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Founding Funders

A Map Project Surveying the Original Investors in The University of the South (1856-1865)

The Founding Funders Map Project, produced by the research team of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, assesses the depth and breadth of investments in enslaved human property by the nearly 300 persons who assembled the financial foundation of the University of the South between 1856 and 1865. Founding Funders aims to help us better comprehend the social dynamics, political divisions, religious priorities, and economic trends that shaped the aspirations and designs of the University’s leaders as they rallied support for a powerful educational bastion to serve and protect, in their words, “the land of the sun and the slave.” The interactive map and the information it contains enable us to pose questions about these persons, individually and collectively, as we seek to understand and reckon with the University of the South’s origins in the campaign to justify, protect, and expand slavery in the period before secession and war fractured the American nation.

Four Major Insights

-1- The University of the Lower Mississippi Valley

The first wave of supporters of the southern university was concentrated in the lower Mississippi Valley. By 1860 and as a result of the massive expansion of cotton and sugarcane cultivation since 1830, according to historian David Blight, “there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States.”

Wealth in Enslaved People -2-

Wealth from investments in enslaved human property was the bedrock of the $1.2 million pledged. Across the region in 1860, nearly four million enslaved persons, valued at $3.5 billion, constituted, according to Blight, “the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” The university’s supporters, representing a minuscule fraction of the nation’s and southern region’s population, owned one percent of the American economy’s single largest financial asset. 

-3- The Billionaire Class

A disproportionate number of the university’s first benefactors were among the region’s largest enslavers: the “billionaires” of the mid-19th century. Historian William K. Scarborough has counted an elite of 338 persons in the United States enslaving 250 or more. Our research shows that the University of the South’s original funders represented more than a third of the entire region’s elite cohort of enslavers. Nearly 50% of the university’s benefactors enslaved 250 or more persons; 6% of its benefactors enslaved 500 or more.

The Essential Episcopal Church Connection -4-

The Episcopal Church in the South was the common denominator linking wealth from enslaved labor and wealth invested in the new University of the South. As the unofficial church of the slaveholding class, the Episcopal Church provided an organizational framework – a religious nexus of investment capital – that gave the university’s organizers direct access to its elite slaveholding parishioners throughout the region and across state boundaries.