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About

In the years just before and after the start of the Civil War in 1861, 295 persons pledged a massive fortune — nearly $1.2 million — to fund a new university designed expressly to serve the needs of the “plantation states” where more than 4 million people were held in bondage. When its cornerstone was laid in October 1861, The University of the South was more richly endowed than almost any other institution of higher education in the United States.


An Evolving Project

We of the Roberson Project are keenly aware that the Founding Funders map site focuses on the enslavers to the exclusion of the enslaved except as numbers. The story it tells is incomplete on its face. This information about the hundreds of enslavers whose pledges made possible the laying of the cornerstone of the University of the South in October 1860 is invaluable for understanding the fuller historical context in which the institution was launched. But it does not complete the telling because it says little, for instance, about the enslaved people who quarried the cornerstone marble or hauled it up the mountain behind a team of oxen or laid it in its place so that a team of stone carvers (whether free or enslaved) from Nashville could fashion it into its final form. All of this is to say that we recognize these deficiencies in the current Founding Funders site. It will be an evolving project that seeks to present an accurate and inclusive account of the university’s early history.  

The Story Behind the Map 

The Roberson Project launched its concentrated research into the University of the South’s history with slavery in its first month of operation, July 2017. Tanner Potts, a 2015 Sewanee graduate and the Project’s first full-time research associate, found the list of “subscribers” almost immediately. The importance of the list, which appears not to have interested earlier chroniclers of the University’s history, was immediately evident to the Roberson Project. Mr. Potts, working with Project Director Woody Register, launched into an effort to identify the names on the list. Although progress was made, the effort remained incomplete until the Fall of 2021, when Senior Research Associate for the Roberson Project, Dr. Andrew Maginn, concentrated on finishing the identification project, researched listed individuals’ connections to the University of the South, and, most importantly, interpreted the discoveries through an interactive ArcGIS map. Undergoing the complicated task of designing the interactive map and entering the information, Dr. Maginn worked closely with Dr. Chris Van de Ven, manager of Sewanee’s Landscape Analysis Lab, and his staff, including recent graduate Joshua Alvarez. Thanks to the determined work of this trio, the information that has accumulated over the last five years is immediately available to visitors to the Founding Funders website.

Sewanee undergraduate students Silas McClung, Klarke Stricklen, and Carrie Schupack have been indispensable contributors as well. Working under Dr. Maginn’s leadership in the Summer of 2022, undergraduate research assistants Plum Champlin, Sofina Behr, Lillian Holloway, Callista Abner, and Carrie Schupack digitized hundreds of pages of census information that were added to the Founding Funders database. 

The average proportion of founders to those they enslaved is 1: 150 – Graphic created by Sofie Behr (2022 Roberson Project Intern)

About the Research

The foundation of the Founding Funders research is the collections of the William R. Laurie University Archives and Special Collections. Its director, Mandi Johnson, and assistant director, the late Matthew Reynolds, generously assisted the Roberson Project team over the last five years and especially this past year, when Dr. Maginn conducted the painstaking effort to locate the subscribers whose identities had eluded us to that point. Founding Funders has also benefited from the research of local historian Howard Lotti, who has generously supported our investigations. 

The research behind Founding Funders also includes an examination of diocesan journals of the Episcopal Church in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Investigators have visited archives of the Episcopal Church in Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, and Louisiana. University archives that we have consulted include those at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Texas Austin, Tulane University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Alabama. Essential digital resources are HathiTrust, Archives.org, Google Books, FindaGrave.com, Newspapers.com, and most importantly, the genealogical data available on Ancestry.com.

However, the Founding Funders Map Project is not “finished.” Working with as little information as we had on the original document, we are likely to have made some errors in our identifications. Such mistakes are in the nature of historical investigations. That is why we are calling Founding Funders a “living” archive of information. We expect to amend this resource over time as our continued investigations, alongside feedback from site visitors, disclose any inaccuracies and bring forth new discoveries.