Individual Action

When an anonymous student removed the bust of General Leonidas Polk from its perch in duPont Library and delivered it (unscathed) to the University Archives, and when Provost Berner later discouraged such “individual action” in a letter to students and faculty, I was led to wonder why we discourage the individual action that removed the bust but not the one that brought it to Sewanee in the first place.

The Polk bust was born of individual action, forged in the segregated smithy of Jack Kershaw. Nobody asked for it. There was no Regents’ resolution to commission it. Like the full-length “Sword Over the Gown” Polk portrait and the University mace with its bejeweled Elvis-belt-buckle Confederate Battle Flag, somebody just dropped it off one day. It’s fitting that it should depart in precisely the same way.

Even as a white boy in the eighties, back when men like Polk were still called “planters” and not “slavers,” the bust ever-so-slightly scared hell out of me. When I arrived at Sewanee in 1982 and first saw his talon-whiskered bronze face staring down on the seniors cramming for Comps, I was vaguely aware that one of us didn’t belong in that library: whatever Polk believed in, he wasn’t smiling about it.

“Bishop Polk was the founder of The University of the South,” our student docent told our gaggle of incoming freshmen—and yes, I could hear him pronounce the italics on the first “the” and the capital T on the second, this was a very good docent —“and though he entered service in the Confederate Army, his troops called him ‘Bishop Polk’ till the end of his days.”

I was a preacher’s kid from Alabama. Even if I wasn’t down on the heathens, I was all up with the church. I’d been raised to love Sewanee from afar, like an Episcopal paradise I might get to go to someday if I was good. It was Arcadia, Oxford, and C.S. Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds, served with a glass of very old bourbon and a side of smoked ham. I knew it from pictures and the warm recollections of my elders. It lives in my heart still. It is the Sewanee I still love from afar. And yet back then I never heard much about that other Sewanee, the Polk-Sewanee, until my first day as a freshman. All throughout my campus tour, I kept thinking: Wow, there sure is a lot of Confederate stuff here.

None of this was new to me: I just didn’t expect to find it in Narnia. I’d grown up in a place where Confederate symbols outnumbered potholes, but mostly I was used to seeing them carved rudely on school desks or hanging off pickup trucks. I was raised to believe that racism was something that rude people did, and it was mainly about the speaking aloud of certain words. I hadn’t quite absorbed the idea that refined people might occasionally say such words in public—or entirely avoid saying them and still get their point across.

In those days I was not a flaming liberal or a boat-rocker. I was a smart-aleck kid. This is just one of the many reasons I never got asked to join a ribbon society. And so I did the thing one does not do in a polite Southern home: I made fun of the décor. I believe I joked about tilting the bust back like a Pez dispenser, or maybe about pushing a button under his chin to reveal a hidden tunnel to the Batcave. I was conscious of saying it with a weird fading chuckle: “Am I alone in thinking this is kind of weird?” Um, yes.

I don’t remember what the docent said—maybe he was ignoring me, or struggling to stay on script—but it wasn’t his reaction that silenced me. The rest of the gaggle had shifted away from me—cold, irritated, wary. I had committed the cardinal Episcopal sin of bad manners. I had insulted the Founder.

Somebody, at some point, must have invited me back into the mead-hall. This was my introduction to Ecce Quam Bonum, which as I came to know is church Latin for “Let’s change the subject.” This is not always bad advice, but it is frequently a conversation-stopper. At its best, it is an invitation to community. At its worst, it is a command to civility. And yet as I saw in my freshman year, both community and civility can trap us into silence, normalizing the unacceptably abnormal. I do understand Dr. Berner’s intentions: after all, who gets to decide what “individual action” is allowed? But let’s keep in mind that this wasn’t a Molotov cocktail. The person who moved the bust was clear in their intentions and restrained in their actions. They were showing respect to an object that was not entirely deserving of it. As we’ve recently discovered, not every individual action is so enlightened or self-disciplined. It was an individual, or individuals, who repeatedly terrorized the Vice-Chancellor’s family in their home. Individuals shouted racist epithets during the lacrosse game with Emmanuel. It was an individual who made the Polk bust and gifted it to Sewanee. Another individual thought it was a good idea to put it in a library named for Sewanee’s most notorious white supremacist. It was Polk’s individual determination to create an academy of white supremacy that made him the Founder of The University of the South.

Confederate memorials are individual actions masquerading as collective will. They seek to spread that will through time as well as space. Their distinguishing characteristic is not eloquence but a kind of feigned agelessness. Like the Irish farmers who plow around standing stones, we’re cautious about disturbing their magic. We’re not supposed to mention how recently these monuments were scattered across public ground, many of them (like the Polk bust) date back to the heyday of Civil Rights. The docent never mentioned that Jack Kershaw had sculpted Polk a mere thirty years before my freshman year. Nobody said, “Yeah, I Love Lucy has been around longer than that thing.” Like Jack Torrance in the Overlook, the Polk bust wasn’t just there; it had always been there.

What did get talked about was how we were meant to see the bust. Polk was the Bishop-General-Founder. He was a soldier, and a cleric, and an advocate of higher education, the three-in-one Lost Cause in mortal flesh. The bust was a teaching tool for the lesson that being Southern and being Christian and being well-versed in the liberal arts (literally, studies proper to a free man and not a slave) were not a choice we were making but something planted deep inside white children of the South (which nearly all of us were). We sprang to life as freshmen in the shadow of that bust. If Lee was the Confederacy’s Christ, then Polk was its John the Baptist. Though he did not live to see it flourish, he saw all that was to come. Like John, he was a holy relic: a head on a wooden plate.

