Q&A: Sewanee’s first Black vice-chancellor reflects on Episcopal university’s efforts to confront racist history

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 17, 2021
Reuben Brigety

Reuben E. Brigety II was elected vice-chancellor and president of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, on Feb. 28, 2020, and took office on June 17. Photo: University of the South

[Episcopal News Service] Reuben E. Brigety II, a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union, was serving as an academic dean at George Washington University in the nation’s capital late in 2019 when he got a call from a firm that was recruiting potential nominees for vice-chancellor of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Brigety initially had only a passing familiarity with the Episcopal university, commonly known simply as Sewanee. “The first thing I asked them was, are they ready for a Black vice-chancellor?” Brigety, 47, said in an interview with Episcopal News Service as he approached the anniversary of his election. “And then I asked the opposite question: ‘Are you just calling me to diversify your candidate pool?’”

Assured that Sewanee took him and his leadership credentials seriously, Brigety agreed to apply and interview for the job. He was elected by Sewanee’s Board of Trustees on Feb. 28, 2020, and on June 17, he became the first Black vice-chancellor and president of an institution that is historically rooted in racism — from its founding by a Southern Episcopal church in 1857 to serve a white, slaveholding society to its refusal for nearly a century to allow Black students to attend.

Brigety spoke with ENS over Zoom for about 45 minutes on Feb. 3. Days after that interview, on Feb. 7, he revealed during a Sewanee worship service that vandals had repeatedly attacked the on-campus home where he and his wife and two teenage sons live. Brigety cited the incidents – from liquor bottles and other trash left on his lawn to threatening signs posted by his door – as a call to affirm Sewanee’s values.

“It is up to us to decide who we are, what we will tolerate and how we will live together,” Brigety said during the service. On Feb 17, he sent a follow-up letter to members of the campus community thanking them for their support.

Brigety did not mention the attacks and threats while speaking earlier with ENS, though he didn’t sugarcoat the challenges facing Sewanee, particularly as it works to diversify its student body. He noted it wasn’t until 1970 that Sewanee first awarded a degree to an undergraduate Black student, and even today, Black students are only about 3% of its mostly white student body.

“We are located in the heart of the region [the South] that we claim our name from,” he told ENS. “That is also where 60% of the country’s African Americans live, so we have an issue” – and not just a moral issue. “If you’ve affirmatively shut the door to your house for 150 years and then you crack it open, you have to do more than simply assume that people are going to want to come in, particularly when they have other options.

“We have to do the work to figure out how we make Sewanee a place that is truly welcoming for everybody.”

Sewanee, governed today by 28 Episcopal dioceses in the Southeast, began researching and confronting the legacy of its past complicity in white supremacist systems in 2017 when it launched the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation under Brigety’s predecessor, John McCardell Jr. The project’s researchers compiled some of their initial findings in a report that was cited in a statement issued Sept. 8, 2020, by the Sewanee Board of Regents. The board declared that the university “rejects its past veneration of the Confederacy” and commits to “an urgent process of institutional reckoning.”

Brigety, in a parallel letter, called the board’s statement “a pivotal moment in the life of the University of the South,” and he outlined several initiatives that the Sewanee administration would take to demonstrate its commitment to equality and inclusion while reckoning with the university’s past.

The following questions and answers have been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

ENS: First of all, could you tell us about your faith background? I know it’s not required for your job, but are you Episcopalian?

Reuben Brigety

Reuben Brigety, a 47-year-old Jacksonville, Florida, native, previously served as U.S. ambassador to the African Union and dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Photo: University of the South

BRIGETY: I’m an almost-Episcopalian. [Laughs.] I was raised in the Black Baptist church. At the Naval Academy, where I went for undergrad, the principal Protestant service is kind of modeled on an Episcopal service, and when I went to England for graduate school, obviously Anglicans everywhere. When I came back to the States, I was a naval officer stationed in Virginia Beach and started worshipping with Episcopalians. At the time, I was dating a woman who’s now my wife, Leelie [Selassie], who grew up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, so when we got married and were figuring out our faith life together, we decided to meet in the middle and became Presbyterians.

ENS: Sewanee was founded by a slaveholding Episcopal bishop, Leonidas Polk, to educate the children of other white slaveholders. I’m curious if you knew much of that early history before coming to Sewanee, and did that give you pause?

