by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer
As the University of the South prepares to relocate the General Kirby-Smith Memorial, a University project is considering the future of Sewanee’s other memorials tied to the Confederacy and slavery.
The University is moving the bas-relief and plaques honoring Edmund Kirby-Smith—a Civil War general and later a Sewanee professor—from the intersection of Texas and University avenues to the Kirby-Smith plot in the University Cemetery.
Sewanee Vice-Chancellor John McCardell said on Oct. 2 that there are currently no plans to move other monuments.
“This is an important and complex subject,” he said. “I think we are wisely taking our time to deal with those complexities before rushing to judgment. Above all, participants in our discussions need to be informed and to understand those complexities, not the least of which is that not a single one of us has ever led a completely blameless life, or one that may not subject us, 100 years hence, to judgments that we, in our own time, might regard as secondary or partial.”
Leading the discussion is the Working Group on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation, a team tasked to “study the significance of slavery and slavery’s legacies in the history and day to day life of the University,” said Woody Register, a history professor and director of the group.
Register said the group will present principles, guidelines and recommendations by the end of the academic year to lead decisions about “the place and prominence” of memorials, symbols and names related to the antebellum South.
“As an institution of higher education founded in the late 1850s by slaveholders, for the benefit of slaveholders, and to serve and protect a slaveholding society—a civilization based on bondage—our University of the South bears, I think, a distinctive obligation to re-examine its history and reflect on how that history necessitates careful, thoughtful reflection,” Register said. “How will that knowledge of our past, shape and guide the kind of a university Sewanee will be today and in the decades to come?”
Register spoke about the project at a packed Gailor Hall on Sept. 28 in the first of a series of public forums. The forum highlighted the Kirby-Smith monument as a talking point, but Register said the working group had no role in the monument’s relocation.
Sewanee Vice-Chancellor John McCardell, in an email to the University community the day before the event, announced the monument was being moved after a request from Tom Kirby-Smith, great grandson of the general, that it be removed. The vice chancellor said several stakeholders were consulted before the decision.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, Kirby-Smith Chapter 327, raised $2,000 for the monument, which was dedicated in May 1940, said Tanner Potts, the working group’s research assistant.
Ginger Delius, current president of the Kirby-Smith chapter, declined to comment for this article, stating the group would wait until the state convention later this month to comment on the monument’s relocation.
Potts offered information on Kirby-Smith and the memorial during the Sept. 28 forum, where he highlighted the controversial sides of the general, like the fact that he was a slaveholder and opposed giving prisoner of war protection to Union soldiers who were black. He also noted Kirby-Smith’s contributions to the Sewanee community.
“Teaching botany and mathematics among other fellow Confederates on the new University faculty, Edmund Kirby-Smith became a beloved member of the community,” Potts said. “He served as superintendent of the local Sunday School at St. Paul’s on the Mountain, which was a predecessor of Otey Parish. He also served as a mentor to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.”
McCardell, who is also a history professor, noted on Oct. 2 that the context of memorials should be considered.
“I think it is important to keep in mind why a particular individual is being honored or commemorated,” he said. “Kirby-Smith is a case in point. He is justly celebrated for his participation in the life of this community and as a member of the faculty. But the memorial in question depicts him as a Confederate and highlights his non-University-related life. That may prove to be one useful line of distinction as we wrestle with this issue.”
The state of Florida is also in the process of removing a Kirby-Smith monument. A statue of the general, who was born in St. Augustine, Fla., is one of two statues representing prominent Floridians at the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. The Florida legislature voted to replace the statue in 2016, but has yet to decide on a replacement.
The next forum will be at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 17, in Gailor Auditorium.
Register noted there are many options available for dealing with symbols of the antebellum South in Sewanee, including leaving things as they are. During the Sept. 28 forum, more than a dozen people shared their thoughts.
One student said he is inspired by the changes to the University and the country that he sees depicted in the historical scenes on the stained glass windows at All Saints’ Chapel and he encourages changing the meaning of the monuments.
“Here, when I walk through All Saints’, when I read the history, when I know what it’s about, it almost creates admiration, just the juxtaposition of a general who fought for me not to be here and I’m walking right there. That’s the beauty for me,” he said.
History is a gray area, said another student, and even though the past is controversial it should not be erased, but the other side of the picture should be built up, like honoring slaves and workers who took part in constructing the University.
Another student had a similar suggestion, including honoring Kirby-Smith’s personal assistant, Alexander Darnes, a slave who went on to become Jacksonville’s first black doctor and only the second black doctor in Florida at the time.
A professor in attendance said she views Kirby-Smith as a traitor, a war criminal and murderer and asked if Confederate soldiers should be memorialized given their deeds and the unwelcome message it sends.
Another student said she likes the idea of listening to various opinions, remembering that Confederate soldiers and supporters were humans with many sides, both good and bad, who are worth memorializing and learning from.
The people who should be honored are the professors, the “great men and women” who were part of the Civil Rights Movement, said an alumnus.
The monuments are meant to glorify Confederate soldiers and should be moved to educational areas, like museums, one student said. Another student countered that a college campus is an educational area, and mistakes of the past should not be hidden.
One student asked those in attendance to consider what it was like for a black student from the north to go to the University of the South and the first thing they see is a Confederate monument.
The memorials do not promote the University motto of Ecce Quam Bonum, said another student. EQB comes from the Latin translation of the Psalm “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity!”
“If our goal is to make Sewanee a more inclusive place for all people, in the spirit of EQB, we have to look at whether having these memorials works towards or against that goal,” she said, “and I think that’s pretty clear.”
A lifelong resident of Sewanee said Kirby-Smith serves as a reminder that no matter how brilliant and accomplished someone is, they can be fundamentally wrong on an issue.