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The Cornerstone Gift: John Armfield and the University of the South by Tanner Potts, Research Associate for the Sewanee Project on Slavery Race and Reconciliation

Architect JK Wharton proposed the above plans for the central building of the University of the South in 1860, but the University ultimately hired a competing firm. The accepted plans were reportedly lost during the Civil War.

The University of the South, or Sewanee, is a small liberal arts college owned by the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church. With its sandstone buildings and vistas overlooking the Middle Tennessee valley, it regularly ranks near the top in lists of the most beautiful college campuses. The Perimeter Trail, a 20-mile loop around the school’s 13,000-acre campus, boasts outlooks down to the valley 2,000 feet below. While the natural landscape captivates hikers and climbers, the human indentation – the naming of these views – recount the troubling relationship between the University and human bondage. Founded in 1857, the University aimed to train up religious, cultural, and political defenders of the South’s defining institution: slavery.
Along the ridge, Green’s View is not named for the verdant valley that lies beneath its bluff. It honors the first bishop of Mississippi, William Mercer Green, who argued that converting slaves to true religion would “make them orderly and obedient.” Other outlooks such as Morgan’s Steep and Armfield Bluff are likewise memorials to the antebellum slave society. Oliver Morgan, one of the largest slaveholders in Louisiana, pledged $40,000 to the antebellum university; John Armfield, too, pledged a fortune to the school, but his role as a founding trustee and advisor allots him a larger significance in the founding story. Armfield’s name continues to arise as the university’s most notorious benefactor.

In 1856, the Episcopal Bishop of Tennessee, James Hervey Otey, needed help. Otey’s vision – to raise up an institution of higher education for the South and Southwestern dioceses of his church – was beginning to take hold among his peers. The Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk, who was alarmed by the growing anti-slavery movement, sent a letter to his fellow slave-holding bishops, dated July 1, 1856, urging them to join him in constructing a university for southern sons that would produce scholarship "especially adapted to our field, for the defense and maintenance of our distinctive principles."

The cultivation of Christian, paternalistic slave masters composed this defense of the South’s most distinctive principle: bondage. For the intellectual and cultural defense of their section, Otey and Polk set to organize a network of southerners who represented the “intelligence and wealth of our people.” Perhaps the most infamous man in this network – and the name that most often arises first when discussing the University of the South and slavery – was John Armfield, slave trader.

John Armfield, born in 1797, began his career as a stagecoach driver, but entered into a lucrative business partnership with Isaac Franklin around 1824. The firm of Franklin and Armfield quickly cornered a significant portion of the slave trading market. Historian Frederick Bancroft writes in his Slave Trading in the Old South that the two men “were not only far in the lead of other traders in Maryland, Virginia, and the District, but were, perhaps, unequaled in the South.”

This image, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836, depicts Franklin and Armfield's offices in Alexandria.

Buying slaves in the upper-slave states, the traders held their chattel in the slave jail located at 1315 Duke Street in Alexandria until a partner then force-marched or shipped their human cargo to Natchez, Mississippi or New Orleans, Louisiana. This picture, courtesy of the Library of Congress, shows the building during the Civil War, then owned by Price and Birch, occupied by Union Soldiers.

As planters in the Mississippi and Red River Valleys clamored to import enslaved persons to work the expansive cotton and sugar plantations, John Armfield purchased an ample supply from slaveholders in the Upper South states of Virginia and Maryland. Armfield and Franklin amassed a fortune made on the commodification of black men, women, and children through a reliance on innovative business strategies.

In his study The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860, Calvin Schermerhorn aptly describes this business structure as “The Slave-Factory of Franklin and Armfield.” Schermerhorn focuses his analysis on two defining factors of the partnership: the firm’s use of vertical integration to drive down prices and credit, which allowed planters with few liquid assets to purchase enslaved laborers. For most small-scale slave traders, the cost of shipping slaves to New Orleans and the risk of marching prisoners across the southwest raised prices. To minimize this expense, Franklin and Armfield bought their own ships and even carried other traders’ human cargo for a fee. The firm bought, shipped, and sold slaves under one partnership, an innovation at the time.
What saved the firm, buyers, and sellers money, mechanized what historian Ira Berlin calls “The Second Middle Passage.” Traders in the upper south tore apart families and led many slaves to their deaths by way of forced marches and over-crowded hulls. Those who survived arrived in Natchez or New Orleans for sale, where the partners utilized a credit system backed by the newly chartered banks in the southwestern states. Credit allowed the sugar barons and cotton kings of Louisiana and Mississippi, whose assets were liquid only just after the harvest, to purchase enslaved laborers year round. By lowering costs in Virginia and extending credit to buyers in the Deep South, Franklin and Armfield cornered a significant portion of the slave trading market and amassed one of the era’s greatest fortunes.

