Another life lived in the service of Sewanee has ended here at the very post of duty. The University adds another name to the roll of those who are accounted makers of Sewanee.
—“Faithful Servant of Sewanee Was Buried On Tuesday Morning,” the Sewanee Purple, February 23, 1934
Seven or so years ago, I came across a thin, softbound book of biographical sketches from 1932 called Men Who Made Sewanee for Makers of Sewanee To-Day. At the time, I was working on an exhibit for the university archives that aspired to tell the story of “manhood at Sewanee,” from the University’s founding in the 1850s to the present. The idea had sounded pretty good when I pitched it to the archivist, but I had never done anything like that before. Months in, the documents were still proving stubbornly resistant to discipline and direction. My rescue came in the form of Tanner Potts, a 2015 graduate whom I had known since practically his first day at Sewanee. Tanner was an intelligent and inexhaustible researcher who, after four years as the varsity football team’s starting center, had done the practical fieldwork to prepare him for the task ahead. I am almost certain Tanner was the one who told me about the book. Its first real sentence—“Sewanee was founded to make men”—pointed the way forward and came to serve as the exhibit’s title.
On the subject of the men being made, those Episcopal gentlemen who in 1856 and 1857 put their heads and wealth together to establish the University of the South (a school that nearly everyone since has called Sewanee) never imagined that they were making ordinary men. They themselves were power brokers in Southern agriculture, finance, and politics. They were owners of Black adults and children. Many of them were also priests, tending the flocks of Episcopalians who purchased, traded, mortgaged, and re-mortgaged enslaved people and wrung, from the antebellum South’s fields of cotton and sugarcane, a level of wealth that was vastly out of proportion to their small number. Other universities in North Carolina or Georgia or Mississippi might educate men with small minds and limited horizons, but the University of the South was to produce a new vanguard of pious patriarchs, fitted for “the land of the sun and the slave,” a Christian civilization of bondage the future of which they foresaw as geographically and temporally unbounded. In 1858 and 1859, two years before a shot had been lobbed at Fort Sumter and started the American Civil War, they devised a blueprint for a religious, intellectual, and cultural capital that they believed would vindicate the slaveholding South before the eyes of the modern world. Sewanee could help secure the destiny and blessings assigned to the region by the pro-slavery deity they worshipped and served.
A reader of Men Who Made Sewanee would probably not, after a first pass, come away with that synopsis. Nor should they expect to; the author was a loyal son of old Sewanee and the University Chaplain, the Reverend Moultrie Guerry. The Guerrys have long been one of the families who were the pride of the University in the twentieth century. A single example suggests the depth of their pedigree: Fort Moultrie, the fortification guarding Charleston Harbor, is named for the priest’s ancestor, Colonel William Moultrie, who led the patriot forces that beat back the British fleet in 1776 and (for a time) saved the city from occupation. Closer to Tennessee, Moultrie Guerry’s father, William A., who graduated from Sewanee in 1884 with a bachelor of arts and again in 1891 with a bachelor of divinity, had held the University chaplaincy from 1893 until 1907, when he moved with his family, including young Moultrie, to South Carolina to become its Episcopal bishop. Moultrie (Sewanee valedictorian in 1921) returned to the school as chaplain in 1929 and stayed until 1938. He surrendered his post for the pulpit of an ancient Norfolk, Virginia, parish only because his brother, Alexander (class of 1910), had become Sewanee’s vice-chancellor. He felt one Guerry at a time was enough for Sewanee.
When it came to Sewanee men, then, Moultrie Guerry knew his subject in a familiar and peculiarly aristocratic Sewanee way, and he spoke about the University’s ancient luminaries with the confidence and authority of an insider’s insider—a bishop’s son paying tribute to the bishops who had sired the University that had made him a Sewanee man. He had grown up in a Sewanee draped in Confederate gray. The old rebels who had founded the school in the late 1850s (including Leonidas Polk, the Bishop of Louisiana and a Confederate general), or nursed it off life support during Reconstruction (such as the Confederate quartermaster George R. Fairbanks), were, even if in the grave, sweetly ripening in their descendants’ memories of the Lost Cause. In Men Who Made Sewanee, Guerry gives each of the school’s eight patriarchs a compact chapter steeped in the notion of an Old South cleansed, as one might expect, of any seriously tarnishing associations with either the slavery they had killed to defend or the disloyalty they had shown to the American nation. All, wrote Guerry, had been “leaders of men” who “found the crowning glory of their manhood in the ministry of God and men, and of Sewanee.”
