My Brother the Writer, Act 3: The Prequel

A Review of

Rick Lamplugh, The Wilds of Aging: A Journey of Heart and Mind (2018). Available at in both paperback and e-book formats.

[NOTE: On two previous occasions (see here and here), I have reviewed books written by my brother Rick, who, over the past few years, has gone from being a retiree to an advocate for Yellowstone National Park and its wildlife. And now Rick is back, with a book he terms a “prequel” to his earlier works, In the Temple of Wolves and Deep into Yellowstone. Since the publication of those books, Rick frequently has been asked how he and his wife Mary became interested in Yellowstone and its environs. This is the story he tells in The Wilds of Aging.

Though the park and its wildlife certainly figure throughout this work, the “wilds of aging” Rick focuses on here grow out of his life before he and Mary moved to the Yellowstone area. And that “adventure” is largely an internal one.]

The Wilds of Aging: A Journey of Heart and Mind

* * * **

For more than twenty years, Rick had been very active physically, especially on what he  termed “adventures.” For much of that time, his routine (plan for “adventure”; experience “adventure”; write about “adventure”; and think about next “adventure”) had been automatic, almost painless. Then, as he entered his sixties, Rick felt his strength and conditioning beginning to wane.

As if this were not bad enough, during those same years Rick and Mary helped friends and family members, dealing with serious illnesses, to come to terms with what turned out to be their final journeys. In other words, Rick began to “feel old” at the same time people close to him were coping with fatal illnesses.

Like all of us of a certain age, Rick wondered what the future held for him. This question led, first, to an obsession with death, and then to a fixation on the question of what happens after death. His search for answers eventually took him and Mary from Corvallis, Oregon, to a new home just outside the gates of Yellowstone, in Gardiner, Montana, but that journey was neither simple nor straightforward.

* * * * *

First, Rick decided that he must come to terms with his past, especially memories of his father, Ben, who died in 1986, and his mother, Betts, who was slipping into the netherworld of dementia. When his work began to slacken in the months before his scheduled retirement, Rick spent time in his backyard garden in Corvallis, all the while pondering mortality and keeping a journal, the basis for The Wilds of Aging. 

To Rick, his late father became “Dead Old Dad,” a spectral figure who visited him in the garden and elsewhere, offering scathing criticisms—but little helpful advice.  And the powerful stories Rick relates about Ben at first seem to portray him as a dysfunctional parent.  Yet, he finally concluded that “given his upbringing, Dad did the best he could raising me.”  (140)  The chapters dealing with the fraught relationship between Rick and his father are the most poignant in the book.  One chapter, “Ben-isms,” reviews some of Ben’s “wit and wisdom”; in another, “Unlike Dad,” Rick explains that lessons he learned from Ben were frequently negative; that is, he remembered what his dad had done in a certain situation–then did the opposite.

When his parents split up in the summer of 1964, Rick, who was still in high school, chose to remain with his father. So, it was up to him to keep Ben’s creditors at bay and try to cope with his father’s accelerating descent into alcoholism. Rick, at sixteen, soldiered on, doing the best he could during a desperate time, but the experience permanently affected him.  The stories he relates of this period are both painful and powerful.  Readers hoping for closure, or redemption, will find something close to it in “Finally Spoken,” a moving account of how Rick and a clearly dying Ben finally came to terms with each other.

Rick’s mother, Betts, was a different story. When her struggle with dementia entered its final stages, Rick and Mary traveled back east from Oregon each year to visit Mary’s family in Baltimore and Betts in southern Delaware, where, after living for a while with her daughter and son-in-law, she was moved to a local “rest home” and, finally, to a “personal care” facility. Hoping that Betts benefited from his visits, Rick eventually realized that she no longer recognized him. Betts died in December 2013, just short of her ninety-first birthday.

* * * * *

Reflecting on friends and relatives who had passed away, Rick detected a seemingly insurmountable gulf between the views they held of dying, views generated by the “heart” or by the “mind” (note the subtitle of the book).  For his mother-in-law, for example, death seemingly held no terrors.  Her heart convinced her that she would see her husband again–as well as God.  On the other hand, one of Rick and Mary’s friends, Daniel, flatly dismissed the idea of life after death; his mind told him that dying was simply a matter of “Light switch on/light switch off.” (56)

This stark difference in views of death held by people who were facing it, ultimately led Rick to review literature on death and the afterlife.  This process climaxed when he attended a debate at Oregon State University in Corvallis between a conservative Christian and a former Christian who had become an atheist.  At the core of the debate, Rick believed, was faith; the conservative had it, the atheist did not.

In evaluating their arguments, Rick could not escape lessons taught by his career counselling people who had experienced job loss and were trying to re-enter the work force.  Rick’s approach had rested on his ability to convince  clients to take a “leap of faith,” to believe that “there is life after loss.” (165)  Suddenly finding himself in the same position as his former clients, Rick realized that, despite his time in the garden, he could not make that leap. (166)

It was this realization that helped persuade Rick and Mary to visit Yellowstone and, eventually, to move just outside the park and devote their time and energy to the struggle to preserve its animals and environment from threats both internal and external.  This was a new “adventure,” one that might be more meaningful than earlier ones, and for which Rick now felt better prepared.

* * * * *

The Wilds of Aging resembles its predecessors in several ways.  First, Yellowstone National Park plays a role, though, in this case, it’s the endpoint of Rick’s autobiographical “back story,” rather than the central focus.  Rick’s writing style remains engaging.  As in his earlier books, incidents in his “present,” this time his work in his backyard garden in Corvallis, spark reflections on the past, some personal (“Dead Old Dad” again), and others about his and Mary’s growing affection for the nation’s first national park.

If you’ve enjoyed Rick’s earlier books, you’ll like The Wilds of Aging.  If this is your first encounter with the author, this book should whet your appetite to read the earlier volumes, which, while less explicitly autobiographical, offer a moving, lyrical view of life in Yellowstone.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in "In The Temple of Wolves", Books, Delaware, family history, memoir, Popular Culture, Retirement, Rick Lamplugh, Uncategorized, Wolves, WP Long Form, Yellowstone National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Polishing the “Marble Man”: Reflections on Douglas Southall Freeman’s “R.E. Lee” (4 vols., 1934-1935)

[NOTE:  I never intended to read Douglas Southall Freeman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee.  After all, in grad school one of my professors dismissed Freeman’s effort out of hand, remarking that Freeman’s Lee would have been a much better book if the author hadn’t spent so much time genuflecting before the altar to the General in his home!

Then, a couple of years ago, a friend, downsizing in preparation for an out-of-town move, offered me the “Pulitzer Prize Edition” (1935) of Freeman’s R.E. Lee, which included lots of extra pictures in each volume, and I took him up on the offer. I’m glad I did, because, as had been the case with Gone With The Wind and Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, I enjoyed reading Freeman’s magnum opus and learned a lot.

According to historian Thomas L. Connelly, the Lee described by Freeman was “The Marble Man,” not a real figure but a prettified creation, shined up enough to fit the “Lost Cause” school of Civil War scholarship (late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries), which treated Lee and other Confederate generals “as men of principles unimpeachable, of valor indescribable.” (Encyclopedia Virginia)

This picture of Lee as the “Marble Man” was not confined to the 1930s. I have a vague recollection of hearing a talk by a historian at a local college several decades ago who was planning to write a “tell-all” biography debunking at least some of the claims made by Lee’s acolytes.  Comments at that meeting were harsh, and, so far as I know, the historian abandoned his project.]

Freeman’s Lee, Pulitzer Prize Edition (

* * * * *

Freeman was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1886, in the Shenandoah valley, just down the road from one of Lee’s lieutenants—and a major figure in the creation of the “Lost Cause” interpretation of Confederate history—General Jubal Early.  Freeman’s father also had served under Lee in the Army of Northern Virginia.  When the Freeman family moved to Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, in 1892, the white South was caught up in a public celebration of the “nobility” of the Confederate cause and the valor of the Confederate Army, erecting statues of its leaders, as well as generic marble portrayals of Confederate soldiers in town squares throughout the region, monuments to Southern white manhood that are still in the news in 2019.

In addition to the influence of genealogy and geography, surely some of Freeman’s pro-Confederate bias is attributable to his education.  In Richmond, he attended a school run by a former Confederate naval officer and staffed mostly by Confederate veterans.  The curriculum at the McGuire University School for Boys “emphasized Christian and Southern values and identity, while using figures like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee as examples of, ‘fortitude, industry, temperance, honor, and common sense.’”  (“Freeman Digitally Remastered”)

Freeman attended Richmond College (now the University of Richmond), studying under Samuel C. Mitchell, a prominent Civil War historian who also idolized Lee. While working on his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Freeman came across a cache of wartime correspondence between Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Lee. In 1915, Freeman published Lee’s Dispatches, based on those documents, after which he began work on his now famous biography of Lee.

Unable to secure a college teaching post, Freeman opted for journalism upon the completion of his PhD, signing on first with the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1909, and, in 1914, moving to the Richmond News Leader, where, within a year, he became the editor.  (“Encyclopedia Virginia”)

By 1915, Freeman had begun to balance two careers, newspaper editor and biographer of Robert E. Lee, which required a mind-numbing work schedule. He headed for the newspaper at three each morning; in addition to writing 60,000 editorial words each year, Freeman broadcast the news from a nearby radio studio twice a day; drove home for a short nap and lunch; then worked another five or six hours on the Lee project. (Wikipedia; “Freeman Digitally Remastered.”)