By 1837, John Armfield and Isaac Franklin dissolved their partnership and left the slave trade after a decade of work. Franklin transitioned his fortune into vast plantation holdings across the South and solidified his place in polite society by marrying into the planter elite. Franklin, along with his bride Adelicia Hayes, ran a series of plantations, including Angola in Louisiana and Fairvue in Tennessee, until his death in 1846. His partner, friend and relative-by-marriage John Armfield served as an executor to Franklin’s will. Below, the notice for an 1855 slave sale from Isaac Franklin's estate evidences the pairs continued connection even after the firm's dissolution. Eventually, Armfield parlayed his wealth into the ownership of a resort at a chalybeate spring in Beersheba, TN.

In 1854, John Armfield finalized the purchase of Beersheba Springs, a resort town on the edge of the South Cumberland Plateau. Armfield sought to create a premiere summer resort in the highlands for the wealthiest plantation owners in the South. In the hot, humid, and mosquito-filled months, planters from the Low Country of the Carolinas and the Mississippi Valley escaped their properties while slaves continued to bring the crop to harvest.

Pictured: Armfield's home in Beersheba

Resort towns, like Saratoga Springs in New York and White Sulphur Springs in Virginia, became the capitals of southern aristocracy. Armfield recruited southern influencers like John M. Bass, former governor of Nashville, and William Minor, president of the Agricultural Bank at Natchez, to summer in Beersheba.

Pictured: The home of John M. Bass in Beersheba Springs

The prudent businessman also built homes for the Episcopal bishops Otey and Polk, whose pews were filled with the South’s nabobs.

Complete with a bowling alley and chefs imported from New Orleans, Beersheba Springs Resort stood to build Armfield’s second fortune.

Pictured: Otey's home in Beersheba

Leonidas Polk and the founders of the University of the South were acutely attuned to the social schedule of the aristocratic slave society; they even used this annual migration as a justification for the placement and calendar of the University.

Pictured: Polk's home in Beersheba

In a passage taken from an advertisement for the University in 1858, Polk and other university commissioners state:

“For the South, the proper vacation of an University is the winter; that season when our planters and merchants and professional men are surrounded by their families upon their homesteads; when the cheerful Christmas fire is burning on the hearth, and mothers and sisters and servants can receive the returning student to his home {...}; when he can mingle freely with the slaves who are in the future to be placed under his management and control.”

In order to properly train the sons of the South, Polk set the University and southern social calendars to rhyme.

Pictured: Polk's Slave Quarters in Beersheba Springs

In the same July 1856 call to action, Bishop Leonidas Polk proposed locating the university “in the Southern end of the Alleghany range in the south end corner of the State of Tennessee.” The proposal propelled Beersheba Springs to the lead of a high-stakes competition to host the University of the South. Small but ambitious cities like Huntsville and Atlanta offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, land, and raw materials in a bidding war to host the Southern University. After 17 ballots, the Board of Trustees selected the land and resources offered by the Sewanee Mining Company. The University would offer this locale access to the wealthiest echelon of southerners, but Polk’s vision for the university town was not wholly academic. Parents, summering on campus or at nearby Beersheba, could audit classes of particular interest.

The influx of wealth and influence into the South Cumberland Plateau would serve Armfield well. Bishop Otey recognized the mutually beneficial aspect of this relationship. In a letter to Armfield in March 1857, Otey offered Armfield a position on the university’s Board of Trustees, saying, “The truth is that we need the experience of practical knowledge of men who have been engaged in worldly pursuits in the formation and execution of many of our plans connected with the advancement of education [sic] and I hope you will not withhold from us your aid when we call for it.” To Otey, Bishop of Tennessee, Armfield's experience in slave trading and business qualified him to shape the University. And, perhaps most importantly, Armfield would not withhold his aid when Otey called.

Stained glass window found in the narthex of All Saints' Chapel in Sewanee, TN. This image depicts Bishop Otey, delivering a speech at the first meeting of the Board of Trustees in 1857, wrapped in the American flag.

On January 4, 1859, John Armfield pledged 25 installments of $1,000 per year for the construction and upkeep of the first buildings of the University of the South. Armfield’s subscription, pictured below, stipulates that the college must be built near Beersheba Springs and must be of the “first class institutions of learning in the United States.” Armfield’s gift was erroneously reported by the Republican Banner and Nashville Whig as $25,000 per year for the duration of his life. While the actual gift fell short of its myth, the pledge launched the construction of the university shortly after its incorporation.

From the time of his pledge to the laying of the symbolic cornerstone on October 10, 1860, Armfield housed both Otey and Polk in Beersheba Springs and financially supported the fragile pre-war planning. This letter from Bishop Otey to Charles Barney, the University’s superintendent, describes the gift of $200 to help complete a map of the University that would be crucial to fundraising efforts. These funds may have been used to hire the slave labor to clear and level the University domain.

The following month, the nation elected Abraham Lincoln as the 16th president and the long winter of secession began. Planning for the University continued at the onset of the Civil War, but was eventually suspended. The first students matriculated in 1868, and the University has been in uninterrupted operation since. Post-war, there appears to be no correspondence between Armfield and the university he helped to found, likely due to the deaths of both Bishop Polk and Bishop Otey.

