Save Sewanee Black History Archive: A Lifetime in the Making

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

On the afternoon of June 6, the creators, crafters, and celebrators of the Save Sewanee Black History website and archive gathered on the front porch of Fulford Hall. Woody Register, director of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, said the website and archive project took two years to become a reality. But for the true creators of the archive, the project was a lifetime in the making.

Pointing to the porch display where a large video monitor featured the website home page, Sandra Turner Davis identified her 5-year-old self in a photo taken on the steps of St. Mark’s Church where the African-American community worshipped 60 years ago. The church is long gone, but Carl Hill says he still lives on the leasehold in the St. Mark’s neighborhood where he was raised. When the Roberson Project began four years ago, Register initially anticipated “working principally on the history of the University, but almost immediately…we realized working with the people of this community would have to be at the heart of the work we did.” A National Endowment for the Humanities grant helped fund two events where African-American people with Sewanee roots archived their pasts. They recorded oral histories, shared photographs, newspaper clippings, documents and scrapbooks to be electronically copied and stored, and marked sites on a huge aerial map identifying locations the St. Mark’s community called their own.

As Murphy’s Law would have it “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Two days before the launch party at Fulford, the website crashed. Register credits Roberson Project Co-Director Tiffany Momen, who first became involved as a graduate student volunteer, with “bringing the website back to life.” Then came the rain complication, and Register worried attendance would be sparse. The packed to capacity Fulford Hall porch proved Register wrong.

Hill said his favorite thing about being involved in the project was “linking something that’s not being forgotten, bringing it to the forefront and getting it told.” He recalled as a boy he and his cousins stopping by Fulford Hall where his aunt worked as a housekeeper for the vice chancellor. She shooed the children away with the scold, “You all can’t be coming up here.” In the 1970s, Hill worked in the University dining hall. He had heard University policy allowed employees to take classes at the University and allowed their children to attend tuition free provided they met the academic criterion. But Hill’s supervisor told him, “That’s not for you.” Pointing to a dramatic change, Hill said in the 1970s very few African-American students attended the University, but there was a large African-American community in the town. Now, the reverse was true, with many African-American students enrolled, but few African-American community members. “The ones that are left can continue to tell the story, though,” he said.

“One of my favorite things was learning about the African-American people who call Sewanee home and putting faces with the names,” Momen said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to grow the archive.” Markers located throughout Sewanee now identify sites important to the once thriving St. Mark’s community. Register speculated a heritage trail map identifying these sites and other landmarks might take wing as a future project.

“It’s an act of repair and justice for the University to take a hand in telling the history of the people who were so important, indispensable, to the prosperity and wellbeing and maintenance of the life of this institution,” Register said.

To learn about Sewanee’s black history and view firsthand the mementos shared by Sewanee’s black community visit the website at