About the University of the South

The University of the South is in Sewanee, Tennessee, 1,900 feet above sea level on the southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau, 45 miles northwest of Chattanooga and 85 miles southeast of Nashville. The University consists of a selective liberal arts college enrolling some 1,650 undergraduate students and a graduate Episcopal School of Theology with about 90 seminarians. It is owned by the dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the South and maintains a strong and distinctive identification with that church.

The bishops of the nine dioceses of the Southern Episcopal Church (North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) launched the campaign in July 1856 to establish a "southern university" for the benefit of the “plantation states.” They proclaimed it would be a Christian institution dedicated to serving (in their words) “the land of the sun and the slave,” educating generations of lay and church leaders to protect and defend the distinctive institutions of the slave states. (A concise history of the university's founding is here.)

By the time of the Civil War, the University’s leaders had amassed firm promises of more than $1.2 million as an endowment for a new educational institution more comprehensive in its scope of scholarship and learning than any then in existence in North America. The nearly 300 persons who pledged money to the University included some of the wealthiest and most politically powerful figures in the region. The wealth they pledged was generated by the slavery-based economy of the region. They enslaved more than 40,000 persons. (Learn more about the university's "Founding Funders" here.)

Those same bishops and their secular associates and benefactors laid a marble cornerstone for "The University of the South" in October 1860, a matter of weeks before the political leaders of southern states began to secede from the United States to form their own nation and government. However, with the start of the Civil War, the University did not admit students or officially open its doors until 1868.

Over the next century, the University of the South educated generations of white male religious and civic leaders of the South well out of proportion to its student body’s size, which numbered 433 in the fall of 1951. Through most of its first century, the University was for white males only. The first African American student, John Moncrief, enrolled in a summer program in its School of Theology in 1953. The first African American undergraduate, Calvin Kendall Williams, a transfer from Fisk University, enrolled in the college a decade later. Neither the college nor the seminary hired an African American in a tenure-track position to its faculties until the mid-1990s, by which time few Black students were attending Sewanee. Today, 18% of students identify as persons of color, and less than 5% of total enrollment identifies as African American.

Our Project’s name memorializes the late Professor of History, Houston Bryan Roberson (1958-2016), who was the first tenured African American faculty member at Sewanee and the first to make African American history and culture the focus of their teaching and scholarship. The Roberson Project seeks to honor his inspiring legacies at Sewanee: the devotion to rigorous teaching, the pursuit of scholarship, the dedication to social justice, and the personal example of high moral character. In doing so, the Roberson Project seeks to help Sewanee confront its history in order to seek a more just and equitable future for our broad and diverse community. 

IMAGE: Dedication in 1940 of the Edmund Kirby-Smith Memorial on the campus of the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections.