Satchmo in Sewanee, and Others

10432938_306586762840720_1721412570865180331_nIf you go to the Ralston Listening Room in Sewanee’s duPont Library (and if you haven’t yet been, what is the matter with you?! It is one of the best places to listen to music in all of Christendom! see the picture to the right)–but if you do go, you will see propped on a shelf on the left-hand side the following item:


“To Charles Harrison,” it says, in green ink. “From Louis Armstrong.”  It is a photo of great interest for a number of reasons.

Fifty-five years ago yesterday (May 5, 1960), Louis Armstrong and his band gave a concert in Sewanee’s Juhan Gymnasium at the invitation of the Sewanee Jazz Society (who had previously hosted Dave Brubek and would later invite the Modern Jazz Quartet). The concert was a the hit of Spring Party Weekend, according to the Purple, with Armstrong’s band performing hits like “Sleepytime Down South,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and “Where and When.”

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The final paragraph of the Purple article notes, Armstrong, noted for his violations of protocol (as in calling King George VI “Rex”) upheld his reputation while he was here. Dr. Charles T. Harrison asked him if he cared for coffee, milk, or water. Satchmo replied, “Daddy-o, I don’t want a thing.”

Oral tradition has the story a little differently, as Richard Tillinghast recounts in “Sewanee When We Were Young,” a long piece in his Sewanee Poems (and if you haven’t read it yet , what is the matter with you?! ):

The story of his exchange with his host, the never
Less than dignified Charles Harrison,
Is a Sewanee legend. The great jazz trumpeter,
Who arrived the day before the convert to rehearze
His band, was a guest at the Harrison residence.
Coming down the morning of the gig he is greeted
With the question: “How would you like your eggs,
Mr. Armstrong?” Armstrong comes back at him
In that melodious throaty bass of his:
“However you’re having yours, Daddyo.”

Both accounts focus on the best part of the anecdote–Armstrong calling the very proper English professor “Daddyo”–but Tillinghast recalls it happening “at the Harrison residence,” now Sewanee’s Italian House.  What is only hinted at here is that Armstrong was “a guest” of Harrison’s for a very particular reason–because, as a black man, he could not stay at the old Sewanee Inn.

As it happens, the New York Times published an essay by Joe Nocera just last week about Armstrong, who toured behind the Iron Curtain with his band as “cultural ambassadors,” just a few years after his Sewanee concert.  As Nocera notes, one of Satchmo’s most famous concerts took place in East Berlin around the time of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma. The East German reporters, Nocera writes, peppered him with questions about race relations upon his arrival. But he wouldn’t go there. Although his Iron Curtain tour was not State Department sponsored, one gets the sense that he didn’t want to bad-mouth America while in a communist country, that to do so in the middle of the Cold War would be disloyal somehow. At a news conference a few days before the concert — a clip of which was shown at the screening the other night — he sat grim-faced, smoking a cigarette, testily deflecting questions about how he was treated in the South.

ESCRU_Sewanee_Claramont_medAs a figure of some fame, Louis Armstrong’s treatment in the South at times was tolerable– he had found a comfortable place to stay with Charles Harrison while in town here. There are less pleasant stories about being refused a place in Sewanee, however.  A little over a year later, in September 1961, three African-American Episcopal priests staged a sit-in at the Sewanee Inn’s restaurant, the Claramont, run by Miss Clara Shoemate. Tradition of Hospitality on the Mountain, said the old neon sign on the highway.  The priests, who were on a “prayer pilgrimage” to the General Convention in Detroit, did not find the Claramont so hospitable.  We went up to the mountain to eat, Reverend Robert C. Chapman wrote of his experience. We went up to Hell.

Chapman’s article about the event in Black World/Negro Digest for August 1962 is a hard read but a worthwhile one, if only to see how deeply ingrained the Jim Crow mentality was at the time.  Bishop Juhan comes off poorly, I’m afraid, as do the college and theology students who, having gotten “somewhat beered-up,” get rather ugly. And it is especially painful to read of “a huge cross blazing on the lawn” behind the Inn. Flyers protesting the events were circulated shortly thereafter, with pictures of the participants as well as articles from the Chattanooga and Nashville papers are features. On the front of the flyer are reprinted three intaglio prints by Allan R. Crite.


