The Truth Teller

Klarke Stricklen, C’22, becomes Sewanee’s first Black Rhodes Scholar by turning an unflinching eye on Sewanee’s Black history.

In October 2021, Sewanee senior Klarke Stricklen stepped to the microphone in the large banquet room of the Sewanee Inn known as “Founders Hall.” The name of the room was germane, bordering on ironic, because in the brief speech she would deliver to the University’s Board of Trustees, Stricklen would have a few things to say about the founders of the University of the South and their legacy on the Mountain. Stricklen had been invited to speak as a representative of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, a project to which she had devoted countless hours since her freshman year.

Just a year earlier, the University’s Board of Regents had issued a landmark statement categorically rejecting the University’s past veneration of the Confederacy and committing “to an urgent process of institutional reckoning in order to make Sewanee a model of diversity, of inclusion, of intellectual rigor, and of loving spirit in an America that rejects prejudice and embraces possibility.” Stricklen knew the statement was a good start, but also that there was work to be done.

In just over five minutes, the American studies major told the trustees about her experience with the Roberson Project and challenged them to take an honest look at the role slavery played in the history of the University. Her interest in Sewanee history, she said, was piqued when she started to notice all the portraits of white men—and almost exclusively white men—in public spaces. “The men in those portraits tell the story of the University, yet I found myself wondering if there was more to that story,” she said. “I soon found that that story was more diverse and complex. I had learned that the University of the South was founded by the Episcopal Church to educate the next generation of leaders. While this is true, I soon discovered that it was to be an institution grounded in white supremacy and Black exploitation. I felt compelled to tell that story.”

Roberson Project Director Woody Register, C’80, has found many reasons to marvel at Stricklen’s strength over the last four years, and her willingness to stand in front of the University’s governing board and deliver hard truths in plain language was just one more example of that strength. “When Klarke speaks, she tells the truth with candor but also with love for Sewanee,” he says. “You can be honest about a place—you can be honest about its history, you can be honest about its problems today—but you can still voice that in caring about the institution and believing that hearing the truth won’t weaken the foundation but may actually strengthen it.”

Strengthening foundations was what Stricklen had in mind when she wrapped up her speech to the trustees. “If you leave here with nothing else today, leave knowing that our University was a leader in the Old South and therefore has to be a leader in the New South—a leader in the fight for racial justice, and a leader in the reparations movement, working to define the role that universities with ties to the slave trade have in the conversation. … As a Black woman, I understand that Sewanee was not originally intended for me. Yet I know in some way I have helped shape it and that when I leave, it will be just a little bit better than the way I found it. But it takes more than just me to do this. If we want our community to be an inclusive place, then it takes all of us to know that we can and will be better.”

Just a month after her address to the trustees, Stricklen was named a Rhodes Scholar, the first African American Sewanee student to earn that distinction. She had been compelled to tell a more complete version of Sewanee’s history by including Black narratives, and now she was becoming a significant figure in that history in her own right with a milestone achievement. The fact that her work exploring the University’s entanglement with slavery and its legacies played a large part in Stricklen’s Rhodes application only bolsters her argument—the University’s history is more complex and diverse than the parade of portraits on Sewanee’s wood-paneled walls might suggest.

Stricklen spoke during Sewanee's 50 Years of Women celebration in 2019.

Stricklen spoke during Sewanee's 50 Years of Women celebration in 2019.

As a freshman looking to find her footing at Sewanee, Stricklen had a memorable chance encounter with longtime Director of Multicultural Affairs Eric Benjamin, C’73. Benjamin was on his bike and stopped to catch up with her to see how her first weeks in Sewanee were going. She told him that she was still trying to find her place on campus, and he offered some advice: Don’t try to do everything. Find one thing you’re passionate about and dive in headfirst.

Tagging along with friends to a meeting for the Roberson Project Student Group in duPont Library, Stricklen had her first encounter with Project Director Woody Register and got an introduction to the kind of work the project was doing. “Klarke made an immediate positive impression on me because of her maturity,” says Register. “I left that meeting thinking, ‘We’ve got to bring this person in.’” Soon, it would become clear that Stricklen had found that one thing that she could throw herself into, as Benjamin had advised.

Stricklen’s work with the Roberson Project didn’t start with an exploration of the 19th-century history of Sewanee’s founding and the ways in which the University benefited from the slave trade. It started with a more accessible kind of research, learning about Sewanee’s first Black students and looking at the historically Black St. Mark’s community in the town of Sewanee. Among other things, Stricklen found that the community has played a significant role in the lives of Black Sewanee students since the College of Arts and Sciences was first integrated in the ’60s. In the St. Mark’s community, Black students away from home, often for the first time, have found a source of comfort and support that has helped them weather some of the challenges they have faced on campus. And Stricklen herself was a beneficiary of that support.

As a summer research associate for the Roberson Project, Stricklen helped organize and run two digital archiving events for the St. Mark’s community, encouraging members of the community to bring photos, family Bibles, and other documents and memorabilia to be scanned or photographed in order to build a digital resource that preserves and tells their stories. Through the project, she met members of the community who became like family to her. “The Roberson Project gave me this instant connection with members of the St. Mark’s community, like Ms. Shirley [Taylor] and Ms. Sandra [Turner], and Carl [Hill], who were all so welcoming, willing to share their stories, and bring me into that community,” she says.