* * * * *

Robert E. Lee (

Freeman’s famous (and famously biased) biography of Robert E. Lee certainly reads well, and there are few surprises.  Freeman was “all Lee, all the time.” I was most interested in volumes 1 and 4, which dealt with the beginning and the end of Lee’s life, years I knew little about.  For example, I was surprised to learn that Lee, a graduate of West Point, was an engineer by training and spent most of his early career in staff jobs in the U.S. Army.

In treating the war years, Freeman adopts a “fog of war” approach:  at any given time, the reader knows only what Lee knows (as best Freeman can reconstruct it). This means that a lot of the exploits of the Army of Northern Virginia and its leaders occur “offstage,” with Lee learning the details through after-action reports from his generals.

Lee’s approach to leadership was to devise the strategy, explain to his generals what needed to be done, and then trust that they would accomplish his aims.  Early in the war, with talented subordinates like “Stonewall” Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and his “Old Warhorse,” General James Longstreet, Lee’s enjoyed considerable success, but later, not so much. . . .

Freeman’s most interesting accounts of the war years, to me anyway, spanned the last eighteen months or so, from the Wilderness campaign through Appomattox.  By that time, Jackson and Stuart were dead, Longstreet had developed a chronic case of “the slows,” and those chosen, by Lee, to replace his fallen commanders mostly proved unequal to the task. Consequently, Lee fought a series of bloody battles over unforgiving terrain, trying to keep his incredibly shrinking army between General Grant and Richmond, ultimately to no avail.

Freeman frequently explains Lee’s battlefield miscues by attributing them to his subordinate commanders, whom Lee, of course, had selected.  Another favorite fall guy for Freeman is the Confederate Commissary Department, notoriously inept at supplying even the basics for troops in the field as the conflict lengthened.

If an army travels (and fights) on its stomach, can it achieve much if kept on starvation rations?  Can the cavalry perform its crucial duties if there is a shortage of horses?  Even if this approach to Lee’s lackluster achievements as the war wound down is persuasive, what do Freeman’s rationalizations tell us about Lee, a leader who subjected his men to tremendous hardships even though he realized that, given the logistical realities, the end must be near?

* * * * *

Freeman’s approach to the postwar period works better, given Lee’s association during the last five years of his life with Washington College, in Lexington, Virginia (the future Washington & Lee University).  He served as President of the school, and the details Freeman serves up about Lee’s activities in that role are fascinating.

The high regard for Lee held throughout the South, and in parts of the North, during the early years of Reconstruction comes through strongly in Freeman’s final volume.  He seems to have unearthed every anecdote about how, when Lee encountered former soldiers in his command, they promptly vowed that they’d fight for him again.

Freeman’s treatment of Reconstruction comes straight out of the “Dunning School” of historiography, again no surprise given where and when Freeman was educated and where he researched and wrote the biography: the Reconstruction governments were oozing corruption, thanks to Radical Republicans, slimy Carpetbaggers, and ignorant Freedmen who kept their feet upon the neck of the Suffering South until they were driven out by the region’s “Better [White] People.”

* * * * *

The key to Freeman’s interpretation of Lee during Reconstruction lies in the General’s relative “moderation,” no matter how harshly he was criticized by those who doubted his loyalty to the Union or his “nobility.”  Lee urged those who had served with him, from general officers to enlisted men, to pick up their lives and get back to work, for the sake of their families, their states, and the South.  Yet, even this “moderate” Lee was critical of the actions of the Republicans during “Radical Reconstruction,” when Washington prohibited former high-ranking Confederate civil and military officers (including Lee himself) from voting or running for office.  And “Negro Rule”?  Perish the thought, because, in Lee’s mind, the freedmen were too ignorant to hold office and wield power over the prostrate South. (And one is forced to ask, “I wonder why those freedmen were so unlearned?”)

Freeman’s final chapter is a summary of Lee’s character, which he traces through Lee’s ancestors and their “good blood” (or at least absence of “bad blood”).  Freeman’s treatment of Lee emphasizes his sterling character and his greatness, while admitting (reluctantly) a few actual mistakes or misjudgments.  One is tempted to say that, in Freeman’s eyes, Lee was not just a remarkable man, but also a veritable candidate for sainthood. Freeman stresses Lee’s undying admiration for George Washington, the Father of His Country, a relative on his mother’s side, and for his father, Light Horse Harry Lee, a Revolutionary hero whose end was not nearly as noble as his beginning.

Yet, none of this really explains why Lee chose to follow his “country” (Virginia, harking back to a late eighteenth-century usage of the word “country”), rather than accept command of the Union forces offered to him by General Winfield Scott during the secession crisis.  (Perhaps we are to assume that, to Lee, Abraham Lincoln was a “modern” version of King George III, but, if so, I don’t buy it.)

Even less persuasive, because written in 1866 and later, while Lee was navigating the era of Reconstruction, are his letters explaining his views in 1861. (Vol. 4, 302-306)  There, Lee even insisted that the Constitution of 1787 was ordained by God, and that it was this version of the nation’s founding principles, written and approved by the demi-god Founding Fathers, that he had always cherished, not the one in force in 1860-1861, which threatened “consolidated government.”

* * * * *

According to Freeman, Lee did not leave much of a record about his feelings on slavery. He evidently owned, in his own name, one slave family, and in his 1846 will he directed that those slaves should be “liberated as soon as it can be done to their advantage and that of others.” (Vol. 1, 371n) But, even if Lee owned few slaves himself, his wife Mary inherited 63 slaves upon her father’s death. Robert took leave from the army and returned to the family’s Arlington plantation to try to bring some order to Mary Lee’s estate.

Dealing with those slaves proved especially troublesome. He finally hired out “a few of them by the year in order to supplement the income from the property.” (Vol. 1, 390) Some of the slaves were not happy with this, at least in part because, according to two letters in the New York Tribune, Lee’s father-in-law had provided for emancipating his slaves upon his death, a provision the Tribune claimed had been obfuscated by his heirs. (Vol. 1, 390-392)

Freeman labels the Tribune items “false stories,” especially because they accused Lee of having whipped some of the Arlington slaves who had escaped and been recaptured. In a letter to his son Custis on July 2, 1859, Lee dismissed those charges in two sentences, which of course Freeman accepts as gospel truth: “The N.Y. Tribune has attacked me for my treatment of your grandfather’s slaves, but I shall not reply. He has left me an unpleasant legacy.” (Vol. 1, 392)

* * * * *

Freeman writes well, in a clear, journalistic style.  He is certainly biased, but his pro-Lee, pro-Confederate, pro-South slant is obvious from the first page, and, unless your tear ducts flood at the mention of Lee or the Confederacy, you can slog through the treacly parts. This edition of the Lee biography has numerous photographs to supplement those in the original edition, and the maps are numerous and extremely helpful.  The series index at the end of Volume 4, is quite serviceable.

In short, Freeman’s Lee, “marble man” and all, sometimes does not seem real.  Obviously, Robert E. Lee is not a man for our time; perhaps less obviously, neither is his biographer.  In short, Freeman’s R.E. Lee remains the starting point for understanding a central figure in the history of the Civil War, but one that must be used with extreme care.

* * * * *

Douglas Southall Freeman (


Encyclopedia Virginia:  Biographical article on Lee by David Johnson, Deputy Attorney General of Virginia and author of Douglas Southall Freeman (2002). Accessed 2/12-13/19.

“Freeman Digitally Remastered,” Natalia Chaney, Maddy Dunbar, and Canyon Teague. Part of the “Race and Racism at the University of Richmond” series. (  Accessed, 2/13/19.

Wikipedia: ( Southall Freeman)

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)








Posted in Age of Jim Crow, Books, Civil War, Current Events, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Research, Retirement, Shelby Foote, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Georgia’s Yazoo Land Fraud and the American Constitution (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 30)

A Review of

Charles F. Hobson, The Great Yazoo Land Sale: The Case of Fletcher v. Peck.  Lawrence, Kansas:  University Press of Kansas, 2016.

[NOTE:  I’ve been studying the history of Georgia for more than half a century, trying to understand the peculiar evolution of the state’s political parties from the American Revolution through the decades leading up to the Civil War.  The Yazoo Land Fraud (1795-1796), it turns out, was a central development in this process.

The original Yazoo purchasers, who had greased the skids for the sale of Georgia’s western territory with offers of shares in the purchase to members of the state legislature, moved quickly to dispose of their holdings.  Meanwhile, they also distributed sub-shares in the purchase to important upcountry politicos—militia leaders, editors, justices of the peace—in an effort to frustrate anti-Yazoo legislators and other political leaders trying to block the sale.

This campaign, as sleazy as it was, kept the sale’s foes at bay until the original purchasers disposed of their lands to out-of-state speculators, many of whom resided in New England.  (In author Charles F. Hobson’s view, the quick turnover of the lands from the original purchasers to the supposedly “innocent” purchasers in New England belied the high-toned rhetoric of the Yazoo companies and revealed the “land-jobbing” nature of the transactions. [56])

After tracing Yazoo through the so-called “Compromise of 1802” in my initial foray into Georgia’s political history, I was content to let it go.  Some years later, though, I decided to write a sequel, tracing political party development in Georgia after 1806.  For much of that latter period, I discovered, the Yazoo claims issue was far from settled. As I traced the ramifications of Yazoo through Georgia, congressional, and national history over four more decades, I probably did less than I might have on the fraud’s encounter with the American Constitution.  But I needn’t have worried: Professor Hobson had that topic covered.

Disclosure:  Charles Hobson was a couple of years ahead of me at My Old Graduate School (MOGS), and we had the same dissertation director.  I have followed Hobson’s later career with interest—he was the only one of my grad school colleagues who, after earning his doctorate, chose to pursue a career in documentary editing.  Among his editorial stops  were the Papers of James Madison; the Papers of John Marshall, for which he served as editor; and St. George Tucker’s Law Reports and Selected Papers.  Hobson also published a well-received one-volume biography of Marshall in 1996.]