What one sees here is a black Jesus, whose Stations of the Cross are taking place all around the School of Theology’s old buildings.  In the first panel, “Suffered Under Pontius Pilate,” one sees the back of the School, now St. Luke’s Dormitory, from the perspective of the old Dean’s house, now Sewanee’s Spanish House. The other two panels feature St. Luke’s chapel, now decommissioned, but at one time a spiritual heart of campus.

Sewanee Praise Spring 2015.pagesI thought of these images a few weeks ago, when I went to hear a different sort of spring concert than Satchmo’s so long ago, this one given by the University Gospel Choir in St. Luke’s Chapel.  Under the able leadership of Prakash Wright, himself a notable jazz musician, the Choir is made up of black, white, and Hispanic students and community members, and together they offer as a regular event some of the most joyous music I have ever heard on this campus.

“Music is the first thing to cross borders, ” Tillinghast writes in Sewanee When We Were Young. Half a century ago, students of the Sewanee Jazz Society did what they could to blunt the ugliness of Jim Crow by inviting to campus the most famous African-American musician of their day, the very same person the State Department would send as a cultural ambassador to East Berlin. In commemoration of the Sewanee concert, friends of mine on-line have even wondered whether a statue of Armstrong ought to be erected on University Avenue, which now only has a memorial  to a Confederate general.  I wonder, too, whether Crite’s original prints of the Sewanee Stations of the Cross might not be procured and displayed somewhere prominently?  But the greatest monument of all, I think, is in the living voices of the University Gospel Choir in St. Luke’s chapel–actually, this might be the best place to listen to music in all of Christendom.




Posted in Bible, Music, Poetry, Race, Sewanee, Statues | 1 Comment

“Talking, Talking, Talking”: Sewanee Senior Banquet Remarks 2015

If you are like me, and you find yourself stuck at a large banquet with some after-dinner speaker about to offer grandiose “Remarks,” you probably console yourself with the thought that, Well, the sooner he begins speaking, the sooner he’ll be finished. With any luck, that is true, though I have to say, you are not as lucky as last year’s seniors, whom I had the honor of being asked to address at this same banquet—a tornado warning that occurred at the very last minute granted them reprieve. (It’s true. At 6:27 last year, the Senior Banquet was cancelled, and the police made everybody move to the basement. You might recall that the Sewanee Children’s Center was located there at the time, so there were all of last year’s seniors with glasses of wine sitting at these little tables on little chairs) Alas, you all will not be spared the whirlwind of words. Let me start that whirlwind off, though, with an expression of sincere gratitude for the invitation to be with you here tonight as we recognize those who have shown such leadership on behalf of the Senior Class Gift Campaign, and, while it may be a bit premature, let me also offer an anticipatory congratulations to the Class of 2015.

What a year you have had as seniors, I can’t help but think. So many things have happened, globally and locally, and there has been so much for all of us to talk about. You came back late last summer to begin your final year here to a campus that looked markedly different than the one you had left behind in the spring. Over by Stirling’s and Humphries Hall, for instance, some old army barracks were replaced with brand-new townhouses as well as with something called a Social Lodge, a place that has already become a locus for constructive interaction. Likewise, many of you probably had not had a chance to see anything of it when you left last May except the exterior of the new Sewanee Inn; inside, as I’m sure you’ve heard, it has become an important part of social life on the Domain. Certainly I have had many a good conversation in it already, at a wedding last June for a new graduate, for instance, or over breakfasts and drinks with job candidates throughout the year (some of whom will be joining us this fall). Even just this weekend, a recent alum and I met at the Inn. “This place leaves me speechless,” he declared, and then he began to tell me about his post-graduate life for a few hours.

