The distinction of my being the first African American vice-chancellor of the University of the South is at once utterly irrelevant and of profound importance.
My race (or gender, or age, or any other identifying characteristic that defines me) is immaterial to my ability to perform my duties as vice-chancellor. COVID, for example, does not care that I am Black. Over the last year, all that mattered was my ability to lead our community through the difficult challenges of maintaining an in-person educational experience in the midst of a global pandemic of biblical proportions. The same is true with regard to the tasks that lie ahead. Ensuring competent administration, managing our University’s finances, strengthening our academic programs, articulating a vision for our future, bolstering our collective commitment to live out our shared values—these are all tasks that belong to every vice-chancellor, and I am no different in that regard. As my predecessors have done, I will devote myself fully to meeting them for the benefit of our University and for future generations of Sewanee students.
On the other hand, the fact that I am the first Black (indeed, the first non-white male) vice-chancellor is of profound importance. As the greatest of Southern writers, William Faulkner, once wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In other words, the past continues to define our present, even in ways that we do not realize or do not care to admit.
As the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation of the University of the South has pointed out, one of the animating reasons for the founding of our University in 1856 was to demonstrate that a slaveholding society could be learned, humane, and Christian. Our founders gathered huge financial pledges for the University from the most powerful slaveholding plantation owners of their day. Our founders were either apologists for, or active participants in, the battle to establish and sustain the Confederate States of America, whose mission could not have been clearer: to break from the Union in order to preserve the institution of slavery and the ideology of white supremacy that underlay it. The articles of secession of most of the states in rebellion made that clear, as did CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens in his famous “Cornerstone Speech” delivered in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861:
[The Confederacy’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
For nearly a century after the second founding of our University in 1868, our University continued to embody this foundational principle that “the Negro is not equal to the white man” by its stubborn refusal to admit African Americans as students. Our first African American graduates from the School of Theology, Joseph Green and William O’Neal, were awarded their degrees in 1965. Nathaniel Owens was the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1970—a year after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and just three years before my birth. From a more personal perspective, it is certain that the University I now have the privilege to lead would not have admitted my father, Dr. Reuben Brigety, Sr., on account of his race. He graduated from Morehouse College in 1965 and became the first African American to graduate from the University of Florida School of Medicine in 1970, the same year that Nathaniel Owens graduated from Sewanee. As one of my predecessors, Dr. Edward McCrady, the longest-serving vice-chancellor in the history of our University, wrote in an open letter to the community in March 1962 (when my father was a freshman at Morehouse):
The chances of our ever having any Negro faculty members are too remote for me to worry about. In fact, as far as Sewanee is concerned, the whole problem is so highly imaginary as to be trivial as soon as people come to recognize it as such. . . . No matter how hard anyone tries to find and persuade Negroes to come to Sewanee, if we are simply honest about applying the same standards which we use for Whites, we shall never have enough Negroes in any part of the University to notice. I have enough real problems to work on without wasting my time jousting with windmills.
As I think about this history and my place in it, I wrestle along with the rest of our community with how it affects our present. Half a century after our University graduated its first (singular) African American, Sewanee remains ninety percent white amongst its American undergraduate student body.
Yet I also know, and believe deep in my soul, that we can choose a different future for our University and our community. Confronting our history boldly and honestly can give us the fuel and the will to accomplish the task that our Board of Regents set out for us in their letter of September 8, 2020:
Therefore, the University of the South categorically rejects its past veneration of the Confederacy and of the “Lost Cause” and wholeheartedly commits itself to an urgent process of institutional reckoning in order to make Sewanee a model of diversity, of inclusion, of intellectual rigor, and of loving spirit in an America that rejects prejudice and embraces possibility.
The essential thing that our founders got right over 150 years ago was to create an institution of high academic excellence that prepared its graduates to meet the needs of the South. Since our founding, our collective understanding of what constitutes the South, who is “Southern,” and what the South needs have evolved dramatically. But the notion that our University should address the needs of our region, and should do so in a way that includes all of the people of the South, is as important today as ever. I hope that my perspective as an African American man of Southern stock can help inform my leadership of our University at this critical juncture of its history.
I believe that the arc of the universe can be bent toward justice, but it does not happen by itself. History is not inevitable. It is the result of choices that people make, and decisions that institutions embrace. It is therefore incumbent on us today, as individuals and institutions, to have the moral courage to examine the gap between our professed ideals and our lived experiences so that we can live as boldly and courageously as possible in accordance with our values. After all, we are not what we say but rather what we do. Today’s choices create tomorrow’s history.