The first Black vice chancellor at the University of the South atop Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee has endured repeated attacks and vandalism at his campus home since he became the school's leader just less than a year ago.
Vice Chancellor Reuben E. Brigety II revealed the attacks during a recorded weekly service called Growing in Grace that was posted online Feb. 7. He became chancellor Feb. 28, 2020, at the school known as Sewanee.
Brigety "has not characterized the vandalism as either racially motivated, or not," Sewanee spokesperson Laurie L. Saxton said Thursday in an email. "We do not know what motivated the vandalism, and won't speculate about the motivation."
In his address last Sunday, Brigety describes his initial welcome to Sewanee in early 2020 as "warm and rapturous" and added, "People have sent greeting cards and kindly emails, flower baskets and bow ties," he said with a gesture to the one he was wearing. He said in the first days before his family joined him, community members gave him home-cooked meals to get him through his temporary bachelorhood.
But there was something else happening in 2020, too.
"The combination of a deadly global pandemic and a bitterly contentious political environment has set people on edge in unprecedented ways to include some of those from the 'Sewanee-verse,'" Brigety said.
Possibly because of some of the policies Brigety has announced as the pandemic raged or his plans to "lead the university in another direction," some in the community expressed their displeasure "in the form of respectful requests from dissenting alumni; of pointed letters from disaffected parents; of angry emails from passionate students and of the occasional feisty phone call from all of the above," he said. "There have also been more hostile lines of attack such as the vile, vulgar and even violent posts directed at me on various social media platforms."
He accepts those expressions of dissatisfaction as they come with his role as the vice chancellor, he said, just as other leaders at institutions elsewhere in the country have dealt with an unprecedented year of challenges.
But for the Brigety family there were more disturbing challenges, he said.
'Phantoms' in the darkness
"As unpleasant all these gestures may be to receive, they are nothing compared to the phantoms who keep coming to my home under cover of darkness," Brigety said. "During my first semester here at the university, Chen Hall, our home, has been repeatedly vandalized by phantoms who came at night. They have trashed our lawn with beer cans and liquor bottles. They have left threatening messages on pilfered signs near our back door. They have taken measures to ensure that my family and I saw the indecent insults that they left behind."
For months, Brigety endured the "repeated indignities" without a word as he focused on his job and taking his place in the community, he said.
"Then a tequila bottle was smashed near our front door on the very last night of classes last semester," Brigety said. "Over the previous three days, I had somehow mustered the courage and compassion to lead Sewanee in our collective mourning of the death of one of our own, 19-year-old sophomore Ava Hingson, who was killed in a tragic horseback accident.
"When that final insult — a liquor bottle dripping with conceit and contempt — was hurled at my family not hours after our community had committed our beloved Ava to the heavens, I knew I could no longer be silent," he said.
"As a father who desperately loves his own children and as a husband who walks in partnership with his wife, I had to take a stand against the phantoms who continued to disrespect my family and our home in the dark of night," he said. "I had to bear witness."
Brigety acknowledged that most in the community would say those actions were "not Sewanee," and that he would agree, but he also said those actions also represent someone or something that calls for reconciliation.
And he offered forgiveness.
"To the phantoms who have repeatedly disrespected my family and defiled our home, I forgive you completely, genuinely and unconditionally, according to the teachings of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ," he said.
But Brigety's family will not be intimidated and they "are not leaving," he said. "Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, I will not stand for any member of our community to be denigrated or intimidated by anyone for any reason."
No reports, investigation
According to Saxton, the university's director of safety was notified of the incidents but there are no incident reports and no investigation is being conducted. No other law enforcement agencies have been involved, she said.
Brigety did not respond to additional questions from the Times Free Press on the incidents and his Sunday address.
"The vice chancellor's remarks [on Feb. 7] were intended to start ongoing conversations on campus about what we value most at Sewanee and how these values inform the ways we build our community," Saxton said.
Saxton wouldn't comment specifically on any actions Sewanee law enforcement was taking in response, but said the department provides round-the-clock protection to the entire university community.
The Rt. Rev. Robert Skirving, Sewanee's elected chancellor who is based in North Carolina, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Skirving — the Eighth Bishop of the Diocese of East Carolina in Kinston, North Carolina, since 2014 — was elected chancellor at Sewanee in 2018 by its board of trustees, according to information on Sewanee's website. Chancellors of the university are elected to six-year terms.
Sewanee is already deep into a formal look into the university's past called the Roberson Project, according to information on the school's website. The Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation at the University of the South is a six-year effort launched in 2017 that aims to investigate "the university's historical entanglements with slavery and slavery's legacies."
The project is named for Sewanee's late professor of history, Houston Bryan Roberson, who was the first tenured African American faculty member at Sewanee and the first to make African American history and culture the focus of instruction, according to information on Sewanee's website. Sewanee has ties directly to the Confederate South, slavery, Jim Crow measures on campus and other segregationist ties, according to the project's research summary.
On Sept. 8, Brigety penned a letter to the Sewanee community regarding the university's Board of Regents rejection of that past in a statement the panel released the same day.
"The University of the South was long entangled with, and played a role in, slavery, racial segregation and white supremacy — forces that found particular and painful expression in the Confederacy and, later, in the 'Lost Cause' mythology of the white South," a portion of the board statement reads. "Many will understandably say that they do not recognize their Sewanee in these words. Others, however, will see the Sewanee of their experience captured all too clearly."
Brigety called the statement "a pivotal moment."
"Never before has Sewanee leadership so clearly and powerfully separated itself from those beliefs, and the regents have done so for good reason. By facing up to our past, we embrace the promise once and for all of moving beyond it," he said in his letter.
According to a racial breakdown of federal data on Sewanee's enrollment in fall 2018, 81% were white, 5% were Black or African American, another 5% were Hispanic, 4% were nonresident alien, 3% were two or more races and 2% were Asian.
In his letter, Brigety said he is committed to initiatives that support and retain students and faculty from underrepresented communities; continue to pursue the goals of the Roberson Project; foster curricular approaches to presenting the full history of the South; support faculty in navigating conversations on race; and to appoint a campus commission of students, faculty, alumni, administrators and regents to evaluate the names and stories behind buildings, monuments and places on Sewanee's Domain, which comprises about 13,000 acres of Franklin County's portion of Monteagle Mountain.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.