As University Archives employees reported for work early Tuesday morning, they discovered that a sculpture of Leonidas Polk had been removed from duPont library by a student and placed on the Archives’ porch. Director of University Archives and Special Collections Mandi Johnson was pleased that a monument to Polk would be stored in the Archives, where it can be stored and contextualized.
However, as she investigated the history of the piece, Johnson realized it was created and donated in the 1950s by white supremacist Jack Kershaw, who later defended the killer of Martin Luther King, Jr., in court and founded a white nationalist hate group. She said, “I want to be upfront about this history. All I can say is I’m horrified. It’s one thing to have a bust of the founder, but it’s another thing to know that the sculptor was this person.”
The Sewanee Purple reports that a bust of Leonidas Polk, “Sewanee’s fighting bishop”, was removed by an anonymous student. The student explains their action in a letter.
From Sewanee Purple’s report:
In the early hours of Tuesday, March 16, a bronze head of Leonidas Polk, founder and Chancellor of the University of the South, was removed from duPont library. The next morning, the head and accompanying plaque were found on the porch of the nearby University Archives building in a shopping bag along with a letter addressed to Dr. Woody Register (C’ 80), director of the Roberson Project for Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.
The anonymous letter read, “I have despised the presence of this racist memorial since my first day at Sewanee and due to the recent events on the Domain I felt a call to action.” The writer continued , “I can no longer sit by while these symbols of white supremacy stare over my and my fellow students shoulders as we pursue our education.”
In addition to the duPont sculpture, Polk has three portraits on campus, including one in Convocation Hall, one in the Sewanee Inn, and a reproduction of Sword over the Gown that is stored in the University Archives. Both Sword over the Gown and the Polk sculpture are not “life portraits,” and were created decades after Polk’s death in 1864. Register said that, while the duPont sculpture was identified by the Roberson Project for research, it was not not a priority among the list of monuments on campus. “But this action precipitated some crash research, and it’s a good thing it did,” he said.
The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation at Sewanee “is a six-year initiative investigating the university’s historical entanglements with slavery and slavery’s legacies. Our Project’s name memorializes the late Professor of History, Houston Bryan Roberson, 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.”
According to the Wikipedia entry for Polk,
Leonidas Polk (April 10, 1806 – June 14, 1864) was a bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana and founder of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America, which separated from the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. He was a slaveholding planter in Maury County, Tennessee, and a second cousin of President James K. Polk. He resigned his ecclesiastical position to become a major general in the Confederate army, when he was called “Sewanee‘s Fighting Bishop”. His official portrait at the University of the South depicts him dressed as a bishop with his army uniform hanging nearby.
Bishop Polk was the leading founder of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which he envisioned as a national university for the South and a New World equivalent to Oxford and Cambridge, both in England. (In his August 1856 letter to Bishop Elliott, he expounded on the secessionist motives for his university.) Polk laid and consecrated the cornerstone for the first building on October 9, 1860. Polk’s foundational legacy at Sewanee is remembered always through his portrait Sword Over the Gown, painted by Eliphalet F. Andrews in 1900. After the original was vandalized in 1998, a copy by Connie Erickson was unveiled on June 1, 2003. The title refers to the answer given by Bishop Polk “when asked in Richmond if he was putting off the gown of an Episcopal bishop to take up the sword of a Confederate general, to which he replied, ‘No, Sir, I am buckling the sword over the gown,'” indicating that he saw it was his duty as a bishop to take up arms.
More from Sewanee Purple:
Dr. Woody Register (C’80), Director of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, explained that, among many Confederate figures, Polk is a particularly powerful figure within University history and Confederate memory.
… After his death in 1864, Polk became a “potent figure in the Lost Cause and in the neo-Confederacy,” Register said. “Polk was a defender of slavery as an instrument of God’s will, and he was especially hostile toward those who called slavery sinful. His memory has historically been venerated in a way where he in his very body links Christianity and slavery.”
His death was announced by the League of the South, an organization Mr. Kershaw helped found that tries to keep the spirit of the Confederacy alive.
Mr. Kershaw, who was also a sculptor, was best known in his hometown for creating a 27-foot equestrian statue of the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Unveiled in 1998, it was erected in a private park along Interstate 65.
The monument, offensive to many, drew criticism, but Mr. Kershaw did not shy from offending. “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery,” he once told The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
Kershaw graduated from Vanderbilt, and received his law degree from Nashville Y.M.C.A. Night Law School.
Bust image source Sewanee Purple: “Polk sculpture and plaque in storage in the University Archives. Photo by Claire Smith (C’22).”