There were a lot more stations on our tour that day—the narthex windows at All Saints with their stained-class portraits of our founders, dedicating the chapel of a university that they individually determined would be universally white. In 1952, the same year that Kershaw cast his Polk bust, the university’s chief benefactress Jessie Ball duPont individually threatened to individually withdraw all funding if Black theology students were admitted. Her name still adorns the library where Polk’s bust stood.

That same day my parents took me for lunch at the Sewanee Inn—where, in 1962, a mere twenty years before my arrival, an integrated group of priests held a sit-in to demand service at the segregated restaurant: Bishop Juhan and the proprietress, Miss Clara Shoemate, demanded they depart. The protestors held their seats in the darkened dining room—until a “huge cross blazing on the lawn” turned darkness to light. Vice-Chancellor McCrady dismissed it as “almost certainly a [student] prank.” The Sewanee Purple later suggested it was the work of “irate groups in neighboring mountain communities.” This would not be the first time, nor the last, that such events would be blamed on the locals.

Our tour that August day concluded at Convocation Hall, where we beheld the famous “Sword Over the Gown” portrait of General Polk. As Louella Josephine Taylor recalled in her manuscript for The Last Christian in Alabama:

They would walk together over to Convocation Hall just as pilgrims walk El Camino de Santiago. The effect was the same. Instead of having the Shrine of Saint James above a cathedral altar, Sewanee had the Sword Over the Gown hanging in Convocation. My husband would come home with the latest discoveries revealed to them through its symbolism. He once told me that Mr. Lytle, Sewanee’s great Agrarian mentor and iconic sage, when giving voice to the real sentiment, had sparked a revelation’s insistence that the portrait should be read like a religious text, because finding and experiencing its many messages and meanings is akin to practicing the skill of Christian hermeneutics. They agreed that it should be discussed in those terms, because it serves Sewanee’s remnant Gentiles as a choice vessel of grace.

And there was the man himself in full apostolic rig, placing one gentle but resolute hand upon his gray soldier’s tunic while his sword awaited its gown-buckling. Others have written about the individual action of Eliphalet Andrews to paint the portrait in 1900, or the individual decision of an Episcopal priest to bring it to Sewanee in 1927, or the action of certain unknown individuals either to vandalize or improperly store it near steam pipes during the 1998 Festival of Lesson and Carols, depending on whose version you individually choose to believe. The painting, and its reproductions, have a very long history. I have since learned, for example, that the charge that Polk “buckled the sword over the gown” was initially meant as an insult by Northern newspapers and not a few of his fellow Episcopal clerics. Somewhere along the line, “sword over the gown” became a term of praise, a melding of holy war and Holy Spirit. The butcher has once more robed himself as a priest: small difference to lambs.

I do not call him “Bishop.” There is enough altar boy left in me to resist that. To me, he will always be General Polk, C.S.A., the title he chose for his final act. That is how his opponent Sherman chose to memorialize him in his dispatch of June 15, 1864: “We killed General Polk yesterday and made good progress today.”

When I heard that an unnamed student had individually removed General Polk’s bust from its perched—not vandalizing it, not harming it, but taking it to be stored and studied as an historical relic, three thoughts ran through my mind:

“He’s done the University a serious favor.” A pragmatic observation. Now it’s gone, it’s in the Archives, and the crisis is over before it could begin. Then:

“No secret passageway to the Batcave.” There went that theory. Also a relief. We’ve had quite enough of hidden paths leading down into darkness.

And then, a final thought, deeply comforting: “He can’t frighten anyone any more.”

Enslaver, traitor, killer, failure, relic. Gone. It was an individual action that removed him to the Archives—as individual as the cannonball that took Polk out—but it has liberated us all. Yes, for some people his removal is painful. As much as I despise what he stood for I do not wish them pain. And yet his transference from a place of unquestioning reverence to a place of understanding is as necessary as the year of Jubilee. Now there is room for other heroes, better lessons. It would not have done to put them in the company of Leonidas. Now there is hope to celebrate something better with a clean conscience. In 1952, calls for integration were silenced. In 1962, a mob gathered to terrorize Black priests. Today, a campus gathers in support of tolerance. This isn’t collective action. It is many individual actions happening in the same time and space.

We killed General Polk yesterday. We made good progress today. EQB.

Thomas Lakeman graduated from Sewanee in 1986.

15 replies on “Individual Action”

Well done, Thomas Lakeman! Revealing Sewanee’s ugly truth of the last 70 years is critical if landing anywhere near 2021 is the goal. Since Sewanee has been founded at least twice, let’s go for a third!!!

It is perhaps worth noting that there are menus of the old segregationis Claramount restaurant can be seen framed on the walls of the Sewanee Inn, or at least they were the the last time I was there a few months ago.

Thomas Lakeman, you express the best of Sewanee: an erudite, civilized, unblinded examination of our collective past, along with reverence for our individual responsibilities to the future!

Thank you, Thomas. I always appreciate your thoughtful and well-reasoned examination of an issue. I especially appreciate your sensitivity to your entire audience– you expertly eschew antagonism.

It must be noted that Miss Clara invited all those priests in 1962 to dine in her home but told them that were she to serve them at the Inn the consequences to her from her community would be the end of her enterprise. And those priests were guests in my family’s living room in 1962.

I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and engaging, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is something not enough folks are speaking intelligently about. Now i’m very happy I stumbled across this in my hunt for something regarding this.

Just to follow up on this– when I mentioned to the Sewanee Inn manager that the old Claramount was a segregationist place, they immediately took all of the memorabilia down

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