These happy changes did not come without competing sorrows. I am sure all of you were saddened when you came back for your senior year to see that a fire had left Rebel’s Rest a burnt and water-logged wreck. The absence of Rebels’ Rest on University Avenue is a palpable one for many of us, especially those on the faculty and staff who spent our first nights in Sewanee in one of its guestrooms. Though the wisteria that covered its porch can still be seen to bloom, the building is gone, no unlike that time of my life when I myself was a younger job candidate. The place exists only as a memory now, and discussions are just getting underway about what should be done with the location where it sat. Rebel’s Rest, after all, was built in a day long before there were electric lights; by contrast, its successor will have to be building that is not only WiFi-ready, but ready for whatever it is that will eventually and inevitably come after WiFi. The discussions that take place concerning this site at the heart of campus will have to be careful. They will have to balance issues of symbolism and pragmatism, to weigh the wistful against the useful, to negotiate commitments to the past as well as designs for the future. Something will be built there, no doubt, something we will all be proud of. But before we build, we have to talk.

That makes sense, of course, because dialogue is at the very heart of the university’s identity. What makes the liberal arts the liberal arts, and more importantly what Sewanee Sewanee, is the way we make a point of speaking with each other about things that matter. This past fall, you will recall, the film “The Obvious Child” was postponed to after the elections, an act that was called censorship by both the Sewanee Purple and the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. When it was eventually screened, it was the probably the campus’ most talked-about film of the year, as a rom-com about abortion probably should be. After Eric Metaxas’ convocation address in January, there was a loud back and forth discussion on campus and on-line about what he had said—while at times it seemed that more heat than light was generated, still I was happy to see positions staked out, questioned, defended, and seriously debated. Not everything that is said is meaningful, of course. Sometimes silences can be eloquent, too, as those of you may have participated in Friday’s Day of Silence can attest. But at times, we must speak up, speak out, and speak to one another, as you did–much to your collective credit–earlier this month, in a forum the IFC hosted, prompted by hateful remarks made at a fraternity in Oklahoma. My hope, and I’m sure you share this, is that with these efforts we are beginning to build a stronger community. As I say, we have to talk before we can build.

In a famous chapter from his 1941 memoir, Lanterns on the Levee, William Alexander Percy writes about his college days here that people who live in Sewanee [quote] “seem always to be leaning from the top of their tower, busy with idle things; watching the leaves shake in the sunlight, the clouds tumble their soundless bales of purple down the long slopes, the seasons eternally up to tricks of beauty, laughing at things that only distance and height reveal humor in, and talking, talking, talking— the enchanting unstained silver of their voices spilling over the bright branches down into the still and happy coves.” [endquote] Percy’s memories are drenched in nostalgia, of course, but he’s right about the talking. Still it’s worth saying something a little more about why we need to talk so much. Because it’s important to say that a place like Sewanee is not a place for empty chatter, but a place ultimately for contemplation and discernment. When we talk, we do so to get our thoughts straight, to put into words what we think and feel and most deeply believe, and we listen as others do the same thing. In our conversations in classrooms, in dorm rooms, over caffeinated drinks and other kinds, we are most happy when we sense that the sparks fly, the neurons fire, the complacency shakes off, and the light now and again breaks through.

Isn’t that the reason all of us wanted to be in Sewanee, after all, to take part in discussions that were worth having, to be involved in things that were worth being involved in? Over the past several years, I have had many Facebook chats with friends from Sewanee, but two recent conversations stand out. In each instance, the alum was angry over events taking place at Sewanee. One declared not give any money in response to the Cliteracy exhibit, the other said something similar about the appearance of former Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez. Both spoke in the anger of the moment, but I think neither of them will make good on their threats –to take their bat and ball and go home is neither one’s inclination about this place. YSR runs a little too deep in their blood, as does their devotion to their alma mater. Distance and height will reveal the humor in things, and they will not remember having said such things next time we meet here on the mountain, trust me.

For some here tonight, it may be quite some time before you’re back to the mountain after graduation. When you return, some old buildings will be gone that you are bitterly going to miss, some new ones will be built that your generosity will have had some part in constructing. In a similar fashion, the students who come after you will have conversations of their own, subjects they will feel the need to debate, speakers and exhibits they will want to host or protest. Some of what happens you may not like. But they will be young, as you are now, and as you are now, they will be intelligent and intense. And at some point they too will grow up and become alumni of the University, as you are bound to be in just three Mondays from today, when the Vice-Chancellor will have bid you farewell in Latin as Iuvenes dilecti et nunc exornati. All I ask is that you “chosen and now honored youths” have some patience with the whipper-snappers that follow you. Let them talk, in fact encourage them to do so, and listen with forbearance to them too. And let us continue to talk as well, in the few weeks that are left to you as students, and in the many years to follow when life will take you God only knows where as alumni. Be sure to stay in touch, because your alma mater will miss you. And that is all I have to say.

