St. Mark’s: Sewanee’s Forgotten African-American Community

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

At an evening webinar conversation, Jim Crow-era Sewanee residents Sandra Turner Davis and James (Jimmy) Staten talked about Sewanee’s African-American culture and life experiences lost from the historical record. Woody Register, Director of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, joined Davis and Staten.

Providing context, Register said, the University “archive is structured to be a Jim Crow archive, to tell the story of white Sewanee.” The evening’s discussion was part of the effort “to recover the history of the people left out.”

Davis and Staten, both born and raised in Sewanee, offered a glimpse of a rich culture known as the St. Mark’s community. Staten talked about how St. Mark’s Church, the Kennerly School, and Belmont Club formed the heart of the neighborhood. The Belmont Club, a community center with a ballfield on the grounds, occupied the location of the current St. Mark’s community center. On weekends “the whole area would be full of people,” Staten said. African-Americans came to play ball, for parties, to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries—they came not just from Sewanee but from throughout Franklin County and even neighboring counties. Why?

In the late 1950s, the University constructed a swimming pool for African-American residents in the St. Mark’s neighborhood. Register explained the University intended the newly constructed Lake O’Donnell to be for whites only. The pool built for the Sewanee African-American population “became a magnet for blacks…Sewanee became a black social center.”

But the pool was not the only draw. “Sewanee was a safe haven,” Staten acknowledged. He recalls being welcome at fraternity houses and attending performances by musical greats such as Louis Armstrong and Lou Rawls. Staten and Davis both praised Sewanee’s superior medical care. Both were born in Emerald Hodgson Hospital. Typically blacks off the mountain were born at home.

“Blacks were treated differently in Sewanee,” Staten said. “But,” he stressed, “it still had its Jim Crow rules.”

Staten could order at the ice cream parlor, but he couldn’t sit down. At the movie theater, he sat in the balcony. And there was some overt racism from whites residing on “the other side of the tracks” behind the Sewanee Market. At Tubby’s in Monteagle where people socialized, the white community wanted to join the black community at their section in the back, but the owner would not allow it, Staten said.

As for school, Davis and Staten both attended the segregate Kennerly School, one room for all eight grades and one teacher. Davis recalls Miss Sophia Miller as strict. The eighth-grade students helped teach “the before students,” Staten said. Eventually a second room and second teacher were added.

“My mother and Sarah Staten were very active in getting the blacks into the white school,” Davis said. “I don’t know where we would be without them.”

Staten describes integration as “difficult.”

“We were forced into integration…into their school and their culture, and we had to take their name.” For Staten, in high school then, that meant changing from being the Townsend Tigers to being the Franklin County Rebels. Asked if he ever thought about attending the University, Staten said, “The University was closed to blacks of my generation…there were only one or two.”

Register pointed out the situation was reversed now, with far more University students of color and few black residents. Staten cited the lack of jobs and educational opportunities as the reason African-Americans left.

Davis said she doubted Otey Memorial Parish changing its name would draw the black community back to the church—“I’ll stay with my own church and pastor. I’ve been there so long, I won’t change.”

“It will always be Otey to those who grew up with Otey,” Staten said. Many African-Americans raised in Sewanee now lived in the valley and were elderly, Staten observed. “It’s a long drive.”

Register hopes African-American students coming to a town with so few people of color will “see themselves as part of…a continuous history” through the Roberson Project’s work. Student coordinated efforts to locate African-American historical markers in Sewanee will rely on input from local African-Americans to determine whom and what should be memorialized.