A Tennessee university president has apologized for offending African American students with a table centerpiece that included stalks of cotton — a piece of Southern-style decor that is raising questions about cultural and racial sensitivity.

Lipscomb University President Randy Lowry said in a statement late last week that he had invited African American students to his home for dinner, serving what one student called “black meals” — “mac n cheese, collard greens, corn bread.” A picture posted on Instagram showed the meals placed around a table that was embellished with a jar filled with decorative branches and cotton stalks.

“Several students shared with me their concern about the material used for centerpieces which contained stalks of cotton,” Lowry wrote in an email, which was shared Thursday on Facebook. “The content of the centerpieces was offensive, and I could have handled the situation with more sensitivity.

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“I sincerely apologize for the discomfort, anger or disappointment we caused and solicit your forgiveness.”

Instagram user nakaylayvonne wrote last week that African American students had been invited to the university president’s home to share a meal.

“As we arrived to the president’s home and proceeded to go in we seen cotton as the center pieces,” she wrote. “We were very offended, and also the meals that were provided resembled many ‘black meals’ they had mac n cheese, collard greens, corn bread etc. The night before Latinos also had dinner at his house and they had tacos. They also DIDN’T have the center piece that we HAD tonight.”

She said that when Lowry was asked why there was cotton on the table, he told them he did not know.

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“He kind of thought it was ‘fallish,’ THEN he said ‘it ISNT INHERENTLY BAD IF WERE ALL WEARING IT’ then walked off,” she wrote on Instagram.

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Lowry told the Tennessean that he was “probably not as artful as I should have been” in his response, “but I was trying to meet everybody and get on with the show.”

“I wrote in my apology that I did the next day how I understand that cotton represents something to some of the African American community that takes us back to the deplorable times of slavery. So I understand that student and am extraordinarily sorry to have anything on the table that would have been offensive,” he told the newspaper.

“It was extraordinarily innocent, but I understand fully and I have tried to apologize fully for any offense that might have caused any of our students.”

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Comments on the university’s Facebook page varied widely on the issue, with some calling it “offensive” and others calling it “nonsense,” saying the backlash against the university president is “ridiculous.”

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“I’m sorry, but as a lipscomb alum I find this completely ridiculous,” one person wrote. “That is a popular style of decorating in the south right now, and has NOTHING to do with race. You can’t do anything now without someone being offended.”

I’m white and regardless of [your] decorating expertise or preferences, this is with poor taste,” another chimed in. “You’re seriously telling me you don’t see how this would be offensive?”

One commenter, who identified herself on the school’s Facebook page as a black student who was at the dinner, said the issue is about more than cotton.

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“There were other problems that occurred at the dinner that are not mentioned in this ‘apology,’ ” she wrote. “We came to his house after being told that we would get to share our experiences as a black student and to have a question and answer session with President Lowry. Instead, we heard his life story, his wife’s, and the life story of David Lipscomb (with an emphasis on all the good things he did for slaves and African Americans). We did not get a chance to voice any of our questions like we were promised. Therefore, we are upset about other things aside from these poorly chosen cotton centerpieces.”

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Amid the uproar, a Texas woman also called out the arts-and-crafts retailer Hobby Lobby last week for selling such stalks of cotton, or “cotton bouquets.”

“This decor is WRONG on SO many levels,” Facebook user Daniell Rider wrote Thursday on the store’s page. “There is nothing decorative about raw cotton. … A commodity which was gained at the expense of African-American slaves. A little sensitivity goes a long way.”

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This decor is WRONG on SO many levels. There is nothing decorative about raw cotton… A commodity which was gained at…

Posted by Daniell Rider on Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hobby Lobby did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin posted a link on Facebook to a story about it on Young Conservatives, a right-wing news and opinion website, along with a caption: “You need to see this.”

At what point does the insanity end?
Pro-tip: everyone in the South picked cotton, not just slaves.
And slaves not only picked cotton, they also picked tobacco, for example.
So everyone who is truly woke shouldn’t smoke.

Lipscomb University is a predominantly white school, with white students making up more than 76 percent of the undergraduate population. Black students account for 7 percent, Hispanic students less than 7 percent and Asian student less than 3 percent, according to a diversity report. The university president told the Tennessean that improving diversity on campus has been a main concern.

“It doesn’t hurt the goal. It doesn’t change the mission. I think it acknowledges that we’re not perfect,” Lowry told the newspaper. “We always seek to be perfect but we never expected we would be — even the president of the university.”

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