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Enslaved and Enslavers

We have identified with confidence about 92% of the “Founding Funders” and the number of enslaved people attributed to them in the “slave schedules” of the 1850 or 1860 U.S. Census. At a time when a “plantation” was indicated by an enslaved labor force of 20 or more persons, more than half of the University’s subscribers held at least 50 people in bondage. This statistic alone indicates the University’s alliance with the region’s ruling class of planters. Moreover, a fifth of the Founding Funders are classified as “large” enslavers holding 250 or more persons in bondage. Altogether, and with about 8% of the subscribers still unidentified, the Founding Funders of the University of the South enslaved approximately 40,000 people at the time of the Civil War. 

This number—40,000 and more—is striking in and of itself, but it is even more unsettling when viewed in the context of the time. The 1860 U.S. Census counted 3.952 million enslaved persons. That means that Sewanee’s 295 benefactors owned more than one percent of the entire enslaved population of the United States in 1860. And not only that: Within the national population of about 31.5 million, the 295 men and women who pledged part of their wealth to the founding of the University of the South owned more than one percent of what historian David Blight has called “the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” The University’s foundation was not just connected or tied to slavery, but constructed from a massing of slave-based wealth that was unprecedented in its day. 

Number of Enslaved per “Founding Funder”

There are three major clusters of enslavers indicated on our map. The most extensive grouping is found among the first subscribers of the University, those who promised funds between January and March of 1859. These people were close to the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk (1806-1864), and operated plantations in the lower Mississippi River Valley, where in 1860, according to historian Walter Johnson, “there were more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States.”

Another cluster of donors was in the intensive “black belt” plantation region of Alabama, where the Episcopal Bishop Nicholas Hamner Cobbs (1796-1861) rallied strong support for the formation of a “Southern University.” Cobbs was instrumental in the planning stages of the University of the South and served as a founding trustee.

The third cluster of large plantation donors comes from the Southern Coastal elite. They owned properties and persons in the region spreading south from Edenton, North Carolina, to the coastal cities of Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. 

Making sense of the $1.185 million in subscriptions

Almost all the pledges of the “Founding Funders” ranged from $500 to $25,000, according to the post-war ledger. The largest pledges of $25,000 made newspaper headlines: Fourteen men in this category subscribed a total of $350,000. But the most pledges (90) were $5,000 each, and they accounted for the greatest proportion overall: $450,000, or 38% of all subscriptions. 

We should not underestimate the value of the smaller pledges of $5,000, which was no mean figure for the time. Formulas available on the internet for converting past dollars into today’s dollars are suggestive, but in general they do not adequately approximate the value of even a single dollar during a time of highly scarce hard currency. The website MeasuringWorth.com is among the more reliable because it offers several ways to understand value over time. Its inflation-adjusted table, based on the Consumer Price Index, translates $5,000 in 1860 to about $184,000 today, but its “Wage, Income, Household Expenditures Measure” sets the 2022 value of $5,000 at anywhere from $1.3 million to nearly $2.7 million. 

We need not choose which of these figures most accurately reflects the value of money in 1860. Instead, and for the purposes of the Founding Funders website, it is more revealing to convert $5,000 into 1860 “slave prices.” Historian Daina Ramey Berry in her major work, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (2017), reports that adult males and females aged 23 to 39 (their years of “peak productivity in the fields, fertility, and the onset of aging”) were most valuable in the human labor marketplace. At the time the University was founded, these Black men and women sold on the auction block for $792 and $494 respectively. By this calculation, a $5,000 subscription to the University of the South could have purchased six and a third of the most highly valuable enslaved Black men, and $450,000 could have bought 567 Black men at auction. If the University of the South’s trustees had been able to use the entire $1.185 million in subscriptions to purchase the most valuable enslaved Black men aged 23 to 39—a prudent investment of its money in 1860—the University could have owned as many as 1,500 people and been the single largest enslaver in the United States.*

This calculation of the endowment’s value in terms of “the price for their pound of flesh” underscores precisely what, to use the bishops’ term, the word “rich” meant in the case of the new University of the South. The subscribers were converting the extraordinary riches they had extracted from the labor and asset values of their human property into the riches of a university of “the land of the sun and the slave.” Thus, the University’s founding endowment was not just entangled with slavery; it was an extension of it. 

*The estate of Joshua John Ward of Georgetown County, South Carolina, is usually cited as the nation’s largest, with 1,130 enslaved.