BRIGETY: I knew some of it. Quite frankly, a lot of what I have subsequently learned was not readily available. We have something called the Roberson Project, which predates my arrival by several years, which has been interrogating our history as it relates to slavery and race. There are a lot of things that really started to come to light with the preliminary findings of the Roberson Project. I knew that Sewanee had connections with the Lost Cause [the revisionist movement that sought to portray the Confederacy as failed but noble]. I asked those questions directly in my interview process: “Am I going to be expected to defend and uphold the ideology of the Lost Cause? Because I’m not doing it, if that’s what you need.” And they said no.

ENS: After your election, the country was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and then three weeks before you took office, the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, set off protests around the country against racial injustice. How did those crises affect your first few months as vice-chancellor?

BRIGETY: On the one hand, becoming a university president anywhere has its own challenges, particularly as the country approaches the so-called demographic cliff, in 2026, where we will see a national contraction of the cohort of 18-year-olds across the country. I knew that was going to be a thing. I knew that being the first Black vice-chancellor was going to be a thing. I had hoped to not have to deal with race my first year, just let people get to know me and me get to know them. Then the pandemic happens, and Sewanee’s evacuated. To deal with COVID, we accelerated the timeline for my arrival. And then the world exploded on matters of race. For my first public speech, I declared, yes, Black lives matter. I also declared that I categorically oppose violence to address any civic issue and that we would not have it here at Sewanee, but I knew our Black community members and Black students needed to be seen and valued. And I understood the hurt.

ENS: In September, the Board of Regents issued its statement rejecting the institution’s racist past. You put out a statement as well, as did the School of Theology. How did the board’s statement come about?

BRIGETY: Over the course of that summer, everybody was releasing statements. And because of our particular history and the power of that moment, we understood that we needed to say something, but we also didn’t want to put out a statement that was virtue signaling. We actually wanted to commit to a series of actions that would meaningfully put us on a different path. The important thing about [the regents’] statement in my view: one, obviously the categorial repudiation of the institution’s past veneration of the Confederacy and the ideology of white supremacy. At least as important is the charge that came out of that, which is that we are to become a place that is a model for diversity and inclusion in American higher education.

ENS: The goals identified by your letter ranged from improving the diversity of the student body and faculty to forming a commission to perhaps consider renaming buildings and monuments on the campus. Since then, are there any updates on some of those efforts?

BRIGETY: With regards to diversity among the student body, we’re actively working on that. I spend a lot of my time personally engaging potential candidates, both candidates of color and those who are white, saying, “I want you to come. We believe in creating people of character and consequence at Sewanee.” We talk for about 30 minutes, and then I say, “Here’s your homework. You call every other college you want to go to and ask for 30 minutes with their president and get their commitment they’ll be personally invested in your development. You see what happens.” That is very important; it’s the very core of who we are at Sewanee.

ENS: If you could put me in that conversation, given what’s come before at Sewanee and given the new Sewanee you hope to realize here, what is your pitch to those students, white or Black or anyone?

BRIGETY: First of all, we have a first-rate liberal arts education. The second is that we believe deeply in community and in individual development. Third, the argument that I’m making is we are turning [Sewanee’s] history on its head. Our commitment to diversity, equality, inclusion is all the more powerful precisely because of our history. Come be a part of this amazing new story of the new South. For some, it works. For others – I had a young woman we offered a full scholarship to. She was coming out of D.C. And her mother was like, “I’m sorry, I just can’t send my child there. Not only is it too far, it’s the University of the South. The country’s angry. There was a bombing in Nashville over Christmas Day.” And so I got on the phone with her, the mom and the student, and we talked for over an hour. I think we almost had them. Then the [U.S.] Capitol was assaulted on Jan. 6, with a man walking though the Capitol with the [Confederate] Stars and Bars. And the mother was like, “I’m sorry.” We opened the whole world to her. And she’s like, “It’s just not worth it.”

ENS: On the surface you would think, that’s in D.C., you’re in the middle of Tennessee. How are those related? But that family saw a connection.