Monday, April 20, 2015, Cravens Hall, University of the South, Sewanee, TN


Posted in Education, Sewanee, Time | 1 Comment

The Belle on the Bill

In today’s New York Times, Gail Collins has an op-ed piece about the online movement to replace Andrew Jackson with a famous American woman on the twenty-dollar bill –the comment thread is long and lively, and from what I can see, largely devoid of the misogyny that usually dominates such online fora (one recalls in this context the disgusting remarks that followed the suggestions in Britain of putting Jane Austen on the £10 note). Collins links to the website, “A Woman’s Place is on the Money,” where proponents of replacing Jackson have narrowed down the list to fifteen candidates, all of them worthy: Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks, for instance, all seem eminently honorable.  Some of the other finalists–Margaret Sanger or Betty Friedan–would be controversial, but none of the ladies nominated, to my knowledge, ever defied a Supreme Court decision in order to forcibly remove an entire people from their homeland and bring on a genocide.

irish-pound-note-20-IEP-ireland-william-butler-yeatsMany years ago, I remember thinking that an overhaul of all the faces on our American coins and bills would make sense.  It’s not that I dislike Washington or Lincoln, but it seemed to me that perhaps it was time to celebrate other American achievements?  The thought came to me after a trip to Ireland with my father in the mid-80s. There on the Irish punt (pound) banknotes were images of figures from Irish literature–Jonathan Swift on the ten, Yeats on the twenty! How cool was that? And in the 90s, Swift would be replaced with James Joyce on the ten. All of this came to an end in 2002, of course, when Ireland went on to the euro. At any rate, it all seemed so much nicer to me to look at a bill and perhaps recall lines like But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you, / And loved the sorrows of your changing face instead of trying to forget the Trail of Tears.

On the plane ride home, I imagined an entire set of banknote dedicated to American authors, and what those bills might look like. I can still see these in my mind’s eye. Mark Twain on the five-dollar bill, with Huck and Jim on the raft gracing the reverse.  On the ten, I could see Melville, and a scrimshaw rendering on the back of Moby Dick and Ahab.  Perhaps the twenty could have a double portrait of Hemingway and Faulkner on the front while the reverse featured a whole bunch of empty bottles?  Truthfully, I was torn on the twenty: maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald be better, backed by an image of the Long Island Sound and a pier with a green light, and So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past written above.

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotypeBut this left the $1 bill.  I thought hard about it–who should grace the most common bill of all?  The answer suggested itself immediately: Emily Dickinson.  I loved the idea, and still do, of seeing the Belle of Amherst on the one, perhaps in an etching taken from the famous daguerrotype, the only known portrait of the poet (a stylized version of this image had already appeared on a stamp some time ago).  On the reverse, it’s hard to say what to put, though I like the idea of a robin, maybe, an American bird far less grandiose than the eagle.  Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter. As it happens, Dickinson’s not on the list of nominees for the $20, and perhaps it’s just as well. It’s probably too rich a denomination for her blood. How dreary to be someone, after all.

The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune (285)

The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune—
Because I grow—where Robins do—
But, were I Cuckoo born—
I’d swear by him—
The ode familiar—rules the Noon—
The Buttercup’s, my Whim for Bloom—
Because, we’re Orchard sprung—
But, were I Britain born,
I’d Daisies spurn—
None but the Nut—October fit—
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit—I’m taught—
Without the Snow’s Tableau
Winter, were lie—to me—
Because I see—New Englandly—
The Queen, discerns like me—

Posted in Animals, Birds, Emblems, England, Family, Ireland, Nautical, Numismatics, Poetry, The South | Leave a comment


