In the two decades after World War II Sewanee achieved desegregation while avoiding the violent confrontations that erupted at other southern colleges and universities that faced challenges to their whites-only policies. Despite university leaders who reluctantly sought orderly increments of gradual change, forthright protests by some members of the faculty of the School of Theology led to its desegregation in 1951. The College quietly allowed black men to apply for admission in 1961, though none enrolled until 1963. Some alumni fumed and threatened in anticipation of and in reaction to these decisions, and some of the resistance on campus generated unflattering headlines. Yet the University continued on as a desegregated institution, its student body solidly (if not absolutely) white for another decade or more. From a distance, it appeared that Sewanee managed to shift with the times, but without letting the great political and social movement of the twentieth century fundamentally change life on the Mountain or the identity of the Sewanee Man.
Up close, however, we can see that the ascent of the Civil Rights Movement up the Mountain between 1951 and 1963 shook the foundations of the University of the South by dismantling the moral grounding and political justification of the expectation that African Americans would and should serve the white Sewanee Man. With policy changes allowing men of color to attend the University, the presumed whiteness of the Sewanee Man and the blackness of the community’s servile labor force had to adjust to the possibility of an emerging bi-racial student population after 1961. Sewanee’s racial order was never the same.
As important, the Civil Rights campaign left in tatters the cultural basis of the University’s century-long enforcement of white supremacy: the mythology of upper-class noblesse and the paternalistic justifications of black deference. Sewanee Men had long believed that, as the foremost gentlemen of the South, they were not like the region’s hate-mongering racist rabble. They believed their gentlemanly “kindness to inferiors” maintained order through more humane means. Students also believed Sewanee was a place unlike the rest of the South. While the rest of the region roiled with racial conflict, the Mountain appeared to them a world of uncommon social peace and harmony. Here segregation’s boundaries were not cruel or demeaning, but natural and beneficial to all concerned, whether white or black. As a result, Sewanee Men told themselves, a grateful and willingly subservient black labor force rewarded them with their humble devotion. “Sewanee,” a Purple writer explained in 1936, “has always been famous for her colored supporters and friends.”
Two incidents, fourteen years apart, reveal how the Civil Rights Movement exposed the limitations of the paternalism embodied by the ideal of the Sewanee Man and forced fundamental changes at the University: the 1947 celebration of the retirement of the African American athletic trainer Willie “Six” Sims; and the demonstrations in 1961-62 leading to the desegregation of the Sewanee Inn’s Claramont Restaurant. In 1947 the racial paternalism of the Sewanee Man seemed secure and a beacon of hope for the South; by 1961 the ideal remained strong, but both proponents and opponents of racial change on campus justified their positions in terms of what the Sewanee Man ought to be.
The most honored African American in the University’s first century – and arguably its entire history – was Willie Sims. Born in the 1880s in nearby Pelham, Tennessee, in all likelihood the son of former slaves, and possessing no more than an eighth-grade education, Sims worked day in and day out as “trainer” for the College’s athletic teams from 1909 until his employment ended in 1947. Sewanee men nicknamed him “Willie Six,” and often called him just “Six,” after the numeral on the second-hand jersey he once wore at work. At the official “retirement” ceremony during halftime of a cold November football game in 1947, present and former officials and athletes gathered to thank him for his decades of “faithful and loving service” and to give him a $2,500 pension that former players and students had contributed on his behalf. After his death in January 1950, Sewanee’s priesthood conducted his funeral service at All Saints’ Chapel, probably the first African American allowed to enter the chapel for that purpose. His surviving family sat at the front of the chapel, another first. Members of Sewanee’s athletic teams served as pallbearers. A tombstone designed and donated by former players was placed on his grave in University Cemetery. Later, the street where he lived was renamed Willie Six Road.
What did Sims do to deserve such honors, memorials, and unprecedented access to spaces ordinarily reserved for whites only? The many years he worked and the difficulty of his labors were important, but not the most important factors. Instead, testimonies cited the faithful, selfless, smiling, and gracious service of a man who exemplified the highest qualities that elite white men valued in a black man. “Willie Six,” concluded the Purple’s story on his funeral, “was universally considered the prototype of the ‘Sewanee Gentleman.’”