Men Who Made Sewanee attracted a handful of formal reviews. By far the most rhapsodic appeared in the Chattanooga News. Its young author, Robert F. Twinam, was a Yale man, an ambitious and well-situated newspaperman (he lived at home with his family in the city’s elegant Fort Wood neighborhood, next door to the Ochs, owners of the Times of Chattanooga and New York City). He was also a darling of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Guerry’s “labor of love,” Twinam concluded, was a collective portrait of and for “the undefeated South, the Lost Cause, enshrined, and perchance redeemed by pain and Promethean love.” In characterizing the institution’s original purpose, he quoted the chaplain: it had been “to radiate the warmth and light of the Southern civilization, and not the least of the beneficiaries was to be the subject race, whom the Southerners must prepare for a freedom they seemed not yet ready to exercise.” Sewanee’s student newspaper, the Purple, republished the review in full. Twinam, twenty-four at the time, died eighteen months later when the phaeton he was driving overturned, prompting the cancellation of his upcoming speech on Robert E. Lee, which had promised to be a headliner event at the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s annual Lee-Stonewall Jackson celebration.
There is no evidence that in compiling the book Guerry harbored grandiose visions of redeeming the modern world, Old-Southern style, or even injecting the Lost Cause with new energy. Almost half a century later, in 1980, he recalled having written the book for the 1930s generation of Sewanee sons, who in his view “didn't know the founders very well.” Experienced preacher that he was, Guerry seems to have constructed each chapter as a sermon, meant to both instruct the college boys on a history they little knew and, as the University’s prayer goes, “enlighten their minds, purify their hearts, and sanctify their wills.” He probably felt, too, that their spirits needed a secular boost, with the Great Depression in its earliest and darkest stages and no New Deal in sight. Five chapters debuted in the Sewanee Review. The journal’s editor, William Knickerbocker, ran them in successive issues in 1932-33 and did Guerry a material favor by absorbing the typesetting costs of half the book.
The phrase “Lost Cause” appears just once in the text, and without emphasis, but the history lesson in Guerry’s book—about the warm light of Southern civilization, and the caring regard shown to a subject people deemed unprepared for the freedom that white men enjoyed—translated the supremacy of the white race into a soothing and genteel hymn to the Old South, its flagship university, and its social order of white over Black. Readers, such as the misty-eyed Confederate-wannabe Twinam, gravitated to the book’s saccharine rendition of slavery and white domination, which had lain at the heart of the original “ministry of God and men, and of Sewanee.”
There have always been on the Mountain gentlemen of color in the best sense of the word who have served Sewanee well and who have made their humble contribution, not only in work that builds buildings and keeps them clean but in courtesy and humor and enthusiastic interest in all things and all people connected with the camaraderie of this place. Their influence has been distinctive and contagious.
—“Faithful Servant of Sewanee Was Buried On Tuesday Morning,” the Sewanee Purple, Feb. 23, 1934
Guerry’s thoughts on the men who made Sewanee, including how and why they did it, were in the campus air on the morning of February 13, 1934, when a singular event occurred at the mountaintop university. Two days earlier, at 6:30 on Sunday morning, a perforated aortic valve had felled the “colored bell-ringer,” Henry Woods, as he stood at his chapel post preparing to do the job he had done for more than twenty years. When asked to hold memorial services at the Woods’ home, Chaplain Guerry had demurred, according to a correspondent for the Sewanee Purple, and instead offered the University chapel “as a fitting place to which friends both white and colored might come.” On the Tuesday morning of Woods’s funeral, the student choir sang, and “an impressive congregation” listened as Guerry read the appropriate Episcopal service. The college correspondent recognized the scene as unique in the annals of the University and maybe in those of American higher education. At the front, he reported, was “our Negro population,” the family and friends of the deceased, and behind them row upon row of pews “well filled by faculty, students, and residents.” All had gathered to honor “another life lived in the service of Sewanee.” In doing so, the University had displayed the “warm interracial relations” that prevailed there. It demonstrated their collective faith in “the essential unity of the children of God” despite all earthly differences, and added “another name to the roll of those who are accounted makers of Sewanee.” Chances are the Purple writer did not come up with that phrasing on his own, but borrowed from the brief words the chaplain spoke that morning.