* * * * *

The post-1802 phase of the Yazoo business was incredibly complex.  Congress passed a law in 1803 reserving five million acres of land in Mississippi Territory to compensate the Yazoo purchasers, but this proved premature, because Congress had not indicated which Yazoo purchasers would be eligible.  Hobson notes the irony that, if Congress had been able to compensate the Yazoo purchasers quickly, the events that led to Fletcher need not have happened, but determined opposition, led by John Randolph of Virginia and George Troup of Georgia, coalesced to block the process.

Consequently, angry congressional debates over Yazoo became a constant feature for the next dozen years.  Disappointed New England speculators tried to convince the national government to compensate them for their losses, but determined Georgia congressmen and their (mostly) southern allies fought a determined rear-guard action that frustrated pro-Yazoo lobbyists and their (mostly) northern backers.

Meanwhile, the forces of speculation also took aim at the Supreme Court, seeking financial satisfaction through the courts that was being denied them both by the Georgia legislature and by Congress.  It was at this point that Chief Justice John Marshall became a key figure.  And the picture Professor Hobson paints of Marshall and his judicial colleagues is  masterful.

* * * * *

Chief Justice John Marshall (wikipedia)

The resulting case, Fletcher v. Peck (1810), was significant for two reasons:  It was the first time the Supreme Court declared a state law unconstitutional; and Hobson argues that, regardless of the famous decision in Marbury v. Madison (1803), declaring a portion of a federal law unconstitutional, “the practice of what came to be known as ‘judicial review’ had its true beginnings with the exposition of the contract clause in Fletcher.” (1)  Moreover, in Fletcher the Court applied for the first time the clause in the Constitution prohibiting states from impairing the “Obligation of Contracts.” (1)

The case, wherein Robert Fletcher sued John Peck in 1803 for failing to honor a contract for the purchase of Yazoo lands, became part of a determined effort by the so-called “innocent” New England speculators to use the judicial system to secure compensation they had been unable to obtain from Georgia and Congress. To the modern, cynical reader, Fletcher v. Peck might seem to be merely a “feigned case,” a collusive effort to deceive the Supreme Court, but Hobson demurs.  He argues instead that “the lawyers who contrived the suit between Fletcher and Peck in 1803 could reasonably believe that such a case fell within the acceptable boundaries of legal practice and that in pursuing this means of vindicating their clients’ rights they were doing their professional duty.” (86)

This “victory” for the speculators in 1810 proved hollow:  Marshall’s Court, though ruling that Georgia’s action in annulling the Yazoo sale had been unconstitutional, regardless of the corruption involved (because the state legislature had had the right to sell the lands), could not order Georgia to pay the speculators (because the Rescinding Act had annulled the sale in 1796,  fourteen years earlier); thus, any financial satisfaction would have to come from Congress, which opened yet another avenue for lobbyists and their supposedly “innocent” clients to continue to press for payment.  And the anti-Yazoo forces were determined not to give way, court decision or no court decision.

The result: four more years of angry, vociferous congressional debates, which gradually wore down the anti-Yazoo forces.  This also was the period when Congress grappled with the War of 1812, and when younger, more pragmatic, Republican congressmen were elected.  Rather than continue clinging to Jefferson, Madison, Randolph, and Troup’s doctrine of “state rights,” these less ideological Republican “War Hawks” preferred to look to the future, but they could not well do that while the Yazoo business occupied Congress.

Finally, in 1814, the national legislature produced a Mississippi compensation bill aimed at banishing “Yazoo” from its halls once and for all.  This measure set aside $5,000,000 from the proceeds of land sales in Mississippi Territory, to be shared by those “innocent” New England purchasers. (Mississippi, along with Alabama, had been carved out of the Yazoo lands.)

The compensation process was far from smooth, and Professor Hobson clearly charts its rocky course.  The umbrella group for Yazoo claimants in the Northeast, the New England Mississippi Land Company, remained unhappy with its share of the Yazoo booty, and, between 1822 and 1854, submitted to Congress at least seventeen petitions seeking further compensation.  All these petitions failed, and, in desperation, the company turned to the U.S. Court of Claims, which finally denied their demands in 1864!

* * * * *

Charles F. Hobson’s The Great Yazoo Land Sale:  The Case of Fletcher v. Peck, is, considering the complexity of the topic, a surprisingly concise monograph.  For example, in less than fifty pages, the first two chapters place the Yazoo sale and the Rescinding Act (1795-1796), in the context of Georgia’s history as a land speculator’s paradise, beginning in the colonial period. Chapter three lucidly explains how a group of New England speculators became Yazoo claimants, and the following three chapters trace the tortuous judicial route of Fletcher’s suit against Peck, culminating in Marshall’s 1810 ruling, and the indemnification process. The final chapter, of interest mainly to legal historians, considers what happened to the Constitution’s contract clause after Fletcher v. Peck, as far as the Supreme Court was concerned.

Hobson also includes a detailed chronology outlining post-Revolutionary land speculation in Georgia from 1785 through the Yazoo sale and the Rescinding Act (1795-1796), and tracing the sale’s ramifications to the final rejection, in 1864, of the speculators’ demands by the U.S. Court of Claims. The work includes a thirteen-page bibliographical essay and a serviceable index.

Hobson’s volume provides only a single map, but it’s a dandy, showing the Yazoo land grants of 1795.  Given the stellar legal talent enlisted on both sides of the case, a few pictures of the luminaries involved in the case, like Marshall himself, John Quincy Adams, Joseph Story, Luther Martin, and Robert Goodloe Harper, might have been helpful, but–hey!–there’s always “Google Images.”

Overall, then, Hobson’s treatment of the case of Fletcher v. Peck is first-rate.  Not only will those interested in the case itself, and in Chief Justice Marshall’s role in shaping the Supreme Court of the United States, find it compelling; but it also should appeal to readers interested in Georgia history after the American Revolution, and to teachers looking for a different approach to the story of party development following the War of 1812.

Charles F. Hobson

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Books, Chief Justice John Marshall, Dr. Charles F. Hobson, George M. Troup, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History graduate school, History Teaching, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read, Yazoo Land Fraud | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Betts, A Mother’s Memoir, 1923-1964, Part IX: Grandmother Remembers

Judith Levy and Judy Pelikan, Grandmother Remembers:  A Written Heirloom for My Grandchild (New York, 1983).

[Note:  Somehow this volume wound up in my basement, along with a lot of other stuff from my mother, Elsie Elizabeth (Betts) Lamplugh, that I had accumulated over many years.  I must have brought it upstairs when I retrieved documents I used in the “Betts” series of posts. For some reason, I didn’t pay much attention to this book, merely stashing it on a study bookshelf—until recently, when I took the volume down and read through it.  I’m glad I did, because, although Betts did not finish filling in all the stuff that was to make up this grandmotherly “heirloom” to our boys, what she did complete provided at least some information my siblings and I hadn’t known.  I’m posting these excerpts from Grandmother Remembers, along with a few links and photos, another chapter in the saga of “Betts:  A Mother’s Memoir, 1923-1964).”]

My Grandparents [See Part II]

My Mother’s Family:

Grandfather’s name:  George Thomas Dobson.

George T. Dobson

Grandmother’s name:  Reba Murray.

Settled in:  Newark, Delaware.

Grandfather earned his living: Working at Curtis Paper Company in Newark as far as I can remember.

My mother was born:  May 15, 1904.

My Father’s Family:

Grandfather’s name:  William Henry Knighton.

William H. Knighton

Grandmother’s name:  Jemima Lydia Gallagher.

Jemima Knighton

Grandparents settled in:  Philadelphia, Pa.

My father was born:  February 22, 1898.

My Parents

Father’s name:  Isaac Livezy Knighton.

Isaac L. Knighton

Mother’s name:  Gertrude Isabelle Dobson.

Isabelle Knighton

My parents met: 

How:  At the home of Mr. & Mrs. William Dean (Mrs. Dean was Dad’s cousin).

When:  Sept. 1919.

Where:  Newark, Delaware.

They were married: 

            Date:  Sept. 20, 1920.

Place:  Old Swede’s Episcopal Church, Wilmington, Del.

My father earned his living:  Several jobs, but the one I remember was Continental Diamond Fiber Co., Newark, Delaware.

I Was Born

I was born:  January 8, 1923.

Where:  Lewes, Delaware.

Named:  Elsie Elizabeth Lamplugh.

That name was chosen because:  My mother had an aunt Elsie and an aunt Elizabeth (known as Aunt “Lizzie”).  Cute, huh?

I weighed:  average weight—probably 6 pounds.

I was told I resembled:  My grandmother Knighton as I grew up.

Brothers’ and Sisters’ names:  Gertrude, Anna Margaret, George William, Mary Katherine, & Robert Arthur.

As a Young Girl [See Part III]

My family lived:  Newark, Delaware most of my life—moved there in 1934.

I went to school:  Newark, Delaware from age 10.

As a student:  I was average.  No honor student—had to study.

My ambition was:  to be a medical secretary, but I was not able to attend college after I graduated from high school.

At home I was expected to:  help in the kitchen, clean up the house, do laundry, & iron my own clothes.

My parents were very strict about:  my choice of friends, dating, had to be home at a certain time—or else!!

My father taught me to value:  friends, money—and how to follow directions—and do as I was told.

My mother taught me to value:  friends.

What I loved most about my father:  his patience with a large family in a small house.  He was a wonderful, understanding Dad.

What I loved most about my mother:  her ability to get along with people—and the pride she had in her family.

My teenage years were:  great.  My parents were warm & understanding, and we all respected their wishes.

