​A Plantation and a Church: Reconciling Pasts Tied to Slavery, Confederacy

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

If the “Cathedral of the Confederacy” can confront its past, so can the University of the South, said Wallace Adams-Riley, former rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va.
In his statement, Adams-Riley, a 1993 Sewanee graduate, was referencing an opinion article from the Nashville Scene, “If Sewanee Can Do it, Everyone Can Do It,” in which writer Betsy Phillips talks about the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation. The project is aimed at delving into the University’s history and deciding the future of campus monuments and memorials related to the Confederacy and slavery. Slaveholders and Confederate veterans helped found the University and some of its early leaders and professors were also Confederate veterans.
Adams-Riley spoke at the project’s third forum on Nov. 7 at Gailor Hall, in which he outlined St. Paul’s efforts at reconciling with its own history. Leaders of the Confederacy worshipped at the church, including Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Gen. Josiah Gorgas, who went on to become vice chancellor at Sewanee and whose name adorns Gorgas Hall on campus.
Adams-Riley asked parishioners if it was time to address the church’s own monuments and memorials following the racially-motivated shootings in 2015 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
“‘Might God be calling us to have a conversation unlike any we’ve ever had before about all of the Confederate memorials and imagery inside St. Paul’s Church?’” he recalled asking. ‘What is it like for an African American, man, woman or child, to walk into our church and to see all of this? …Do they feel welcome and fully and equally valued as anyone else? Welcome in this house of God with those things on the walls?’”
Following many discussions, meetings and two public forums, St. Paul’s decided to remove all images of the Confederate Battle Flag from inside the church, he said. They also resolved to study the church’s history more deeply and create a memorial to slaves who helped build the church in the 1840s.
“In the aftermath of all this St. Paul’s was repeatedly accused of erasing history. The irony is people of St. Paul’s know their history now better than ever before. There’s no two ways about it,” he said.
The effort at St. Paul’s also includes creating liturgical and musical expressions of reconciliation and history, Adams-Riley added. The St. Paul’s project is scheduled to conclude in 2020.
When asked whether images and memorials to Confederate soldiers inside Sewanee’s All Saints’ Chapel should remain, Adams-Riley said there is no one solution for every community and input is needed from all sides, but he has his own views.
“I believe that any image of the Confederate Battle Flag has to be put away forever,” he said. “And likewise, any image or representation of a Confederate soldier in uniform, forever. Now they can be in museums or on private property but in terms of public spaces, and I’m saying this as a direct descendent of 11 Confederate soldiers; this is my heritage.”
“What I’m saying is, for the sake of the common good, for the sake of reconciliations, for the sake of all members of our community, I think we have to make choices,” he added.
The second speaker at the Nov. 7 forum was Winslow Hastie, whose family has owned Magnolia Plantation and Gardens since 1676. The popular tourist attraction near Charleston, S.C., also underwent a historical fact and soul-finding mission. Hastie, who has worked in historical preservation in both San Francisco and Charleston, helped spearhead a project to restore the old slave cabins at the plantation and launch deeper investigation into slave life and genealogy there.
He said he received pushback from people in his own family, who preferred to keep the past quiet.
“That was sort of an unpleasant topic we really didn’t want to talk about. That was kind of a raw thing, it was uncomfortable for a lot of people,” he said.
Hastie, a 1995 Sewanee graduate, said he wrestled with his family’s past, but wanted a transparent and honest view of history.
In 1872, the plantation and gardens opened as a tourist attraction. Some of the freed slaves continued to work there, Hastie noted, and descendants continue to work there today—some actually lived in the slave cabins until the mid-1990s.
The restoration of the cabins and surrounding research opened up a number of connections, Hastie said. People whose family members were buried in unmarked graves in one of the plantation’s cemeteries were encouraged to visit and Magnolia became a gathering place for descendants of the slaves there.
In addition, interpretative programs, as well as a program called Lowcountry Africana, a genealogy library and archive for African Americans in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, grew out of the slave research at Magnolia, Hastie said.
Responding to an audience question, Hastie said there have been no conversations about reparations to descendants of slaves, but said Magnolia Plantation does offer two scholarships for African American students, one to the College of Charleston and the other to Trident Technical College.
Woody Register, director of Sewanee’s Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation, said the project’s working group expects to submit recommendations about the University’s memorials and monuments at the end of this academic year. The project is scheduled to continue for six years.