The stories of “Willie Six” also were among the most meaningful that Sewanee men told the world about the quality of their manhood and the fabric of race relations in the Mountain community. Such stories undoubtedly expressed a deep affection for the extraordinary man who for decades and scant pay performed both the scut work that kept the teams functioning and the tender ministrations that restored their aching bodies. But in another, equally important respect, Sewanee men in the 1930s, 1940s, and beyond cherished telling “Willie Six” stories because of what they said about the quality of Sewanee men – how they affirmed the sincerity of the inferior race’s voluntary submission and devotion to their paternalistic white superiors. “His loyalty and service,” the campus newspaper reflected in 1934, “is of the type that cannot be bought.”
Houston Roberson, Sewanee’s scholar of African American history, reminds us that “[r]elations between black and white were difficult because they often included deep and abiding affections.” But such feelings, Roberson adds, occurred within and often reinforced “a world of tightly regulated and often illogical social conventions and customs.” Conferring the highest honor Sewanee men could give – the rank of gentleman – on a black man strengthened, instead of weakening, the hierarchies of the color line. Honoring Sims emphasized their noblesse of character, their lack of unwarranted prejudice in recognizing the fine character of the “faithful colored gentleman.”
In all the praise given Willie Sims at the time of his retirement, no words appeared more frequently than faithful and loyal. Yet the meaning of these words extended beyond the immediate circumstances of Sims’s work as athletic trainer. They were key words in the “Lost Cause” mythology of benevolent masters and contented slaves. This mythology was disseminated in the fiction of Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon and inscribed in the 1895 monument in Fort Dix, S.C. to the “faithful slaves who, loyal to a sacred trust,” guarded their masters’ homes and families during the Civil War. This “Old South” mythology echoed in the stories like those about Willie Sims. Adjusted to contemporary race relations, these stories used the loyalty of African Americans as evidence that “Southerners” – by which they meant southern whites or, in this case, Sewanee Men – were the black man’s best friends. In relations between the better class of whites and what a Chattanooga newspaperman called “fine Negroes,” there was no color line.
The problematic nature of this fiction and how it praised Willie Sims’s life in a way that underscored the rare quality of Sewanee manhood was evident in the wording on the plaque given to him at his retirement. The inscription finished with the declaration, “You’re a better man than I am, Willie Six” – a rewording of the last line from “Gunga Din” (1892), Rudyard Kipling’s poetic narrative of the “black-faced” Indian water-carrier who dies attending to a soldier of the imperial British army.
The depiction of sports and particularly football as the moral and physical equivalent of war was a longstanding American and Sewanee practice, which emphasized the necessity of the game for the improvement and preservation of virile white masculinity. Relocating Gunga Din to “Willie Six Day” both paid a high compliment to Sims and integrated “Sewanee’s Negro trainer,” as the press frequently called him, into an appropriate place in the martial metaphor. Doing so created a story that Sewanee men told the world about the quality of their manhood and the exceptional fabric of race relations in the Mountain community in which all – no matter how humble – devoted their lives to Mother Sewanee.
Inscription on a plaque awarded to Willie Six, honoring his retirement after thirty-nine years of service, November 22, 1947
For a period little short of forty years Willie Six has rendered faithful and loving service to the athletes of Sewanee. In that time he has set such an example of selflessness and of pure devotion to his task that he has left an indelible mark on the lives of all with whom he has come in contact and has earned a reward of love and esteem which have made his name and his person a legend not only in Sewanee but in sport circles throughout the South. Willie Six is a living example of one who, because he has been among us as one who serves, has made his life a real ministry. Of him truly will it ever be said in deep humility and sincerity by all whom he has served: ‘You’re a better man than I am, Willie Six.’”
Off the Mountain, newspaper writers from Boston to Chattanooga saw even larger meaning in the Willie Six story, as one that shed a positive light on southern and American race relations and offered a hope that the escalating racial conflict after World War II could be resolved in an orderly fashion that did not require a fundamental remaking of southern society. Four examples are excerpted here – one each by a Chattanooga, Nashville, and Atlanta columnist, and one by Bill Cunningham of the Boston Herald, perhaps the nation’s leading sports writer. Cunningham’s piece was widely distributed by the University.
This column is about a ‘wheel horse’ who is black as to breeding, white as to honor, red as to courage, and blue as to loyalty.
The years have crept upon this ‘wheel horse’ so that now he’s gray as to coat upon his fine old head.
He’s thoroughbred in every sense of the word, and if his type of the breed could continue and multiply there’d be more joy in the living for both his race and mine.…
Back in 1907 ... there was a young colored man named Willie Sims who became affiliated with the University of the South as ‘rubber’ for the Sewanee Tigers. This colored man served so well and so faithfully, and was such a fine ‘Sewanee Gentleman’ that he became a part of the institution. He has served all these years ... and he has served faithfully and well, honorably and with distinction.