As a Girl “My Favorite. . .”

Song: “Begin the Beguine”

Movie: “Mrs. Miniver”

Actor:  Walter Pidgeon

Actress:  Greer Garson

Book:  How to Win Friends and Influence People

Radio Program: “Sammy Kaye’s Orchestra”

Season:  Summer

Vacation spot:  Beach

Holiday:  Christmas

Flower:  Roses & Lilacs

Color:  Red

Sport:  Roller skating

Food:  Roast beef

Subject in school:  Typing & shorthand

Friend:  Betty Geesman & Doris Grundy

As a Young Woman [See Part IV]

Betts in 1942

I graduated from:  Newark High School, June 12, 1940.

I worked at:  at the Continental Diamond Fiber Co. for a couple of years & then worked for the Pennsylvania R.R.

On weekends, I: went to dances or roller skating.

I started to date at the age of:  17.

I met your grandfather at:  his brother’s home.  I worked with his sister-in-law at the fiber mill.

His full name:  Benjamin Leroy Lamplugh.

His birthday:  January 20, 1921.

Our first date was:  to the movies.  

His age when we met: 20.

He lived:  was in the U.S. Army—at Ft. Meade, Md.

I lived:  in Newark.

He earned his living:  as a soldier during World War II and after that he became a carpenter.

I liked him because:  he was a gentleman, very quiet—much like my father.

Grandfather said he liked me because:  I was quiet—little did he know how much I would change.

When we dated we liked to go:  to the movies—or just out walking—we had very little money.

My Engagement

Ben and Betts

[Note:  Betts omitted answers to how long the “courtship” lasted; when they became engaged; and what Ben said when he proposed.  What follows is the only question she chose to answer. For more on her omissions, go here in the “Betts” series.]

When I told my parents [about the engagement] they:  thought we should wait till the war was over and we knew each other better.

My Wedding Day

Wedding Photo (January 12, 1943)

Grandfather and I were married:  January 12, 1943, at 7 P.M., in the home of Minister C. Nadal Jones, in Wilmington, Delaware.

I wore:  a blue wool 2-piece dress.

We celebrated our wedding by:  having dinner with my mother, sister-in-law Ethel and her fiancé, who were at our wedding.

[Note:  Betts skipped the next two questions—“most memorable wedding gift” and “most vivid memory of my wedding day” but did answer the final question.]

After we were married we traveled to:  could not go anywhere because Ben had to go back to his army post in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

My First Year of Marriage [See Part V]

When Grandfather and I were first married: I lived at home with my parents, since Ben was in the Army.  Spent time with him at Fort Bragg.

We lived there for:  about two months—then he went overseas.

My fondest memory of our first home is:  It was in an Army town—Fayetteville, N.C.—an apartment.  It was a small town—but lively.  We had Army friends.

Grandfather’s job was:  in the 82nd Airborne paratroops.

After we married:  I tried to be a good wife—though we had very little time together the first couple of years [because Ben was in the Army, overseas, for much of that time].

As a wife, I tried to be:  understanding of the kind of marriage we had—wartime marriages are difficult—need a lot of love & trust from both people. [For some indication of the difficulties in this particular wartime marriage, go here.]

End of Part IX

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)



Posted in American History, Books, Delaware, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Research, Retirement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Post for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2019

[NOTE:  Last year at this time, I published a post for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday that focused on my contribution to an assembly commemorating King’s career and significance given at my school on January 16, 1987.  This post might have suggested to readers that Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS) had already successfully made the transition from neglecting King’s contributions to honoring them regularly, but no. . . . And the “problem” was, of all things, academic.]

* * * * *

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Biography and A&E)

In those days, we scheduled first semester final exams for early in January, after the obligatory Christmas break that carried us from late December into the New Year. This meant, of course, that even if AFPS wished to honor Dr. King around the time of his birthday celebration, we were limited because of the need to use whatever time we had in early January to review with our students in preparation for their semester exams.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, I served as Interim Chair of the History Department.  When the time came for me to put out the department’s newsletter for January 2000, giving short shrift to Dr. King and his contribution to modern American history, even if our excuse was an “academic” one (i.e., “We simply can’t take the time to honor Dr. King because to do so would interfere with our paramount task of preparing our students for final exams”), was gnawing at me.  So, at the conclusion of an editorial recounting my memories of the events on April 4-5, 1968, I added this paragraph:

At this school, where all our students and a growing number of our faculty have no living memory of Dr. King and what he did, we certainly teach about him at the appropriate point in our various courses.  Nevertheless, the King holiday and the week of activities related to it are no cause for celebration here.  Instead, we use the time to study for, take, and grade final exams. Rather than join the rest of the country each year in wrestling with the question of King’s place in the American story, we hold ourselves aloof, prisoners of an academic calendar that requires us to conclude the Fall semester after Christmas.  Dr. King deserves better, and so do we.

* * * * *

I know you’re probably ahead of me here, but my impassioned editorial plea had no immediate effect on AFPS’s schedule.  A few years later, though, we did opt for moving final exams back to before Christmas, again for academic reasons.  This opened January for serious consideration of Dr. King’s place in the American pantheon. And we all benefited from the move.

* * * * *

As you know if you’ve followed this blog for a while, one of the topics I emphasize is “The South and Civil Rights.”  This year I’d like to call your attention to two of those posts which, I believe, might help you reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his place in modern American history:

I hope you enjoy them.

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Martin Luther King, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Southern History | 4 Comments

The Second Reconstruction: The Modern Civil Rights Movement, 1940s-1968, Part 2 (Teaching Civil Rights, 12)

[NOTE:  This is the concluding post in my treatment of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement from World War II through the assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.  For part 1, go here.  A list of suggested sources appears below.]

* * * * *

Lyndon B. Johnson

John F. Kennedy’s successor, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, was sincerely devoted to the idea of equality and seemed determined to prove that the South had at last turned its back on the heritage of slavery.  Johnson asked Congress to enact civil rights legislation as a memorial to the slain Kennedy.

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public places, unions, and hiring for federal jobs; and authorized the Attorney-General to file suits on behalf of victims of racial prejudice.  This measure would accustom Americans to being in the presence of “the Other” regularly, in restaurants, theatres, stores.  As was the case in education, the underlying idea was that frequent association with people of different races was especially important for children.

Congress also moved to extend the principle of equality to voting.  In August 1962, Congress approved and sent to the states a proposed twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution ending the use of poll taxes by states in federal elections; the amendment was ratified by January 1964.

Congress subsequently enacted the Voting Rights Act (1965), which sent federal registrars to enroll voters in the South.  In the long run, this measure would change the face of the American electorate.  As the percentage of African American registered voters grew, even diehard racist politicians would have to begin paying attention to them.  Moreover, blacks would themselves have increasing opportunities to run for and, eventually, to win elective office.  At President Johnson’s urging, Congress also launched a “War on Poverty,” the key to Johnson’s effort to build a “Great Society.”

Yet, these measures, which dealt with de jure segregation (enacted by laws), a practice largely confined to the South, gave scant attention to de facto segregation (developed and enforced by custom rather than by law), the norm in the rest of the country.  Moreover, this burst of Johnson-inspired legislation did little or nothing about economic discrimination.

* * * * *

Like Americans who had hailed the Emancipation Proclamation a century earlier, supporters of civil rights were quite optimistic over passage of the Voting Rights Act in July 1965.  Yet, according to a noted Southern historian, optimists during both periods shared two assumptions that were to prove fallacious: “The first was that the legal end of the institution abolished meant the end of the abuse that was outlawed.  The second was that the institution abolished was responsible for all, or nearly all, of the troubles of its victims.” (Woodward, Strange Career of Jim Crow, 188)

Even as de jure segregation was crumbling in the South, de facto segregation was on the rise in the North, as was the decay of the inner cities and the percentage of African Americans who were unemployed.  (Nationwide, more than 40% of non-whites lived below the “poverty level,” more than three times the rate for whites.)  These conditions were virtually untouched by the new civil rights laws.

* * * * *

Only five days after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the black ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles exploded into flames.  Hundreds of buildings were damaged or destroyed, thirty-four people were killed, and four thousand were arrested.  Between 1965 and 1967, civil unrest broke out in seventy-six American cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and Newark, New Jersey.  Many white Americans saw these disturbances as revolutionary upheavals, but sympathetic whites viewed them as  symptoms of self-destructive despair.  (Subsequent studies showed that 58% of Watts’ males were unemployed at the time of the riot there and 37.6% in Chicago.)

Justice Thurgood Marshall (wikipedia)

The federal government responded to this civil unrest in both symbolic and substantive ways.  President Johnson appointed the first African American Cabinet member, Robert C. Weaver, at Housing and Urban Development; and the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.  Congress passed an Education Act in 1967 that set up Head Start (pre-school) centers in areas where disadvantaged children entered schools already behind their peers and established special tutorial programs to help older students.

A 1968 law created employment guidelines (“affirmative action” quotas) that pressed employers to hire minorities in roughly equal ratios to their proportion of the population at large, and stringent real estate regulations attacked segregated housing patterns. Violations of this, or any other, civil rights law became a federal offense.  (Note:  Another source places the development of “affirmative action” in the Nixon years, when it grew out of the interpretation placed by federal officials and judges on “a vaguely worded section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”  [The Great Republic, 573-574])

Kerner Commission Report (

In the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riot, President Johnson appointed a National Commission on Civil Disorders, chaired by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois.  The basic conclusion of the Kerner Commission’s report, issued in 1968, was that “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”  (Quoted in Woodward, Strange Career, 195) The Commission reported the failure of the civil rights movement to achieve racial integration and reconciliation, but it did not abandon those goals or despair of ever achieving them.  The Kerner report also deplored the persistence of segregation and “the continuing polarization of the American community.”  Yet, it did not accept these conditions as inevitable nor consider them desirable.