Dr. Christopher M.  McDonough,

At the request of the PROVINCETOWN ARTS magazine I have been asked to  write a review of the recent biography of Tennessee Williams by John Lahr, TENNESSEE WILLIAMS, Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh,
For this review, I ask your permission to reproduce a rear- view photo of Williams copper statue, “Testa dell’Efebo” [attached]
Provincetown MA 02657
Leona Rust Egan, Theater historian
Posted in Boston, Classics, Sewanee, Statues, Tennessee | 2 Comments

At Armfield’s Grave

This morning I went to the Beersheba Springs Assembly for the Posse Retreat, which had as its focus “Crime and Punishment.”  This was a great event, with many good conversations, impressive facilitating, lots to laugh and think about.  After lunch, I made my way home (though vowing that next year I’d attend the entire weekend ), but first stopped off at the Armfield Cemetery, just down the road from Assembly.


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The graveyard dates to 1871 and, on a sunny February afternoon, the old trees, leaf litter, and ironwork gates give the place a certain Victorian Gothic charm.  Across the street are modest, old-fashioned homes which, being built on the bluff, have a commanding view off the plateau into the Savage Gulf State Park. The most prominent monument in the cemetery is that for John Armfield, below.


IMG_7786I have a profound antipathy for Armfield who, with Isaac Franklin, ran a successful slave-trading operation. “With headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, Franklin and Armfield conducted gangs of chained and shackled slaves down the Natchez Trace and sold them in the slave pen on the edge of that Mississippi town,” writes Herschel Gower in the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.  “The arduous journey took seven or eight weeks, but wealthy cotton planters paid Franklin and Armfield well for their traffic in African flesh. Armfield’s biographer, Isabel Howell, estimated that the pair averaged sales of twelve hundred slaves per year for every year from 1828 to 1835.”

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 6.21.40 PMIn the 1850s, Armfield– now rich from slave-trading and enjoying his retirement– began buying up property in Beersheba Springs.  Many of the cottages he built at that time are still to be seen in the town.  He was close with Bishops Otey and Polk, who owned summer homes in Beersheba, and helped to convince them to build the University of the South on the Cumberland Plateau. In this same period, as James L. Nicholson writes in his Tennessee County History Series: Grundy County, “to show his endorsement and in a typical display of  his munificence, [Armfield] pledged $25,000 a year during his lifetime  to the university.”  His name survives on the University’s Domain today as Armfield Bluff.

At lunchtime at the retreat, I had spoken with one of my former students, Gabby, who knows all about the biography of Armfield and Beersheba’s early history.  It’s ironic, we agreed, that the retreat, where so much great work is done to confront ingrained issues of institutional racism, should be held here. “But it makes sense, too,” she said. “It’s a sort of re-claiming.”

She’s right, of course. As I drove back to Sewanee, it happened that I was listening to a podcast from Radio Diaries on George Wallace’s famous segregation speech (re-broadcast from 2012 in connection with the release of “Selma”).  In later years, Wallace would be deeply regretful of his position, and he even went on an “apology tour” of Alabama.  Among the people he apologized to was John Lewis, one of the Selma marchers who is now a well-known Congressman from Georgia:

“And I remember the occasion so well,” Lewis says. “It was like someone confessing to their priest or to a minister. He wanted people to forgive him. He said to me, ‘I never hated anybody; I never hated any black people.’

“He said, ‘Mr. Lewis, I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Well, governor, I accept your apology.’ ”    . . .

“Does it hurt me? No,” Lewis says. “In the end, I think George Wallace was one of the signs on this long journey towards the creation of a better America, toward the creation of a more perfect union. It was just one of the stumbling blocks along the way.”

 Postscript, Feb. 7. My friend, David Haskell, sends along a link to a blog called “US Slave” which has images of Franklin and Armfield’s slave-trading business:


Postscript, Feb. 9.  In an eleventh-hour attempt to block same-sex marriage in Alabama, State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore–in defiance of a federal judge’s ruling–forbade probate judges to issue license marriages to gay couples. “Roy Moore standing in the courthouse door: Where have we seen this before?” runs the headline of Charles J. Dean’s opinion piece on, likening Moore’s actions to Wallace’s in 1963. “What happens next? I don’t know. Moore is standing in the courthouse door. He represents the old days, the days of fear and misunderstanding and the denial of equal rights.”  As of this morning, most probate judges have ignored Moore’s illegal order.


