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Winter 1995

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 95 > Article

Southern History in Black and White
CONTACT: John Inscoe

Because the history of racism in the South is very complex and because an individual view of racial matters depends on many factors, it is easy to oversimplify racial problems and solutions.

Listen to the radio, pick up a newspaper or browse a list of new book titles and you'll notice that matters of race are garnering much attention from the national media these days. Not since the troubled and turbulent '60s have racial issues so pervaded our consciousness and conversations. Take, for example, our interest in the vastly differing cases of Rodney King, Clarence Thomas and O.J. Simpson or the publication of "The Bell Curve," which has prompted an explosive debate over matters of IQ and racial identity. Closer to home, controversies ranging from the flap over the state flag to the composition of the UGA homecoming court continue to prove divisive and newsworthy.

As troubling as these incidents may be, they also serve as both a catalyst and a backdrop for a deeper understanding of past and present race relations. In fact, at no time during the past decade have issues of race been more palpable in history classes than now. Students, faculty and history buffs intent on exploring America's long and convoluted history of race relations have a panoply of parallels between today's racial tensions and controversies and those of earlier eras.

Yet it's all too easy to oversimplify the historical roots of national or regional racism. One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching, doing research and writing about Southern race relations lies in discovering and sharing with students just how complex and varied the interactions among black and white Southerners have always been. As a part of a generation born well after the civil rights movement had run its course, today's undergraduates react with genuine surprise, occasional shock and some considerable confusion as they discover the extent and intensity with which the "color line" long defined Southern and American society.

Among the courses I particularly relish teaching is "Southern Autobiography as Southern History." Assigned readings include widely ranging views by authors, black and white, and their often disparate perspectives about race and racism bring the complexities of this emotional subject into sharp relief. The powerful, fugitive slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and the searing accounts of coming of age in Mississippi by Richard Wright and Anne Moody are juxtaposed with nostalgic plantation memoirs by Joel Chandler Harris and William Alexander Percy as well as the more enlightened treatises on race, class and politics by Lillian Smith, Will D. Campbell, Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, Morris Dees, and Jimmy Carter.

The richness of the autobiographical genre as historical source lies in the extent to which such work humanizes and particularizes issues that history classes often deal with in more conventional, abstract terms. Although obviously subjective, the intensely personal and often impressionistic accounts by Southerners who have lived on both sides of the color line convey a sense of the hard realities and numerous variables that shaped the region's race relations. Even students who think they have a good understanding of the South and its racial heritage often express dismay and discomfort in reading these intimate accounts of the cruelty -- both mental and physical -- inherent in Southern racism. No two authors, black or white, experienced slavery, Jim Crow or the civil rights movement in the same way; the sheer variety of what each witnessed, felt, responded to and was ultimately shaped by leaves history students with a far more sophisticated sense of the diversity and complexity inherent in the South's past as well as their own.

At the same time, Southern autobiographies provide considerable insight into other factors inextricably linked to both race and region: class, politics, religion, gender and kinship, to name a few. Students are sometimes perplexed by the collective contradictions and ambiguities represented by these authors' vastly differing points of view. However, by reading about such divergent reactions to life in the South, students also come to appreciate the importance of context in Southern race relations: They understand better how attitudes and behaviors are shaped by locale, time period and human nature.

The complexities of race and racism were underscored this past September when writers, journalists, folklorists, literary critics and historians of both races assembled on campus for the conference "Black and White Perspectives on the American South." Their message was clear: There is not now, nor has there ever been, a single black or a single white perspective about the South or any aspect of Southern life. John Boles, editor of the Journal of Southern History, summed it up best when he said that as slippery a concept as racism is, "it is often uncritically and imprecisely used by itself to explain practically everything in Southern history...It is commonly the interpretation of first resort." In outlining the cyclical nature of Southern race relations from the colonial era through the present, he stated that while racism's existence is a constant, "its strength, its influence, its causative agency varies widely. It never acts alone."

The sensitivity to the historical context of racism is reflected in the work of recent graduate students in the UGA history department. The University of Georgia Press has just published Georgia in Black &White: Explorations in the Race Relations of a Southern State, l865-l950, a volume of 11 essays, written by current and former UGA graduate students, that reflect new questions and innovative approaches to the study of racism. Included are essays on power struggles during Reconstruction, when unprecedented change and opportunity redefined the very essence of the South's political and economic structures. They document the variety of venues through which this struggle was played out: the unusual militancy and political savvy of freed men in Greene County; a Republican governor seeking to restore the seats of black representatives ousted from the state legislature; and the concerted efforts and ultimate failure of white and black Methodists to create a single biracial denomination.

Other essays explore the multi-generational legacy of miscegenation in creating a black middle class in Hancock County and the impact of Atlanta University's first female graduates on black education and social service throughout the state. Still others explore the contrasting attitudes of two accomplished white women living in Athens during the early 20th century and their diametrically opposed racial views; the struggles of two Baptist ministers to create a biracial communal farm in Sumter County in the l940s; and the carefully orchestrated cover-up by Walton County residents in response to state and federal investigations of the brutal lynching of two black couples in l946.

As revealing as these essays are individually, together they provide an even more dramatic testimony to the vast spectrum of racial dynamics at play within the bounds of a single state. They document the wide range of intricate and subtle interactions that operated within, or in spite of, the color line. Despite the perception of a Jim Crow regime of deeply entrenched and rigidly enforced racial repression, we can still be struck not only by the range of individuals and groups that defied that regime but also by the diverse forms their challenges took.

One historic event in Southern race relations is particularly cogent to students in my American history survey course. Among the readings I assign is An Education in Georgia, journalist Calvin Trillin's riveting coverage of the desegregation of the University of Georgia, which first appeared as a series in The New Yorker in l961 and l962. When I ask students what aspect of the book most surprised them, the range of their responses often surprises me. Some express dismay at the hostility and fear that the presence of Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault -- the university's first two black students -- generated among students at other universities and among white citizens throughout the state; others find it odd that there wasn't more resistance from university and state officials or that desegregation on our campus never met with the virulent and violent opposition exhibited at state universities in Alabama and Mississippi. More perceptive students often are struck by differences between the way Holmes and Hunter-Gault faced this challenge. The personalities, temperaments and goals of the two black students were significant factors both in how they acted and were acted upon. The varying degrees of contact each had with different elements of the university and the Athens communities also tinted their experiences.

Such reactions reflect the extent to which racial attitudes and assumptions are still shaped by both individual and communal experiences. UGA students, black and white, continue to exhibit subtle and not so subtle variations in the geographical, cultural, social and educational baggage they carry to Athens. The complexities of race relations so evident in the story of the first two black students ever to set foot on the University of Georgia campus more than 30 years ago are equally apparent today in current students' responses to that story. That in itself demonstrates why the racial history of the South remains so complex, emotional and deeply personal and why its study remains an invigorating, rewarding and interactive learning experience for all of us.

John C. Inscoe, associate professor of history and editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly, is the author of "Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina" (l989) and editor of "Ulrich Bonnell Phillips: A Southern Historian and His Critics" (l991) and "Georgia in Black &White: Explorations in the Race Relations of a Southern State, l865-l950" (l994).

For more information please e-mail jinscoe@uga.cc.uga.edu


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