That the developments alluded to in the Kerner Commission report had some basis in fact was clear not only from urban violence and white backlash in the mid-1960s but also from the emergence among younger African Americans of a new set of ideas, “Black Power.”  This term meant different things to different people, from black-owned economic enterprises, to ghetto-centered political power, to emphasis on pride among African Americans in black history and culture.

Stokely Carmichael (

For black leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of SNCC and the organizers of the militant Black Panthers, “Black Power” had “two aspects that inevitably proved divisive: the repudiation of integration and cooperation with white liberals; and the condoning of violence.” (Problems in American History, Vol. II: 421) “Black Power” badly split African American leadership, because established, older leaders like Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., and A. Philip Randolph would not countenance violence promised by some militant black leaders.

* * * * *

There were other problems in the larger American society in the late 1960s.  The civil rights movement increasingly came into conflict with whites, especially in the North, as its emphasis shifted from de jure to de facto segregation.  Moreover, the militant rhetoric of “Black Power” advocates frightened many white citizens:

“Black Power stimulated white resistance and, perhaps, black riots.  Blacks rioted because whites were not doing enough. The riots made whites want to do even less.  Black resources were not adequate to meet black needs. Militance alienated white allies Negroes needed if conditions were to improve. Things therefore worsened, making black militants even angrier.” (William L. O’Neill, Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s, 175)

Urban whites blamed blacks for rising crime statistics and protested efforts to integrate their neighborhoods and schools.  Politicians picked up on this and began to organize their campaigns around pledges to restore “law and order,” code words easily understood by angry white voters.

In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was at its height.  The conflict in Southeast Asia was draining money away from President Johnson’s anti-poverty programs; bringing higher prices and higher taxes to the American people; killing ever greater numbers of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom were black and poor, cannon fodder inducted by the nation’s draft system.

And then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  For many urban blacks, this was the proverbial last straw.  Bloody, destructive civil unrest flared anew in cities across the country.  Stunned Americans, whether black or white, could only grapple blindly with the question of what the civil rights movement would do without Dr. King, who had been the face and voice of African American aspirations since the Montgomery bus boycott over a decade earlier.

Martin Luther King (wikipedia)

* * * * *

In a sense, the murder of the charismatic King brought the civil rights movement to a halt.  Community integration seemed unsuccessful.  Thanks to the Interstate highway system and the resulting growth of suburbia, middle and upper class white Americans could—and did—leave cities in growing numbers.  Thus, the nation’s urban population increasingly became African American, but the tax base decreased because of what was labeled “white flight.”  This meant that, as African Americans gained control of city governments, they found themselves without the financial resources they needed to govern effectively.

White students naturally accompanied their parents to the suburbs, which meant that urban school systems, even if they once had experienced some degree of integration after Brown v. Board, began to be re-segregated (this time through de facto rather than de jure means).  The eventual, court-ordered solution to this dilemma was mandatory busing, which proved unpopular with whites (and with many blacks as well), especially in the North.

Richard M. Nixon (wikipedia)

The worsening of the Vietnam War was a major factor in the election to the Presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1968.  Unfortunately, the Republican nominee adopted a so-called “southern strategy” during the campaign to win support of whites opposed to integration.  He also exploited demands for “black capitalism” and used the concept to attract the black middle class; while that might gratify racial pride, it solved no community problems. Part of Nixon’s re-election strategy in 1972 was to adopt a hardline stand against court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance in public schools.

White backlash was no longer violent.  In recent years it had been subsumed in stances against busing, affirmative action, quota systems, and the sort of generalized opposition to the “welfare state” that was part of the appeal of  President Richard Nixon to white voters. While much less vocal, various civil rights organizations from the 1960s still existed, along with newer ones like The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s PUSH, but in general the Civil Rights movement appeared to lack cohesion and a clear sense of direction.

By 1968, legal barriers to integration in voting, public accommodations, education, and social relations had pretty much been removed. But economic barriers remained.  It was to the elimination of those hurdles that the Civil Rights movement, with continuing support from the federal government, might have turned.  Whether this would happen, and whether, if it did, the effort would receive support from a majority of white Americans, were questions well worth pondering.

* * * * *


Branch, Taylor.  America in the King Years (3 vols., 1988-2006).

Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, eds.  Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Meacham, Jon, ed.  Voices in our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement.

O’Neill, William L.  Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s.

Raines, Howell, ed.  My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered.

Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff.  The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.

Sitkoff, Harvard.  The Struggle for Black Equality.

Sokol, Jason.  There Goes My Everything:  White Southerners in the Age of Civil Right, 1945-1973.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Career.


* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in "The Race Beat", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Cold War, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Martin Luther King, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Sun Belt, Taylor Branch, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The “Second Reconstruction”: The Modern Civil Rights Movement, 1940s-1968, Part 1 (Teaching Civil Rights, 12)

[NOTE:  One of the most significant developments in American history since the end of World War II has been the modern civil rights movement, which noted historian C. Vann Woodward termed “the Second Reconstruction.”  Between the 1940s and 1968, the movement went through several distinct, if overlapping, phases.

* * * * *

The first phase of the modern civil rights movement lasted from World War II through the mid-1950s and was characterized by action on the part of the executive and judicial branches of the government, while Congress and public opinion remained unresponsive.  At the time, African Americans were imprisoned in a rigid caste system, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) and Congress’s failure to enact any civil rights legislation, despite blatant denials of African American rights, especially in the South.

In downtown Washington, D.C., for example, blacks could not register at a hotel, see a movie, order a meal at a restaurant or at a drugstore lunch counter.  When traveling south of the Nation’s Capital, African Americans had to move to the back of the bus or change to a segregated railroad car.  In the Deep South, very few blacks could vote.  In seventeen states in the south and the border regions, Washington, D.C., and in some sections of Kansas, Arizona, and New Mexico, black students were required by law to attend segregated schools.  Few African American high school graduates had the opportunity to go to college, and black families constituted a disproportionately high percentage of Americans living in poverty.

* * * * *

Things began to change, slowly at first, a bit faster once the U.S. entered World War II.  In Lane v. Wilson (1939), the Supreme Court delivered the deathblow to the so-called “grandfather clause” as a means of limiting the number of African Americans who could vote.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Wikipedia)

Two years later, in 1941, in response to A. Philip Randolph’s threat to “march on Washington” to protest racial discrimination in hiring for the defense industry and in the armed forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which involved the national government for the first time since Reconstruction on the side of racial equality.  In 1944, in Smith v. Allwright, a case argued by lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Supreme Court struck down another southern tool for limiting the black vote, the “white primary.” A series of Supreme Court rulings between 1938 and 1954 put an end to racial discrimination in higher education.

* * * * *

World War II and the Cold War that followed combined to make civil rights a national issue again.  During the war, the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest, which had begun during World War I, continued.  The Nazi doctrine of the “Master Race” seemed to many Americans to resemble the view of black people held by Southern whites.  The post-World War II breakup of former European empires launched the U.S. and the USSR into a competition for adherents among the “colored races” of Africa and Asia—because of this, American racial policies became grist for Communist propaganda mills.

* * * * *

President Harry S Truman (Wikipedia)

The loyalty of African Americans to the Democratic Party since the New Deal began to pay dividends in 1947, when President Truman established a committee on civil rights.  The committee’s report led to the re-emergence of civil rights as a national political issue for the first time in the twentieth century.   In February 1948, Truman asked for enactment of a new Fair Employment Practices enforcement law and the establishment of a permanent civil rights committee.  In July 1948, the President issued an executive order abolishing segregation in the nation’s armed forces.

President Truman’s stand on civil rights split southern Democrats from the national party in the 1948 presidential election.  Truman emerged victorious in November, in one of the great upsets in American political history, but the southern Democratic bloc in Congress nevertheless torpedoed the President’s various civil rights proposals.

* * * * *

A key Supreme Court decision came in May 1954, when, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court outlawed segregation in public schools, thereby reversing the doctrine of “separate but equal” established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in another triumph for the NAACP and its staff of dedicated civil rights attorneys.  In 1955, in a ruling implementing the principles set forth in Brown, the Court ordered lower courts to see to it that desegregation of the nation’s public schools proceed “with all deliberate speed.”

Southern segregationists interpreted the 1955 Brown implementation order as a signal that they could delay integration with impunity—for what exactly did “with all deliberate speed” really mean?  Virginia took the lead in the new southern policy of “massive resistance,” an assertion of state rights to block integration of public schools.  Other states joined in passing laws authorizing the closing of public schools by state and local action rather than integrate.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Wikipedia)

As the Ku Klux Klan revived in the South, and as the purportedly “better sort” of white southerners formed the White Citizens Council to oppose integration, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted to reduce the federal government’s role in American society, refused to take the lead in pushing integration of public schools.  Violence greeted desegregation efforts in Tennessee, Texas, Kentucky, and, most notoriously, in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, when Governor Orville Faubus called out the state’s National Guard to block admission of seven African American students to Central High School in the capital.  Faubus’s action forced President Eisenhower’s hand.  He federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered it to disperse white mobs and protect black students.

School integration dragged on slowly during the Eisenhower years, the battle being fought in the courts, school district by school district.  By 1960, four southern states still maintained wholly segregated school systems.  In six other states, less than 1% of black students attended integrated schools.  In seventeen previously segregated state school systems, only an estimated 6.3% of black pupils attended classes with whites, and most of those were in border states with relatively low African American populations.

