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Confronting a College’s Past in a 175th Anniversary College History Course

The image above is of Robb Hall at Rhodes College. Learn more about the history of this building and its namesake, Alfred A. Robb, in our LSL database here.

By: Prof. Timothy S. Huebner, Rhodes College

In Fall 2023, Tim Huebner, Professor of History at Rhodes College, joined with Bill Short, Associate Director of Barret Library, to offer a course on the history of Rhodes College.  The course coincided with the College’s celebration of its 175th anniversary.

We taught “Rhodes College and the American South” as a 200-level course, as that allowed it to be open to Rhodes students at all levels.  Eventually, sixteen students enrolled, fourteen first-year students and two sophomores.  Here is the course description: 

“This course explores the history of Rhodes College at its 175th anniversary.  Founded in 1848 in Clarksville, Tennessee, the College has long been closely connected to the values of the American South, particularly after its move to Memphis in 1925.  The course will explore a number of themes—including the College’s historical ties to a culture of white supremacy, the institution’s evolving identity as a church-related college, and its ongoing attempts to offer an outstanding liberal education in the context of late twentieth and early twenty-first century struggles for civil rights and social justice.  The course will be neither a celebration nor an indictment of the College’s past.  Rather, it will be an honest endeavor both to confront the College’s shortcomings and to recognize its successes.  Class sessions will include presentations by various faculty members and alumni, as well as two of the College’s presidents.”

By the end of the semester, students should have acquired a deep knowledge of the College’s history, a clear understanding of the major themes in the history of the American South, and the basic research and writing skills of a historian.  All students will participate in producing a podcast, which may become part of the “Lynx to the Past” podcast series.

The course was a collaborative effort, which involved not only Mr. Short and I, but also several guest speakers, including Rhodes faculty, staff, and alumni.  (A former president of the College and the current president also spoke to the class.)  Stephen Haynes, Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes, was especially helpful in teaching the course, as he led four class sessions and coordinated the class’s involvement in the Locating Slavery’s Legacies project. 

Students in the class were divided into research teams for two of the assignments, and for one of these, writing a Locating Slavery’s Legacy entry was an option.  In the end, seven students in the class participated in the project by researching and writing entries.  Prof. Haynes contributed three additional items to the database.

These Rhodes items all related in some way to the College’s nineteenth-century history, before the institution moved from Clarksville, Tennessee to Memphis in 1925.  The entries included buildings, trees, plaques, as well as the individuals connected to these memorial items: Rev. Benjamin Palmer, Col. Alfred A. Robb, and John N. Waddel.  All were advocates of white supremacy and supporters of the Confederacy.  Palmer was best known for preaching sermons in support of his belief in the biblical foundation of racial hierarchy, while both Robb and Waddel fought (and died) for the Confederacy.  Robb was an early donor and board member, while Waddel served as chancellor of the institution during the late nineteenth century. Students conducted research in the Rhodes archival collections and in the College’s digital archives, DyLynx.

In the end, contributing to LSL was a tremendous experience for students.  They learned a great deal about the origins of the College, its connections to white supremacy and the Lost Cause, and gained a renewed appreciation for all that the College’s first Black students in the 1960s had to overcome.  

My only regret is not requiring all students to participate in this important research project.  If we teach the course again in 2025—when the College celebrates a century in Memphis—we will be sure to integrate LSL more fully into the course. 

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