​Stories the Windows Tell: Slavery Project Continues

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

The scenes depicted in the stained-glass windows of the narthex at All Saints’ Chapel may not send an appropriate message, said Shelley MacLaren, director of the University of the South Art Gallery.
MacLaren said the four historical windows in the entryway to All Saints’ focus on the University’s history from 1857 to 1957 and they tell a tale of an “idealized Confederate cause” that involves segregationists and slaveholders.
“These windows are beautiful and very effective,” she said. “Their appeal makes them especially important to grapple with. They’re seductive which makes them harder to think about with some distance.”
MacLaren, who is also curator for Academic Engagement, discussed the windows on Feb. 19, during the fourth forum of the Slavery, Race and Reconciliation Project, held at St. Mark’s Hall at Otey Parish. She said decisions are needed concerning changes and how the windows represent the community.
“The wonderful and tricky thing about artwork is its continuing engagement of the present-day viewer,” she said. “These windows keep performing the same function as they did when they were installed. They tell the same stories, they idealize the same people…”
She said the windows align with an increase of monuments and memorials in the 1950s and 60s reflecting the Antebellum South and “The Lost Cause” as backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.
The four windows, which cost $6,000 each, were dedicated in 1960 and 1961, MacLaren said. Each window reflects six scenes, from the University beginnings onward to the University’s centennial celebration and other historic events. But MacLaren noted these are fictionalized scenes, which do not precisely tell factual history.
“When art is telling us about the people and events of another time, they are unreliable witnesses at best—they can’t possibly tell us everything—and they’re beautiful and dangerous liars at worst,” she said.
The blowing up of the first cornerstone of the University during the Civil War is one scene that some historians say likely never happened, MacLaren noted. That particular window also includes a scene portraying founders and religious leaders planting a cross to symbolize the re-establishment of the University. MacLaren said the image of peace and God is contrasted against Northern aggression.
Another scene depicts the Confederate seal above the U.S. flag, a symbol of support for the Confederate cause above the nation, MacLaren said.
She said she is in favor of removing Confederate seals from the church’s stained-glass windows. MacLaren added that there is room available for more windows to expand the picture of the University’s history, which could include the effort to segregate the school and reflect more people of color.
The Feb. 19 forum also yielded discussion of Brooks Hall at Otey Parish. Tom Macfie, University chaplain and former rector of Otey Parish, said the building is not named for Preston Brooks, a slavery supporter and congressman who severely beat Sen. Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856.
The building, which houses church offices, is named in honor of Polly Brooks Kirby-Smith, the granddaughter of Preston Brooks. Louis Rice, Jr. donated money for renovations of the building, named for Polly, who was his wife’s mom.
Otey Parish leadership chose not to punish the grandchildren for their relation to the notorious congressman, Macfie said.
“We had a donor who wanted to honor this family of that generation, the grandchildren of an evil politician, and it seemed to me that was a very clear decision to make,” he said.
Professor Chris McDonough, Alderson-Tillinghast Chair in the Humanities, also shared his thoughts on monuments and memorials during the forum. He said in this time of “polarized politics and weaponized nostalgia” he is in favor of temporary displays that can be changed and continually examined.
McDonough noted that most monuments have a limited shelf life as interest wanes and times change. The relocation of the Gen. Edmund Kirby-Smith memorial from Texas Avenue to the University Cemetery is an example, he said. The memorial was moved following the racial clashes in Charlottesville, Va., last year.
He said he would have liked the Kirby-Smith monument to have remained and an art installation placed in front which questioned the meanings and memories of the Civil War, as well as offering a reflection garden for pondering our own lives and how we will be seen by future generations.
Woody Register, a history professor and director of the Slavery, Race and Reconciliation Project, said the effort is designed to research, discuss and examine the art, monuments and memorials on campus that reflect the Antebellum South and ties to slavery.
The project’s committee is expected to present recommendations to the University concerning the future of campus monument and memorials this year. For more information, email slaveryproject@sewanee.edu.