​Recovering Sewanee’s Black History: What Is Needed

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
“Sewanee was founded by white southern men, but there were black people here from the beginning and nobody can find anything about their history,” said Shirley Taylor. Taylor serves on the newly formed Sewanee Black History Community Advisory Board and the Sewanee Black History Days working group. An African-American born and raised in Sewanee who’s lived here for 65 years, Taylor is well suited for the dual roles. The two entities share overlapping missions and roots in the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.
The Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation originated as a University initiative driven by faculty, staff and students.
“We wanted to involve local people in the project and give them a voice at the table to diversify perspectives,” said project coordinator Woody Register, a University history professor. “You can’t reach out to the community unless you’re willing to listen to them.”
Visiting professor Jody Allen suggested creating a community advisory board. Director of the reconciliation project at the College of William and Mary, Allen spent last year in Sewanee teaching and advising the Sewanee reconciliation project. For the advisory board, Allen and Register reached out to people outside the University who believed in the work they were doing, notably several African-Americans like Taylor and Jimmy Staten who were born and raised in Sewanee, and Sewanee business owner Bruce Manuel, C’80, who teaches Pilates.
Register pulled together the Sewanee Black History Days working group to help coordinate two upcoming events designed to recover and preserve Sewanee’s African-American history, a project funded by a $12,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage grant.
Scheduled for May 27, Memorial Day, and July 5, at St. Mark’s Community Center, the events will offer African-Americans with Sewanee roots an opportunity to record oral histories, to locate Sewanee sites of importance to African-Americans on a large map, and to have personal historical material photographed or scanned. They’ll receive a digital copy and be invited to share a digital copy with the University archives.
The traditional archiving method is to take possession of the material, Register emphasized—“We’re going against that model, changing the politics of archiving.” People will return home with their treasured photographs, scrapbooks, bibles and other memorabilia safely in tow.
The map initiative will invite people to locate family homes and sites meaningful to them such as favorite childhood places to play by marking the map with Post-It notes inscribed with memories and details.
Key in organizing the events is working group member Carl Hill, an African-American born and raised in Sewanee who coordinates the black community’s annual Memorial Day homecoming at St. Marks.
“People off the mountain titled us Sewaneeseans,” said Hill who now lives in McMinnville. “Sewanee is still my home. I’m just living abroad,” he joked.
Hill stressed how drastically the African-American community had “thinned out” since the 1970s. “A much larger black community lived and worked on the Mountain then.” He estimates there were as many as 50 black families in the 1970s and today, maybe a dozen.
Hill sees his role as reaching out to older people who grew up in Sewanee like Sandra Turner Davis whose Sewanee childhood story spans the time frame of the mid fifties and sixties and Atlanta resident Charlie Bright who lived in Sewanee from the late 1930s to the late 1950s.
“Carl knows everyone,” Register said. In forming the working group, Register sought out people with Sewanee roots who could be ambassadors.
In addition to the summer digitization days, other events are planned for this spring including genealogy and oral history workshops.
“We hope these kinds of endeavors strengthen community bonds and connections to the community, in light of the history of race, in a way that’s constructive and positive,” said Register.