Posted in Cemeteries, Education, Sewanee, Slavery, Statues, The South | Leave a comment

An Ancient Source for the Winking Pizza Chef

4474884936_0dea8212d2According to a piece on pizza box art on the CBS News website today, “The caricature of a smiling mustachioed chef has been a popular feature of pizza boxes for decades. Sources say it dates back to the 1950s, to a hand-painted sign on the roof of Schaller’s Drive-In in Rochester, N.Y., though some claim it dates back even before World War II.” CBS calls this image “The Winking Chef” although, in the example they give online, both of the chef’s eyes are open so that he is not actually winking.

In fact, the gesture he is employing is an ancient Italian one.  There is a famous description of the extremely beautiful Psyche found in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, from second-century AD which bears a striking resemblance to what the Winking Chef is doing.  As Apuleius writes, “Many of the citizens and plenty of visitors whom the rumor of an outstanding spectacle had gathered with crowded curiosity, would be stupefied in admiration of her unapproachable beauty.  Moving a right hand to their mouths with the forefinger resting on an outstretched thumb, they revered her as though she were Venus herself in religious adoration.”  Multi denique civium et advenae copiosi, quos eximii spectaculi rumor studiosa celebritate congregabat, inaccessae formositatis admiratione stupidi et admoventes oribus suis dexteram primore digito in erectum pollicem residente ut ipsam prorsus deam Venerem religiosis <venerabantur> adorationibus. (Golden Ass, 4.28)

It doesn’t go so well for Psyche, being compared to Venus. The goddess sets her son Cupid on the beautiful by hapless girl, but he ends up falling in love with her.  Adventures ensue, jealous sister are involved, an obligatory trip to the Underworld. It all works out in the end for Cupid and Psyche. I have to think that, with his knowing look, Winking Chef understands it all.

Posted in Cartoons, Classics, Italy | Leave a comment

The Butt-Millet Fountain, A Memorial Hidden in Plain Sight


Major Archibald But, All Saints Chapel, Sewanee, TNI have written before about Major Archibald Butt, a notable alumnus of Sewanee who died heroically aboard the Titanic.  That’s him to the right, together with President Taft, from a stained glass window in All Saints’ Chapel which commemorates the presidential visit to Sewanee a year before Butt’s death. His traveling companion on that fateful voyage was the artist, Francis Davis Millet, who shared a house with Butt in Washington where they hosted large social gatherings.  As it happens, the Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain erected by their powerful and well-connected friends was only  few blocks from the hotel I was stayed at last weekend in our nation’s capitol, so I took a morning to go over and visit.

Screen Shot 2015-01-31 at 3.50.52 PMThe fountain could not be have been more prestigiously located, as befits two men so well-loved in their day. “Taft In Tears As He Lauds Major Butt,” reads the headline of the New York Times (May 6, 1912, p. 4).  It only makes sense that the memorial to a man whom the President loved as a son would be placed close to the White House, close to the very top of the Ellipse.  And I suppose it only makes sense that, as the years pass–indeed over a hundred of them–the depth of such feelings for a brave and noble man would subside into oblivion.  Today, the monument is hard to find, hidden behind the iron fencing and Jersey barriers that ring the White House. One has to pass by the monument to Butt and Millet, but given all the visual noise along the Ellipse Road and E Street, as well as the yelling Capitol police, it’s easy to overlook the eight foot stone fountain.


The fountain base is made of Tennessee marble, appropriate for Butt, whose connection to the South was a fundamental part of his identity.  Above the base on the granite slab is, n one side, a symbolic representation of Valor, fitting for Butt as a military man. Just behind the trees is the White House.


On the other side one sees a representation in Millet’s honor of the Arts. In the distance you can see the Washington Monument.


It has been reasonably suggested Butt and Millet were lovers and if so, there is something poignant about the fact that this memorial stands in so prominent location, a place where tourist go by in droves and droves, and yet somehow seems to go unseen, to be somehow hidden in plain sight.


Posted in Cemeteries, Military, Nautical, Sewanee, Statues, Tennessee | 2 Comments