Call for Photos: Sewanee Black History Trail

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

At a Memorial Day 2019 archiving event sponsored by the Roberson Project, African Americans with Sewanee roots shared photographs and stories, aided by a huge map to locate sites where they once worshipped, attended school, had swimming pool fun, and gathered to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. The buildings and structures where many of these activities occurred no longer exist. But the memories shared that day sparked the idea for a Sewanee Black History walking trail with signage, photographs, and narratives. Through the efforts of University professor Scott Torreano, his students, and University Bonner Scholars, the St. Mark’s Heritage Trail will soon become a reality.

Why “St. Mark’s” Heritage Trail? From the 1930s until 1968, Sewanee’s African American community worshipped at the St. Mark’s Church. Until the mid-1960’s integration, they attended class and studied at the Kennerly School. They swam at the pool built in the late 1950s to facilitate segregation of the newly constructed Lake O’Donnell. They played ball and held community gatherings at the Belmont Club. The pool has been filled in and the church, school, and Belmont Club, all located in the Oak Street neighborhood, have been torn down. [See Messenger, Jan. 22, 2021, “What’s in a Name?”; June 7, 2019, “Digitization Days”; Feb. 19, 2021, “St. Mark’s: Sewanee’s Forgotten African American Community”].

The student-led Roberson Project initiative to mark and memorialize these and other significant places in Sewanee’s black history with a walking trail began in the fall of 2020. “Professor Scott Torreano and his students were the creative and expert brains who did the preliminary planning study and laid out the first draft of a heritage trail,” said Woody Register, Roberson Project Director. “Without their contributions, this project would still be just an idea.” University Bonner Scholars seized on the funding opportunity provided by the newly created Bonner Racial Justice Community Fund, said Andrew Maginn, Roberson Project researcher and program coordinator. The students received a grant and the trail idea blossomed.

Trail markers at the memorialized sites will feature photographs, narratives, and QR Codes people can scan with their phones for more information. In addition to the above mentioned sites, plans call for markers for Willie “Six” Field and Sewanee’s African American cemetery, Maginn said. But the project needs the community’s help finding photos. So far, no photos whatsoever have been found of the Belmont Club, the hub of Sewanee African American community life, and photos of other sites are often of poor quality. Commenting on the lack of photos, Maginn observed, “It was expensive to have a camera and get pictures developed.” People with photos to share should phone (931) 598-1685 or email <>. Roberson Project volunteers can scan photos at people’s homes to alleviate worries of loss or damage to precious photo memories.

In addition to the Bonner Fund, Register stressed the Council of Independent College’s NetVUE program provided “indispensable financial support” helping the Roberson Project to “reframe the stories told about our college community by incorporating the lives and experiences of Sewanee’s Black residents.”

Plans call for unveiling the St. Mark’s Heritage Trail with a walk-through in February during Black History Month. Take time over the next few weeks to search those shoeboxes and memory drawers for photos and help Sewanee’s Black History Trail shine the bright light of a rich and vibrant past.

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