These kinds of local tributes to faithful Black servants have become familiar to me since 2006, when I was a last-minute recruit to a collection of Sewanee faculty members summoned to a meeting room in Rebel’s Rest, the old Confederate home place turned university guesthouse. We were tasked with producing historical essays for a collection marking the University’s upcoming sesquicentennial. I had been teaching here at my alma mater (class of 1980) since 1992, and my professional gaze had tended to aim in a northerly direction before this opportunity arose. I ended up writing an essay about Sewanee’s famous 1899 football team, the unbeaten one, who won five games over the course of six November days, claiming the Southern championship. The 1899 squad has cast a champion’s shadow on every Sewanee team since.
Almost from the moment I began my research, stories about “gentlemen of color” like Henry Woods started to turn up, men who had devoted themselves to humbly serving Sewanee, and who had left a permanent character-forming mark on Sewanee white men, as a result of which these Black men were beloved of all white people. There were stories of “trainers” and “rubbers” (masseurs), the mostly nameless Black men who attended to whatever had to be fetched, carried, or hauled for the gentleman athletes. The trainer could be summoned at will to massage and restore their bruised bodies to fighting form. There were the dormitory “servants” of the early twentieth century, maybe including Henry Woods, “all smiles and bows” of gratitude when the college boys honored the established custom of paying the servant’s expenses to the annual football showdown with Vanderbilt in Nashville. According to a Purple writer in 1917, “Kindness to inferiors in office, age or experience” was a mark of the Sewanee gentleman. There was Willie Sims (1886-1950), familiarly known to whites as “Willie Six” or just “Six,” who tended to generations of Sewanee athletes starting around 1907. The plaque awarded him on his retirement in 1947 honored his “faithful and loving service to the athletes of Sewanee.” His demonstration of “selflessness and of pure devotion to his task” had marked “the lives of all with whom he has come in contact.” There are other examples, but the earliest and the one that has held my attention in the last few years is “Altimore,” whom Polk’s most recent biographer calls the bishop’s “army companion and body servant.” He was a Black man praised and loved by all for having risked his life to rescue Bishop Polk’s wife when arsonists torched their Sewanee home on the eve of the Civil War.
“Willie Six,” the “rubbers” and “trainers,” the “servants” bowing and scraping at the depot in Cowan, “Altimore”—the Black men in these accounts are cast in the familiar role of “Magical Negroes.” The term was popularized by Spike Lee at a talk the filmmaker gave at Yale in 2001. Lee mercilessly called out some of the popular movies of his day for rehabbing the old stereotype of the noble or happy slave for contemporary consumption. The tradition is old. A neat expression of the original model appeared in a 1900 speech given by Sewanee’s chaplain, William A. Guerry, Moultrie’s father. In that year, he spoke before the Southern Society for the Promotion of the Study of Race Conditions and Problems in the South. Guerry explained that the “best and most respectable class of Negroes in the South” were the old types, the ones “who were once slaves” and who had never lost their faithful and deferential ties to their white superiors. The ranks of the “criminal classes” were, he regretted to say, populated with those “farthest removed from the institution of slavery,” especially the “shiftless, corrupt class” of the self-described “‘educated Negro,’ who considers himself above the menial tasks and occupations of his forefathers.” Guerry explained that the only deliverance for “the Negro” (and by extension the only hope for social order) was for the Black man to accept his natural station and submit to “his truest friends,” the Southern whites, and ideally the ones who themselves had once been masters, or their sons. Guerry undoubtedly had Sewanee graduates in mind here.
This wishful version of the happy slave turned happily submissive freeman is of course too raw for the twenty-first century. It has been translated in movies and television into the mystical, self-sacrificial Black redeemer of hapless, confused, weakened white men. Lee’s special target was The Legend of Bagger Vance from 2000. “How is it,” he wondered, “that Black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people” rather than for themselves or their families? Why is it that Black people help complete the stories of white people but have no stories to tell of their own lives, families, and communities?