Sewanee workshop to guide priests grappling with Confederate symbols in their parishes
A Confederate battle flag depicted in stained glass. A pew labeled as the one where the president of the Confederacy once worshipped. A cathedral plaque honoring an Episcopal bishop who fought for the South in the Civil War.
Should such symbols remain on display at a time when the nation is increasingly alert to violence fueled by white supremacists who see the Confederacy as a validation of their racist hatred? With statues, plaques, artwork and other representations of Confederate figures found in Episcopal churches across the country, how should a parish priest respond?
“This is not just a historical question or a question of the political moment, but these are questions of theological issues that all Episcopal churches face in one way or another,” said Woody Register, a history professor at Sewanee: University of the South who is leading a six-year project intended to tell the full story of the Tennessee university’s ties to slavery and segregation.
The answers to those questions are the focus of a pilot workshop at Sewanee in November that was developed by two Sewanee seminary graduates, the Rev. Hannah Pommersheim and the Rev. Kellan Day. Pommersheim and Day have assisted Register with Sewanee’s Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation.
The workshop also serves as a milepost for the work of Register’s project team, which already has completed substantial research into the history of the university and the 28 Episcopal dioceses that still own and govern it today. Some of that research is informing how Sewanee’s administrators handle Confederate symbols on campus, such as the decision two years ago to relocate a monument honoring Edmund Kirby-Smith, a 19th-century Sewanee professor who previously served as a Confederate general.
As part of the Slavery, Race and Reconciliation project, the team has spent the last six months launching an oral history campaign to record old stories of African American life in the community of Sewanee. The university received $12,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to purchase electronic equipment to scan historic photos and produce audio recordings.