​Slavery, Race and Reconciliation Project Hosts Second Forum

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

The Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation hosted its second public forum on Oct. 17, spotlighting how other countries have dealt with histories of atrocities and human rights violations.
The University of the South’s six-year project is aimed at studying the University’s history—especially its founding by slaveholders and historical ties to the Confederacy—and how to address that past moving forward.
“The point of tonight’s forum is to remind us and perhaps be instructed by the many places around the world that also have these kinds of histories, some of them hidden, some of them not so hidden,” said Woody Register, director of the project.
Nicky Hamilton, senior associate director of the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa during the racial oppression of apartheid. Hamilton, one of three panelists on Oct. 17, discussed South Africa’s monumental effort to mend through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission allowed victims to publicly discuss their wounds and lost loved ones, and offered immunity to military and police officials who committed human rights violations under apartheid—if they detailed their offenses. Hamilton said the commission offered a measure of healing for victims and the country.
“Forgiveness is central in the process of reconciliation,” she said, “but as we all know, it is not easy.”
Repurposing words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Hamilton said America has not properly dealt with its history of racial oppression.
“To the U.S., I say, you have not acknowledged your horrendous past, you have not looked the beast in the eye,” she said. “Therefore, your past continues to hold you hostage.”
Panelist Liesl Allingham, the University’s chair of German and German studies, focused on that country’s efforts to deal with echoes of the Holocaust. She said remembering and commemorating the past is a complex task, noting that Nazi symbols are illegal in Germany, as is denying the Holocaust. She said the bunker where Adolf Hitler committed suicide was left off maps for many years and is now a parking lot. Allingham said it was not until 2006 that the German government officially recognized the site and put up an informational panel.
“Germany draws a strict line between victims and perpetrators in national socialism and while its laws and physical erasure of the public symbols of national socialism seem, and to some extent are, exemplary, nothing is ever that simple,” she said.
Allingham cited other examples of how Germany has remembered its past, such as an official memorial in Berlin which honors Jewish victims, and unofficial memorials like “stumble stones,” which are raised sidewalk stones placed near the last known residences of victims of national socialism in Germany and across Europe.
The third panelist, professor Jessica Mecellem, an expert in transitional and post conflict justice in the Middle East and North Africa, said dealing with the United States’ history of racial oppression and violence is challenging, because unlike Germany and South Africa, the time period of injustice and transition is not as clear.
“In the context of the United States, we have multiple eras of multiple types of violations,” she said. “We have a period of slavery, we have the end of slavery with the Civil War, and then additional eras of widespread and massive violations against the African American community. Some of those violations were state-sanctioned.”
She pointed out that American exceptionalism, the idea that the U.S. has higher values and morality can be “blinding” when it comes to viewing injustice.
“It can be easy to think about the United States as immune, immune to types of violence and evil that are associated with atrocities committed, for example, in Germany or in South Africa, in Rwanda or Cambodia, in Iraq, many countries around the world,” she said. “We can think about that violence as a type of violence that occurs over there in other locations but not in our exceptional country.”
Hamilton noted that after the transition of power in South Africa, monuments related to apartheid were moved to museums and cultural centers, and some bridges, airports and other sites were renamed.
Embedded racism in the names of landscapes and buildings is true of Sewanee and plenty of other places, noted Register, and revealing the history of those names is vital to justice and reconciliation.
One of the tasks of the University’s project is recommending what should happen with monuments and memorials on campus which honor slaveholders and Confederates. The group’s first forum in September centered on Edmund Kirby-Smith, a Sewanee professor and Civil War general, and his monument on Texas Avenue.
Sewanee Vice-Chancellor John McCardell announced prior to that forum that the sculpture and related plaques of Gen. Kirby-Smith were being moved to the University Cemetery after a request from the general’s great-grandson Tom Kirby-Smith.
The discussions in Sewanee are among many similar dialogues around the country, which increased after the 2015 racially-charged shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this year. Those clashes were spurred in part by the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
The next forum is at Gailor Auditorium on Nov. 7 at 7 p.m., which will feature Sewanee alumnus Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, former rector of St. Paul’s church in Richmond, Va., where both Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis worshipped. Joining Adams will be fellow Sewanee alumnus Winslow Hastie, whose family owns Magnolia Plantation near Charleston, a popular tourist attraction with a history of slavery.