted, “Clifford was a splendid young man, a dutiful son, and an excellent scholar. We heartily sympathize with his dear and most faithful mother.” When Albert Arledge, a member of one of Sewanee’s oldest African American families, passed away in April 1918, Sewanee’s African American community mourned his death together noting that “it brought sorrow to this community at large. No man was better than ‘Abstract’ as he was called by all here.” In times of grief, the African American community stuck together and aided one another, and in times of struggle, they did as well.
In the winter of 1942, African Americans in Sewanee discovered that the Civic Association, the white men’s club that oversaw the separate white and Black schools in Sewanee, decided to extend the school year for white students. The African American community quickly realized that such a scheme would not only be to the detriment of their children, but that it was inherently unequal. Records reveal that African Americans came together and had John Kennerly, sexton at Otey Parish Memorial Church and former teacher, to advocate on their behalf. Kennerly was perhaps the best man to make such a request. The white men of the Civic Association granted his request with the caveat that local African Americans would have to contribute funding to support the expenses of extending the school year for African Americans. With so little to spare, the Black residents of Sewanee still scraped together enough money to get their children the extra month of education the white children were getting. This example shows that the African American community used their agency and their wits to advocate for themselves. In this and so many other cases, they knew they could not rely on the promises of white people. They had to — and did — push back against Sewanee’s power structure to bring about effective change that would benefit their children and future generations.
For generations, African Americans in Sewanee lived in the shadow of the University of the South. They traveled the backways of the mountain creating footpaths and trails that many today still use. They were ever-present in the shadow of the University, yet we do not know nearly enough about them as we should. Despite the oppression that this community faced daily, they thrived. Community members banded together to carve a life for themselves in the heart of this mountain, and were it not for their presence, ingenuity, and significant impact, the town of Sewanee and its university would not be what they are today. It is imperative that we all — those of us with claims to Sewanee today and those descended from generations of Black Sewanee residents — work together to honor this community, that we sing its praises, and that we recognize and support its community members who still call this mountain home.