“When Klarke speaks, she tells the truth with candor but also with love for Sewanee. You can be honest about a place—you can be honest about its history, you can be honest about its problems today—but you can still voice that in caring about the institution.”
Roberson Project Director Woody Register

Stricklen also formed strong connections with some of Sewanee’s first Black graduates when she conducted research to prepare for the University’s celebration of 55 Years of Black Alumni in 2020. That research became a timeline of significant events and milestones in the history of African American students at Sewanee. When she learned that Nathaniel Owens, C’70, had been the first Black graduate of the College, Stricklen had questions she wanted to ask him. But she soon found out that nobody at Sewanee had a phone number for the retired Alabama judge. She went to work, and after a while was able to track down Owens’ sister, and through her, Owens himself. “I was amazed to hear his stories and about all the barriers that were broken thanks to his being here and being willing to engage in this community,” Stricklen says. The two hit it off and started such an enduring friendship that Owens was one of the first people Stricklen called when she learned she had won the Rhodes Scholarship. “He was so excited,” Stricklen says. “And I remember thinking that I didn’t know where I would be if he hadn’t taken the chance to set up a space for students like me at Sewanee.”

As a senior still deeply involved in the work of the Roberson Project, Stricklen has turned her focus from the 20th century to the 19th century and the early history of the University. For her senior thesis, Stricklen is looking at John Armfield, who became an early benefactor of the University after he had retired from the most extensive slave-trading partnership in the United States in the 1820s and ‘30s. Stricklen is less interested in exposing the evils of Armfield’s lucrative business than she is in exploring the implications of his connection to the University. Stricklen’s jumping-off point is a letter written by Bishop James Hervey Otey, one of the University’s founders, in which Otey solicits Armfield’s support for the fledgling University, pleading with Armfield to lend his “practical experience and knowledge” to the cause.

“I’m looking at the ties of the University to the plantation economy,” Stricklen says. “Because if you’re talking about someone like John Armfield and wanting their practical knowledge and experience, then you’re talking about the practical knowledge and experience that come from being a human trafficker. I’m using it as an example of what our University was, with the hopes of seeing who we can be in the future and how we can now write our narrative.”

A year before she became a Rhodes Scholar, Stricklen was selected from a pool of 845 candidates nationwide to be named one of just 62 Truman Scholars in her class. Truman Scholars are selected based on their academic success, leadership accomplishments, and their likelihood of becoming public service leaders. The summer after they graduate, scholars attend the program’s summer institute in Washington, D.C., and serve internships at government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Stricklen will work with the Human Trafficking Legal Center this summer, a nonprofit organization that gathers research around human trafficking and matches labor and sex trafficking survivors with pro bono attorneys to help them pursue litigation against their assailants. And she sees the internship as a natural extension of her work with the Roberson Project and her research on Sewanee history. “Part of my senior thesis is looking at the institutions that John Armfield promoted as a slave trader, including the ‘fancy trade,’ which was the sexual trafficking of enslaved women,” Stricklen says. “I think working at a center that’s looking at modern-day versions of that is a logical next step.”

Starting in September, the Rhodes Scholarship will take Stricklen to the University of Oxford, where she’ll spend two years in graduate programs, with the goal of earning a degree in economic and social history and another in social and legal research. She says she’s most looking forward to the exposure to global cultures she’ll get among the vibrant international student body at Oxford. She’s also looking forward to a visit from her mom, who raised Stricklen as a single working mother in Chattanooga. “I always tell people my mom won the Rhodes Scholarship because she’s so excited to visit Oxford at Christmas and travel with me,” Stricklen says.

“At Sewanee, we’re taught to question everything. When you don’t question, you get grounded in things that you think are the truth, and it closes you to other possibilities. Our professors teach us to make our own determinations.”
Klarke Stricklen

After Oxford, Stricklen sees law school in her future, and she’d like to attend law school at another university that has ties to the slave trade— and that is in the consortium of Universities Studying Slavery—in order to continue exploring the historical ties between higher education and slavery. Eventually, she hopes to practice civil rights law and possibly pursue a career in public service.

Wherever she ends up, Stricklen says she’ll take the many lessons she’s learned at Sewanee with her, especially the need to challenge the status quo. “My research with the Roberson Project always starts with a question,” she says. “And at Sewanee, we’re taught to question everything. When you don’t question, you get grounded in things that you think are the truth, and it closes you to other possibilities. Our professors teach us to make our own determinations.”

And one more thing she hopes to take with her: “I hope they’ll have the passing hello. I hope when I see someone, I’ll smile and wave, and they’ll smile and wave back. I hope that’s a thing at Oxford, too.”

On one wall of the staircase in Fulford Hall, in the Office of Admission, hang three large frames that show photos of the faces of every Rhodes Scholar who has graduated from the University. The last of the three frames will soon be updated to include Sewanee’s most recent Rhodes winner. Klarke Stricklen’s journey into studying the history of the University started when she failed to see her own experience reflected in the portraits that hang in Sewanee’s public spaces. Now, thanks to her, current and future students might see something of themselves in at least one portrait.

Stricklen’s academic advisor and research mentor Woody Register says that’s significant. “For all of those years, those portraits told a story of white Sewanee,” he says. “That gallery of faces will no longer tell that story, and I think that’s really important for Sewanee. It would be a strength of this University if it can continue to diversify the portraits in that gallery and others on this campus. The more that we can bring people here who can realize the value of a Sewanee education, who can contribute to the value of a Sewanee education, the more diverse those portraits will be and the greater this University will be. Klarke will not be the last, and I’m hoping that her successors will encourage others to see themselves as people who can make this the University of their South.”