Gilbert M. Orr, “Willie Six Day at Sewanee,”
Nashville Banner (October 24, 1947)
My good friend, Reg … was reared in the West, and … has often shown keen interest in the attitude of the South toward the Negro, both as a race and an individual, and so I clipped [for him] the article … about the honors conferred on Willie Six, a Negro who has served as a trainer for Sewanee football teams for almost 40 years …
As is the case with so many fine Negroes, Willie Six is noted for his loyalty. He has never seen a foe cross Sewanee’s goal lines. When that dreadful event looms as inevitable, Willie turns his head.…
Few people realize the dignity of humble service. Christ left a beautiful and inspiring example of this when he washed the feet of his disciples.
Andrew M. Carothers, “One Who Serves,”
Chattanooga News Free Press.
The more one hears of what happened Saturday down at Sewanee, Tennessee, the more one feels a national salute of some impressive sort should be given that proud, venerable and richly traditioned educational institution, formally known as the University of the South, but locally known as Sewanee. The thing that happened was the affectionate tribute of Sewanee men, the world over, to the old Negro who’s trained the little university’s athletic teams for 40 years.…
In a world such as this, with all the grief and gloom and fear, suspicion and hate, it seems to me this is one of the finest stories of the decade. I don’t know who, nor what, could fittingly honor the alumni of that old and truly distinguished southern institution, but here’s a personal vote of thanks from one distant citizen for services rendered -- like Willie Six’s -- to, and from, the heart.”
Bill Cunningham, “A Long Cheer For Sewanee!”
Boston Herald (November 26, 1947)
Sewanee ... closes its season ... on ‘the Mountain’ Saturday.…
But … there is a feature of the event that will puzzle beyond measure those well-meaning persons at the North who worry about race relations in the South....
Perhaps now it would be in order to say who ‘Willie Six’ is. Well, he is a gnarled, weather-beaten, coal-black Negro whose name is William Sims. Once he was a towering, powerfully thewed man with the mien of a Nubian prince. The years have bent his frame and whitened his hair but still his voice is resonant, his eyes keen, his fingers as strong and supple as ever.
He has been the ‘trainer’ of Sewanee athletes for 40 years. He has rubbed their muscles, bound their wounds, and, with tact beyond compare, he has spoken words of encouragement or of counsel to those who needed it.
“Sewanee Honors ‘Willie Six,’ Negro Trainer for 40 Years,”
Atlanta Journal (November 21, 1947).
Willie Sims died in his sleep on January 12, 1950, from complications related to heart disease and emphysema. The Chattanooga Times ran the story of his death on page one: “Willie Six of Sewanee Is Dead at 62; Served 40 Years in Humble Loyalty.” Newspapers in Atlanta, Nashville, and Birmingham also carried the news. On the Mountain Sewanee Men again showed their loving appreciation. Five Episcopal priests presided over his funeral in All Saints’ Chapel. The Alumni News reported that Sims received “every honor that those whom he had served could bestow” and eulogized him as “one of the great men of Sewanee history.” The athletes’ “S” Club later solicited designs for a grave marker and selected model “B” for his plot in the University Cemetery’s “Negro section.”
The tribute, gracious as it was in memorializing his decades as trainer, tells us much about race relations on the Mountain and the paternalism of the dominant race. The marker gave Sewanee Men the last word on Sims. They describe a man whose existence was defined wholly by the “service” he provided to white men. As with virtually all published accounts about Sims at the time of his retirement and death, no other aspect of his life – that he also was a father, husband, son, friend, and neighbor – warranted mentioning and memorializing. The lasting impression was that Sims lived and even died for Sewanee Men.
Why was the death of “Sewanee’s beloved Negro trainer” headline news in the South’s leading white newspapers? The reactions echoed the message taken from his 1947 retirement, that stories of “Willie Six” showed white men how to be their best, thus vindicating the ways of the South and exposing the lie of the “color line.”
“Today and for the next decade or two, the so-called color line will be a controversial issue to all who are of and who love the South. ‘Crossing the color line,’ a phrase which must have been invented by someone not of the South, is in current use. But this column deals with something entirely different. It is the story of a man who transcended the color line. So powerful was the force of his spirit, so convincing was the quality of his devotion, that he took with him in his flight across the mystical barrier many hundred, certainly, and perhaps thousands.
Alfred Mynders, sports columnist,
Chattanooga Times (January 15, 1950)