BRIGETY: Absolutely. She said, “Look, vice-chancellor, I’m sure you mean well. But I see what’s happening in the country. I see where you are. And I just can’t entrust my daughter to go there.”

ENS: This was a Black family?

BRIGETY: Yeah. Now, I would say that that is a distinctly minority view among the students that I engage. The vast majority are ready to come.

ENS: Other Episcopal institutions are trying to eliminate Confederate symbols and names from public display. Sewanee has its own examples, such a monument honoring a Confederate general that the university relocated to a nearby cemetery. Are there any recent examples of Sewanee’s removing representations of the Confederacy or Lost Cause?

BRIGETY: We will convene a committee this semester to begin looking at this. Our university, like the country, has a challenging inheritance to deal with. In every instance, we need to carefully evaluate what are the relative merits of the honorees to the founding of the university compared to their actions, which do not reflect our values. This notion that we’re erasing history, that’s ridiculous. We’re not erasing history. When you have public honorifics, the purpose is not to remember a set of facts. The purpose is to advance a set of ideals. And so the question is, in every circumstance, are we appropriately honoring a set of ideals that match who we are and who we want to be? The other thing is, if any history matters, then all of it does. Tell it all. For example, there is nothing on this campus to recognize the fact that the land on which we sit was initially cleared by slave labor, rented slave labor. Like the rest of America, all of this land at one time was populated by Indigenous people. There’s not so much as a doorknob on this campus to recognize the Native peoples who once lived here. If we’re going to be intentional about history, tell it all. Tell it all, and let us decide what we’re going to honor and what we’re simply going to remember.

ENS: The Sewanee board’s statement acknowledged that many “do not recognize their Sewanee” in some of the stories you’re talking about, stories of the past complicity in racist systems and ideologies. And then others see Sewanee “all too clearly” in those details. There’s also that divide in the country, how people see the same set of facts differently. Is that reflected on the campus today?

BRIGETY: First of all, Sewanee’s a lovely place that has helped to form generations of young people, and Sewanee alums love this university. And it is far too easy to enjoy the beauty of the [campus], engage in the rigor of your classes, enjoy the parties and the athletic competitions here and, if you are not paying attention, to not once give any thought about the roots of this university or to not think critically of the many Confederate sympathizers whose names grace our buildings and places of honor and reverence. And yet, we continue to live with the ramifications of that history, both in terms of the demographics of people who feel comfortable being here and in terms of how we choose to present ourselves to the world, both affirmatively and through our silence. Which is why I say the power of this moment is to be able to turn the trial of our past into the triumph of our future by turning that history on its head, and that’s what we intend to do.

ENS: Sewanee is owned and governed by the dioceses of the Southeast. I’ve heard from some Black leaders in The Episcopal Church who don’t want to visit Sewanee even today because of its history. They aren’t convinced that Sewanee has changed and still feel disappointment and resentment. Do you think the university has turned a corner, or do you still see an uphill battle?

BRIGETY: The answer is yes, on all counts. One of the first things I did when I sat in this chair – it was in the first week – I had a [Zoom] meeting with all the constituent bishops. And the bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright, in a very Episcopal way said, “Greetings, vice-chancellor. Welcome. So glad to have you. Peace be upon you. And by the way, you just need to know I am never setting foot on your campus.” [Laughs.] Opened up, with both barrels. “There is no reason for me to set foot on a place that continues to venerate and honor these white supremacist Confederates in the 21st century.” And he is not the only African American senior leader of the church who has said that to me. That was in late June, which is also during the time frame when the regents were contemplating what, if anything, to say in this moment of racial reconciliation. And I used that example. I told the regents, look, when the princes of your church don’t feel comfortable setting foot on this campus, we’ve got a problem and we have to address it head on. And we are doing so. In all seriousness, the fact that we are enmeshed in The Episcopal Church is a great benefit to us, because in every circumstance we can say, explain to me how this is consistent with the teachings of racial reconciliation in The Episcopal Church. If it’s not, then we need to confront it. There is a lot of good here, a lot of wonderful people here, and there is some deep, painful history that we are committed to engaging.

ENS: Do you have any hope of convincing Bishop Wright to come visit Sewanee after his comment in June?

BRIGETY: [Laughs] I think he’ll come. Because that was before the statement went out. He has assured me that he will come.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.