An important point to remember is that scenes of southern white resistance to school integration were telecast nationwide on the evening news during these years.  This brought a significant shift in white recognition of injustice.  As one observer wrote: “Here were grown men and women furiously confronting their enemy:  two, three, a half-dozen scrubbed, starched, scared, and incredibly brave colored children.  The moral bankruptcy, the shame of the thing, was evident.”

* * * * *

The possibility of massive, nonviolent demonstrations against segregation had arisen as early as 1941, when A. Philip Randolph had threatened to lead a march on Washington.  The following year, a sit-in in Chicago was staged by a group of blacks and whites who, under the leadership of James Farmer, formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bio. and A&E)

The first post-World War II scene in the drama of nonviolent protest was the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott (1955-1956), which began on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a seamstress and local NAACP official, refused to yield her seat on a bus to a white man.  Parks was arrested for violating a Jim Crow-era law that permitted blacks to sit in public vehicles only after all whites had been seated.  Inspired by Rosa Parks’ action and led by a young minister, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery’s black residents refused to ride city buses for over a year.  Finally, the city ended discrimination on buses, with a nudge from a federal court injunction.

Dr. King went on to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 to make a coordinated, but nonviolent, assault on racial injustice.  On February 1, 1960, four freshmen from a local black college, North Carolina A&T, organized a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter at a Greensboro Woolworth’s store.  King called a meeting that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.  SNCC led 70,000 black and white demonstrators in “sit-ins,” “wade-ins,” and “kneel-ins” to protest segregation in public facilities, beaches, and churches.

These actions, many of which were televised, kept civil rights before the nation and eventually brought action from Congress and the President, but at a heavy price.  Demonstrations met resistance from governors, members of congress, state legislatures, sheriffs, state troopers, vigilantes, and racist high school and college students, as well as inertia among community, state, and national leaders.

Southern intransigence became so blatant that even the conservative Eisenhower administration eventually was moved to sponsor civil rights legislation, steered through Congress by the Senate’s Democratic Majority Leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas.  These early bills were largely concerned with voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created a Civil Rights Commission to provide some federal protection for African Americans who wished to register to vote.  The Civil Rights Act of 1960 tried to safeguard voting rights and stipulated that threatening to obstruct federal court orders was a violation of civil rights.

* * * * *

President John F. Kennedy (Wikipedia)

John F. Kennedy, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, was elected President in 1960 at least partly on an explicit civil rights pledge, but, once in office, he and his brother, Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, appeared to be more interested in voting rights for African Americans than in the integration of the nation’s public facilities.  They believed that the ballot would bring black Americans more rights and opportunities than any court or executive action.  Only intense pressure from continuing demonstrations or other dramatic incidents seemed capable of drawing White House support for integration.

Freedom Riders attacked (Wikipedia)

For example, in 1961, James Farmer and CORE organized “freedom rides” on interstate buses to attack segregation and discrimination in southern bus terminals.  An Alabama mob burned one bus and beat up its passengers near Anniston.  The Kennedy Administration sent federal marshals to maintain order after local authorities proved unwilling to protect demonstrators.  In 1962, federal troops were sent to fight off a white mob and protect James Meredith, the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.  In Birmingham, Alabama, police used police and fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators.  In June 1963, a sniper lying in ambush shot and killed Mississippi NAACP official Medgar Evers.

Finally, in June 1963, President Kennedy moved to substitute a stronger civil rights bill for the more moderate one then before Congress.  He asked that the Justice Department be authorized to sue segregated school districts; that he be empowered to withdraw federal funds from segregated projects; and that African Americans be ensured equal access to places of public accommodation.

March on Washington (1963)

At this point, rather than wait for Congress to act, Dr. Martin Luther King and other black leaders revived A. Philip Randolph’s “march on Washington” idea to demand passage of forceful civil rights legislation.  In August 1963, an estimated quarter of a million demonstrators (blacks and whites) traveled to the Nation’s Capital.  The nationally-broadcast highlight of this march was Dr. King’s moving “I Have a Dream” address.

President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Texan Lyndon Johnson, who had been instrumental in securing passage of civil rights laws for President Eisenhower in 1957 and 1960.


* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)









Posted in American History, Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Martin Luther King, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Sun Belt, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“My people, yes!”

A Review of:

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash:  The 400-Year Old History of Class in America. New York:  Penguin Books, 2016.

[NOTE:  Like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016), Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, had the good fortune to be published during the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign.  And, like Vance’s work, Isenberg’s book soon was dragged into a raging debate over the nature of Republican candidate Donald Trump’s “base.”  In the process, both books were transformed by the “commentariat,” well-educated columnists who had pontificated about the Trump phenomenon for months—and had been proven wrong time and again— into a template that might help them understand Trump voters and, thus–perhaps–get something right for a change.  After Mr. Trump emerged victorious, thanks to the Electoral College vote, both books were front and center in the ensuing post-election brouhaha, as the commentariat tried yet again to save face.

Like any good publishing house when one of its books emerged at just the right time to guarantee increased sales, Penguin arranged for Professor Isenberg to prepare a “Preface to the Paperback Edition,” and it is here that she is most explicit about her argument.  In the wake of Trump’s victory, pundits described the outcome as the triumph of class over identity, but Isenberg demurs: “The truth is, it’s not one or the other:  class and identity politics operate in tandem.” (xiii)

Although she believes that “the true character of American democracy cannot be generalized,” (xix) Professor Isenberg subsequently offers an “unscientific” generalization of her own: “A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable.” (xxviii)]

* * * * *

To Isenberg, the founders of Great Britain’s southern colonies wished their New World “plantations” to serve as a dumping ground for Britain’s “waste people.”  How that was  accomplished varied, from John Locke’s semi-feudal Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669) to General James Oglethorpe’s vision that Georgia would “reform debtors and rescue poor men.” (47).  To the surprise of Georgia’s founders, settlers seemed unwilling to play their assigned roles.  For example, the Georgia Trustees’ ban on slavery in their settlements was a losing battle:  Oglethorpe returned to Britain in 1743, never to return; and Georgia settlers were granted the right to own slaves in 1750.

The colonies’ leading “man of science,” Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, argued that the vast quantity of land available for settlement in British North America was bound to create a society of “happy mediocrity,” whose members would live lives between great wealth and great poverty. (65)  By 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense offered a version of Franklin’s “demographics of mediocrity” that pushed aside any notion of class as a cause of the Revolution, promising that, once the colonists freed themselves from Britain, American breeding habits would allow them to dominate the post-war world.

As early as his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson emphasized the possibility of developing an “aristocracy of talent” in the new American republic.  Years later, as President, Jefferson acquired the vast Louisiana Territory, where, he believed, yeoman farmers would flourish without recourse to slaves, manufacturing would be discouraged, and a talent-based aristocracy would emerge.  Yet, despite Jefferson’s theorizing, Isenberg contends, class remained a central aspect of American society.

* * * * *

By Andrew Jackson’s day, however, settlers in the American west were viewed by visitors as “crackers” or “squatters,” unflattering terms that merely updated the grim picture of colonists in North Carolina limned by wealthy Virginian William Byrd II in the late 1720s. Thus, the so-called “Era of the Common Man” did not usher in political equality; rather, the popular caricature of the “common man” was “a vivid illustration of class distinction more than he ever was a sign of respect for the lower class.” (131)  Nevertheless, as the presidential election of 1840 proved, both parties in the American political system knew that “common man’s” vote must be sought—and won—no matter what promises had to be made.

* * * * *

In Isenberg’s view, the image of the white lower classes in the South evolved from “squatters” to “clay-eaters” to “poor white trash” during the late antebellum period.  To intellectuals north and south, they ranked even below slaves on the scale of humanity. (135-136)  The link between slavery and  “poor white trash” in the South remained controversial, however, as did the question of whether whites could co-exist with slaves in a West where slavery was legal.

Obviously, in the event of civil war, the South stood no chance if its soldiers were comprised solely of “aristocrats.”  The president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, used his inaugural address to posit the superior manhood of all southern whites in defending the new nation and its “domestic institution” of slavery.  Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ proclamation that slavery was the “cornerstone” of Southern civilization also helped deflect the hostility of lower-class whites from their “aristocratic” betters. (154-158, passim)  Yet, many poor whites eventually became convinced that the conflict was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”

* * * * *

Isenberg gives cursory attention to the era of Reconstruction, for she has bigger fish to fry.  She broadens her focus to consider a national trend in eugenics, the “science” of improving American society by preventing “degenerates” from breeding, through segregating and quarantining the “unfit”; castration of criminals; and sterilization of the diseased and degenerate.  Perhaps not surprisingly, “the rural South stood out as a place of social and now eugenic backwardness.”  (195)

From the rather vaguely defined eugenics movement, Isenberg moves to the impact of the Great Depression on American society.  Popular culture considered white southerners prototypical “forgotten men,” and feared that the nation might be imperiled if it continued to ignore the poverty and economic insecurity of its citizens (sound familiar?).  Yet, “a fear of unleashing genuine class upheaval—which even elite liberals were loath to do—led significant numbers to blame the poor [whites] for their own failure.”  (227)

In looking at Post World War II America, Isenberg examines the “cult of the country boy,” a quick romp through Elvis Presley, Andy Griffith, Lyndon Johnson, and The Beverly Hillbillies, among others, who kept the “hick” before the American people and an increasingly intrusive media.  “White trash” did not live in suburbia, though they might populate trailer parks on the edges.  Angry, housecoat-clad, curler-bedecked women, protesting integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957, were welcomed by those who blamed “white trash” for the South’s most glaring image problems.

Although southern politicians like Tennessee’s Estes Kefauver tried to domesticate the “hillbilly image” to appeal to the electorate, Isenberg believes that the most successful hillbilly wannabe was President Lyndon Johnson, at least until “his” Vietnam War helped kill the “War on Poverty,” programs designed to uplift the nation’s poor, many of them in the South, through the power of the federal government.