Armfield’s gift is memorialized by a scenic lookout on Sewanee’s Perimeter Trail; his eponymous bluff lies on the western edge of the university’s campus and is listed as a popular rock climbing spot and picnic area by the Sewanee Outing Program, the college’s outdoor recreation office. It is just one of a number of the university’s prominent natural features – Morgan’s Steep, Rutledge Point, Preston Hollow, Green’s View, and Elliott Point – that honor the masters and defenders of the South’s slaveholding society. Armfield Bluff, named for the trader in human bondage and early benefactor, encompasses the campus’s juxtaposition of grand natural beauty and harrowing injustice against fellow human beings. How then shall a community whose landscape, built and natural, is marked so deeply by the history of racial injustice begin the work of repair?

Main Title Image: JK Wharton. 15 September 1860, University Archives and Special Collections, Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South; Image 2: Armfield Bluff in Sewanee. Tennessee. Quote Touchstone, Blake. "Planters and Slave Religion in the Deep South." In Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740-1870, edited by Boles John B., 99-126. University Press of Kentucky, 1988. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hss4.8. p. 83 Image 3: "SOP 50 Milies of Trails on Campus." sewanee.edu. http://www.sewanee.edu/student-life/sewanee-outing-program/50-mi-of-trail-on-campus/; Quote “A Letter to the Right Reverend Bishops of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina from the Bishop of Louisiana” Letter from Leonidas Polk. July 1, 1856. New Orleans, Louisiana. Image 4: Washington Bogart Cooper, James Hervey Otey, 1846, oil on canvas, University of the South Permanent Collection; Image 5: Image of the Narthex Window of All Saints' Chapel in Sewanee, Tennessee. Image taken by the author. Image 6: Dorr, William S, and American Anti-Slavery Society. Slave market of America. Alexandria Virginia Washington D.C, 1836. New-York: Published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008661294/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.); Quote Bancroft, Frederic, and Michael Tadman. Slave trading in the Old South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. 58 Image 7:Russell, Andrew J, photographer. Front of "slave pen," Alexandria, Va. Alexandria United States Virginia, None. [Between 1861 and 1865] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2006683273/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.) Image 8: Dorr, William S, and American Anti-Slavery Society. Slave market of America. Alexandria Virginia Washington D.C, 1836. New-York: Published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008661294/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.); Image 9: This image depicts Armfield lounging while transporting a slave coffel across the South and was originally published in George W. Featherstonhaugh's anti-slavery tract Excursion through the Slave States (1844) George W. Featherstonhaugh, “Franklin & Armfield,” To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade, accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.virginiamemory.com/online-exhibitions/items/show/387;

Image 10: 1855 notice for a Franklin family slave auction, Acklen family papers, Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University Image 11:Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Old Beersheba Inn, Armfield House Cottage, Armfield Avenue, Beersheba Springs, Grundy County, TN. Beersheba Springs Grundy County Tennessee, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/tn0235/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.) Image 12:Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Old Beersheba Inn, Bass House Cottage, Armfield Avenue, Beersheba Springs, Grundy County, TN. Beersheba Springs Grundy County Tennessee, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/tn0234/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.) Image 13: Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Old Beersheba Inn, Otey House Cottage, Armfield Avenue, Beersheba Springs, Grundy County, TN. Beersheba Springs Grundy County Tennessee, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/tn0232/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.); Image 14: Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Old Beersheba Inn, Polk House Cottage, Armfield Avenue, Beersheba Springs, Grundy County, TN. Beersheba Springs Grundy County Tennessee, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/tn0228/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.); Image 15: Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator. Old Beersheba Inn, Polk House Cottage, Armfield Avenue, Beersheba Springs, Grundy County, TN. Beersheba Springs Grundy County Tennessee, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/tn0228/. (Accessed January 10, 2018.); Quote "Address of the Board of Trustees of the University of the South to the Southern Dioceses in Reference to its Choice of the Site for the University." Letter from Leonidas Polk. 1858. Savannah, Georgia. Image 16: Original Ballot Determining the Site of the University of the South, Box 1 Folder "Oct. 1857" Early Papers of the University, University Archives and Special Collections, Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South; Quote Below James Otey to John Armfield. March 26, 1857. James Hervey Otey Papers, University Archives and Special Collections, Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South Image 17: Image of the Narthex Window of All Saints' Chapel in Sewanee, Tennessee. Image taken by the author;  Image 18: Box 2 Folder "Subscriptions" George R. Fairbanks Papers, University Archives and Special Collections, Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South; Image 19: Box 1 Folder "Correspondence 1859," Physical Plant Services: Charles R. Barney PapersUniversity Archives and Special Collections, Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South; Image 20: Bureau of Forestry, U.S. Department of Agriculture The University Domain. Map. Franklin County, Tennessee, 1900. University Archives and Special Collections, Jessie Ball duPont Library, University of the South

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