* * * * *

And yet, all was not lost for the cultural image of “white trash.”  Isenberg maintains that, “As identity politics rose as a force for good in the last decades of the twentieth century, authenticity was to be achieved by registering, and then heeding, the voices of previously marginalized Americans.” (269–again, sound familiar?)  Professor Isenberg implicitly assumes that President Richard Nixon’s much-ballyhooed “Silent Majority” was comprised of lower-class whites, and that, by the late 1980s, “white trash” had been “rebranded as an ethnic identity, with its own readily identifiable cultural forms.” (270)  Yet, the cinematic picture of poor white southerners, in, say, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Deliverance (1972) remained familiar—and negative.  Ethnic identity was a positive attribute only if a group demonstrated the traditional American virtue of upward social mobility—otherwise, they were “trailer trash” and “welfare queens.” (277)

In Georgia, Democrat Jimmy Carter used a “redneck” campaign to win the governorship in 1970, but six years later, when he won the presidency, Carter ran—and won—according to one observer, on everything he wasn’t: “He wasn’t a racist, an elitist, a sexist, a Washingtonian, a dimwit, a liar, a lawyer. . . an ideologue, a paranoid, a crook.” (282)  We know how well that worked out for Carter in 1980, when he ran for re-election against Republican Ronald Reagan, who had a long movie career playing roles that bore little resemblance to his real self.  (But at least Reagan wasn’t from the South.)

The culmination of white trash and redneck chic came, by Isenberg’s reckoning, during the mid-1990s.  Bill Clinton’s victory in the 1992 presidential election and his years in the White House saw “the national spotlight focused once more on the uneasy relationship between class identity and American democracy.” (296)  At least until the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, Clinton had elevated his “white trash” hillbilly persona to a popular culture staple.  Ten years later, Isenberg offers acidly, the Republicans nominated for vice president on John McCain’s ticket “their own (effectively) white trash candidate,” a veritable “white trash Barbie,” Sarah Palin. (303-304)

             * * * * *

In an epilogue on “the long legacy of white trash,” Professor Isenberg returns to her main point, the use of tropes like “white trash” and “hillbilly” to deny the influence of class in the nation’s past and, instead, to blame “inferior” people.  She counters that those in power decide who are citizens and how much voice they’ll actually have in public affairs. (Once again, I’ve got to ask, sound familiar?)

Yet, Isenberg argues, the nation’s underclass, whatever its name, has been part of our story from the beginning, whether or not those who govern, or who write American history, are willing to admit it.  Even if inequality exists, the establishment contends, it’s because some Americans can’t “cut the mustard” when it comes to social and economic progress.  “If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence,” Isenberg asserts. (319)

* * * * *

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance delves deeply into the plight of members of his family and others like them, expatriates from Appalachia looking for a new start in the industrial Midwest.  It’s a very personal study, but one firmly grounded in an understanding of social and economic contexts.

In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg essentially offers an intellectual history of the term “white trash,” more of an “academic” volume than J. D. Vance’s.  Isenberg’s poor white subjects lack agency; that is, because they left few sources of their own, she tends to view them through the lenses of her literary sources, most of them members of the elite.  In a political context, the term “populism” doesn’t even appear in the index, nor does she do much with the conundrum that, during the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries, southern elites used “white trash” for their own purposes, while keeping them down otherwise.

* * * * *

Both Vance and Isenberg certainly benefited from the coincidence of their books appearing during a momentous political campaign that had the “experts” baffled, looking desperately for help.  Lots of copies were sold, but didn’t seem, in the end, to have had much impact.  Ah, American culture!  Anybody for “revenge of White Trash” in, say, 2020?

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


Posted in Books, Civil Rights Movement, Current Events, Historical Reflection, History, Interdisciplinary Work, Popular Culture, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Age of Jim Crow (Teaching Civil Rights, 11)

[NOTE:  In previous posts (here and here), we’ve seen how southern whites, helped by the growing weariness of the rest of the nation with the post-Civil War “Negro Problem,” regained control of their state governments by 1877 and began, about 1890, to take away the former slaves’ right to vote, despite the addition after the Civil War of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution.  Called “disfranchisement,” this process was only part of the new system erected by southern whites to keep black people “in their place.”

According to the tenets of the “New South Creed,” African Americans were supposed to perform most of the menial labor in the region, including the all-important work in the cotton fields.  To do that sort of work in the New South, whites believed, did not require much formal education. Rather, what the supposedly “inferior” blacks needed was an “education” that emphasized manual training and domestic service.

Another aspect of the “New South Creed” was the tenet that whites and blacks desired to live in a world that was rigidly separate but supposedly equal.  While racial segregation was certainly not new in the South in the late 19th century, Jim Crow laws institutionalized “the already familiar and customary subordination of black men and women” (Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 230).  According to Litwack, the particular segment of the African American population targeted by Jim Crow laws comprised members of the first generation born after slavery, young men and women who had not been “schooled,” i.e., disciplined by slavery to accept their continuing subordinate roles in the southern scheme of things.]

* * * * *

After slavery, former slaves wanted to use their newly-won freedom to accumulate a few acres of land, make something of themselves and for their children.  Whites, on the other hand, wanted cheap, exploitable labor.  The system that emerged, sharecropping, had all the makings of a compromise at first, but soon created an endless cycle of debt that put whites in the driver’s seat.  Given the whites’ expectations and the blacks’ lack of skill and experience outside of agriculture, there were few alternative ways of making a living available for rural African Americans.

As the Jim Crow system evolved, whites used every opportunity to deny African Americans a way out.  For example, Southern state governments passed laws to punish emigrant agents or labor recruiters who might have offered blacks a chance to leave the farm for a better paying line of work elsewhere. Having accomplished that, the way was cleared for the development of peculiarly southern methods of social control of former slaves:  involuntary servitude based on indebtedness (peonage); the crop lien system; the chain gang; and convict leasing.  As Leon Litwack notes, “After all, the real danger posed by Negroes, in the eyes of many whites, lay in the possibility that they might actually succeed, and that such success would be at the expense of whites and subversive of southern society.” (Trouble in Mind, 149)

* * * * *

So thorough was the system of racial segregation developed in the Age of Jim Crow that, by the time the United States Supreme Court validated the “separate but equal” doctrine in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the decision did not have a dramatic impact, because it simply pointed out the obvious to African Americans in the South and to Jim Crow sympathizers everywhere.  The net effect of “separate but equal” was to dehumanize black men, women, and children.

The justice system in the Jim Crow South was heavily stacked against African Americans.  It operated under a double standard, whereby blacks were arrested more frequently and/or punished more severely than whites for the same crimes.  (This double standard also was a frequent target of songs by African American Blues singers.)  In Leon Litwack’s words, “the perversion of justice had become a lasting legacy of the New South” and helped create “an era of unprecedented racial violence.”  (Trouble in Mind, 277-278)

* * * * *

Using a conservative estimate, Litwack writes that almost three thousand African Americans were lynched between 1889 and 1918 in the South, which meant that two to three black southerners “were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week.” (Trouble in Mind, 284)  Those lynched were usually the sons or daughters of former slaves, people “who [unlike their parents] had not yet learned the rituals of deference and submission.” (Ibid.)

When whites attempted to justify lynching, they frequently emphasized the crime of rape allegedly perpetrated upon a white woman by a black male.  However, only about 19% of the nearly three thousand black lynching victims were accused of rape.  Moreover, if lynching failed to scare African Americans back into their “place,” there was always the possibility that the fear and anger of whites could be taken out on entire black communities, in what were euphemistically referred to as “race riots,” like those in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), New Orleans (1900), and Atlanta (1906).

* * * * *

One southern state after another fell into line behind Jim Crow, so that, by World War I, racial policies in the South were strikingly similar to those employed by the white rulers of South Africa.  The system was enforced by law, but also by violence when necessary:  lynching increasingly became a southern pastime, with most of the victims being African American.  Moreover, the Ku Klux Klan, dissolved during Reconstruction, was reborn atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving night, 1915, and spread beyond the South in the decade of the 1920s.

Jim Crow laws even kept pace with changing times and technological advances:  segregation was extended to taxi cabs, buses, and airplanes (and airports), as those became important modes of transportation in the 1920s and 1930s.  No area of southern life was considered too insignificant to require the tender touch of Jim Crow.  As C. Vann Woodward pointed out, “A Birmingham [Alabama] ordinance got down to particulars in 1930 by making it ‘unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other’ at dominoes or checkers.” (C.Vann Woodward, Strange Career of Jim Crow, p.118)

* * * * *

What options did African Americans living in the Jim Crow South have in the face of this individual, and even communal, violence?  An obvious one was to stay in their “place” and “not cause trouble.”  Oh, blacks might issue mild protests, so long as they kept them from escalating into confrontations.  African Americans could also become what Litwack labels “interior exiles,” turning to drugs and crime to ease their pain and assuage their guilt.  Litwack adds that the black musical genre known as the Blues was the product of “the young men and women who had disengaged themselves from the norms and values of conventional black and white society.” (Trouble in Mind, 447)

Perhaps the most desperate African American response to white brutality and oppression was to leave the South.  In 1917, 90% of black Americans lived in the South, three quarters of them in rural areas.  Fifty years later, 75% lived in cities and less than 45% resided in the South. (Ibid., 482)

The black exodus from the South had begun after the Civil War, within the region, from country to town and from the older South to newer regions like Oklahoma and the Mississippi Delta.  In 1879, there was a short-lived departure of southern black “Exodusters” to Kansas.  A generation later, there was an ultimately futile effort to find a place for black Americans to live in Africa, culminating in Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement during the 1920s.

The climax of this movement of African Americans out of the South was the so-called “Great Migration.” Between 1916 and 1919, the prospect of work in northern and mid-western factories during World War I attracted half a million black southerners; almost one million more would follow in the 1920s.  Abandoning the South was especially attractive to members of the younger generation, who perhaps sought “some kind of redemption through migration.”  (Litwack, Trouble in Mind, 495)

Those African Americans who emigrated certainly did not find Heaven in the North or the Midwest, which, like the rest of the nation, were heavily populated by white racists.  But, even if they continued to encounter racism, black southern expatriates knew it wasn’t the Hell of the Jim Crow South.


Chafe, William H., et al.  Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South (2001).

Egerton, John.   Speak Now Against the Day:  The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (1994).

Lemann, Nicholas.  The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991).

Litwack, Leon F.  Trouble in Mind:  Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow 1998).

Wilkerson, Isabel Wilkerson.  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010).

Woodward, C.Vann.  Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (pb; 1961).

________________. The Strange Career of Jim Crow (3rd revised edition, 1974).

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

Posted in American History, Civil Rights Movement, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Southern History, Teaching, The "Great Migration", The Blues, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Teaching Prep School with a PhD, 4: Q & A ( October 2018)

[NOTE: Earlier this month, I had yet another opportunity to speak with a group of PhD students at My Old Graduate School (hereafter, MOGS) about the job market out there as they are finishing their doctorates.  In the last few years, I’ve had several  such engagements, and I’ve posted a summary of each at “Retired But Not Shy” (see here, here, and here).

As was the case during my last appearance at MOGS, this was supposed to be a “panel discussion” on the topic of teaching at a prep school with a PhD; unlike that former occasion, this one actually wound up as a panel discussion.  The key was the decision by MOGS to offer those who signed up for the session an opportunity to submit questions they wished panelists to address.

Those questions were really good ones, and, despite the fact I’d prepared a ten-minute presentation about my career “beyond the professoriate,” as our instructions originally specified, I decided to jettison that approach and tackle some of those questions, as did my two colleagues.

All of us PhDs had experience teaching on the secondary school level.  I, the only retiree in the bunch, had taught History for nearly four decades at the same “prep school,” which I usually refer to by its nom de blog, Atlanta’s Finest Prep School, or AFPS.  A second panelist is in his fourth year teaching Chemistry at a different local private school.  The third panelist, also a Chemistry PhD, teaches at a highly-regarded suburban public school.

What follows includes excerpts from the ten-minute overview of my career that I did not deliver, as well as my responses to several of the questions submitted by members of the audience.]


* * * * *

After I finished a two-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army in 1968, my wife and I moved to Atlanta, where I entered MOGS, earning an M.A. in 1971 and a PhD. in 1973, both in History.

It wasn’t until sometime in 1972 that I began to look for a college-teaching job, only to discover that there was no such job looking for me.  Yet, I very much wanted to teach History, so I decided to investigate independent secondary (or “prep”) schools, which, unlike public high schools, did not seem to require “Education” courses. (I was mistaken in that assumption, but that’s another story.)

Although I had no offer from a college in 1972, I wound up with three from “prep schools” in 1973, ultimately choosing to join the faculty at AFPS, across town from MOGS, largely because  that school’s salary proposal was the best of the bunch.  (And my family would be able to stay in Atlanta, at least for a while–thanks to the U.S. Army and MOGS, we’d already moved five times in six years of marriage!)

AFPS was willing to hire this PhD, and the explanation is clear in retrospect:  AFPS advertised itself as a college preparatory school, so employing a few teachers whose degrees actually qualified them to teach in college was an asset.  Newly-minted PhDs like me working on the high school level in the 1970s were ahead of the curve, though we didn’t know that at the time.  PhDs on prep school faculties might have been oddities then, but,  having at least some teachers with doctorates on the faculty nowadays is practically a requirement at better prep schools!


* * * * *

Q & A

How do I frame my resume in order to look desirable for a teaching position at a prep school?

Keep in mind that, while prep schools hope to hire “renaissance people,” teachers who know their academic “stuff,” they also have other, more practical needs that must be filled—most from within the ranks of their teaching faculty.  So, let the school know, both in your application and in your interview, what other skills you have, besides a deep knowledge of your chosen field and dissertation topic.

For instance, can you help coach a sport?  Rest assured that most prep schools offer lots of sports options to their students, the overwhelming majority of them at the sub-varsity level, some of which you might have had experience with while in high school or college.  Moreover, “coaching assignments” are not limited to sports teams:  there are activities like debate, the school newspaper, yearbook, student government, music programs, all of which need “advisors.”  There also will be a multitude of clubs and activities that need “sponsors.”

Take the initiative here.  I know from personal experience that, if you don’t tell the school what activity you’d like to help coach, sponsor, or advise, the school will tell you what you’re going to do!  

How difficult is it to navigate the transition from full-time research in graduate school to working in secondary education?

How could I remain at AFPS for nearly four decades?  First, employment prospects on the college level did not improve much over that period.  More importantly, I came to love the job, the students, and the school.  I also evolved from a “History professor” to a “History teacher,” largely, I believe, because of what I’d learned in college and at MOGS.  (Let me add that, if my experience is any indication, the biggest difference between being a “professor” and a “teacher” is that, for a secondary school teacher, students’ accountability is daily, not just a few times each semester, as it might be for a professor.)

  1. I loved History. By the time I finished college, a History major in the School of Arts and Sciences (i.e.not in the School of Education, where I’d been for a few weeks as a freshman), I’d had courses in the history of every part of the world except Africa and the Caribbean. When I arrived at MOGS two years later, I hoped to study and teach American History, but the MOGS History Department required graduate students to select major and minor areas of concentration.  I chose Modern European History as my “minor” field.  Having  to move, at least slightly, outside my comfort zone at MOGS, along with the broad knowledge of my subject I’d acquired as an undergraduate, later prepared me to teach—and even to create—courses at AFPS that were not in “my area of specialization”: for example, Ancient and Medieval History; Introduction to History; History of the Ancient World; and both “regular” and Advanced Placement European History.
  2. Successfully navigating graduate study also helped refine skills I already possessed, as I’m sure many of you have, and these would continue to serve me well on the secondary level—for example, self-discipline; the ability to work independently, and to write and think critically; a facility for organizing and presenting material orally; and managing a classroom (though this proved more challenging in my early years at AFPS than during my time as a teaching assistant at MOGS and an adjunct at a downtown university).
  3. One area where I wish I’d been better prepared at MOGS was “people skills”:  things like working with colleagues; adapting discussions, assignments, and tests to different learning styles of 9th through 12th graders; and the elephant in the “prep school” classroom, dealing with all those parents.  Eventually I developed these interpersonal skills (I’ve written about the process elsewhere–here, here, and here), and, once I was comfortable as a “classroom teacher,” I settled in for the long haul.

Isn’t it true that teachers with advanced degrees are often “looked down upon,” both by colleagues at the school and by professors in the academy?

Perhaps “back in the day,” when I hired on at AFPS, this might have been true, but even then the school already had some PhDs on the faculty, so I never felt alone, or “looked down upon.”

The thing to remember is that, if you secure a position on the secondary level, you need to take it very seriously:  work hard to prepare for your teaching assignments; try to make friends with other members of the faculty; contribute as much as you can to the life of the school outside of the classroom; and, above all, do not be afraid to go to more experienced teachers, especially in your department, with questions or problems.

In essence, you will be judged by your faculty peers by what you brought to the school when you were hired and, of course, how much you contribute to school life as a member of the faculty.  It might seem difficult at first to fit in.  You’ll be trying to prepare your courses, perhaps including some you’ve not previously taught; learn how your school operates; work constructively with colleagues in a new environment; and, if you are married and have a family, try to tend to those responsibilities as well.

I’m sure that each of us on the panel could offer anecdotes about how hard we–and others of our acquaintance–had to work to get over the hump during our early years at our schools, but the task is doable–and the rewards are satisfying. [NOTE:  Each of us did furnish anecdotal evidence that taking on a teaching assignment in a high school was far from being a walk in the park, and more demanding than being a grad school TA.]

As far as the opinions of “professors in the academy” are concerned, college professors are certainly aware of the reality of today’s job market, so most will understand why you’ve signed on to teach at the secondary level.  I still remember the efforts by my dissertation director at MOGS to keep me informed, after I’d become a prep school teacher, of job possibilities on the college level, none of which, alas, came to fruition.  One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was gently to inform him after a few years that, while I appreciated what he had tried to do for me on the job front, I was content in my prep school roost and did not plan to move.

Is secondary education a good fit for me? 

If you are fortunate enough to land a teaching job at a “prep school,” please don’t assume that you’ve somehow “settled for something less.”  This path will be different from the one you envisioned when you entered graduate school, but, like teaching in a college or a university, it has both challenges and rewards and is a job worth doing–and doing well.

Sure, you’ve missed out, at least for the time being, on that tenure-track job at Ivy U., but, if you apply yourself and possess self-discipline (and a supportive spouse, if you are married), you should be able to “keep up in your field”; remain active in professional organizations and publishing (even though your school certainly won’t require that); work with skilled, likable, interesting colleagues; earn a decent salary, with benefits.  And, of course, you can continue to search for that heretofore elusive “college job.”  Now, admittedly, this will not be easy, but it can be done, if you really want to do it!  Once more we circle back to the need for a positive outlook, energy, and self-discipline.

Teaching on the secondary level can be a fulfilling career for anyone interested in working with bright students, sending them out into the larger world knowing that, because of your efforts, they are better prepared than they might otherwise have been.

 * * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845
(University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

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