[Note: This is the concluding part of a look at how, in retrospect, I came to terms with the question of race in the history of this nation, which I taught for forty years; its present, where I live; and its future, which will be the world my children will inherit. It has been a life-long journey. In Part 1, I identified key moments in my early life that shaped this experience—the dramatic events, and stunning pictures, of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s; my love of history, which would lead me into the classroom; and my first real exposure to living in an integrated world, as an officer in the U.S. Army between 1966 and 1968.]
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Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia (1968-1973)— At the end of my tour of active duty in the U.S. Army, I enrolled in graduate school in History at Emory University. I was not born in the South, nor, except for Army training at Fort Lee, Virginia, had I spent any time in the “real South” before we moved to Georgia. And I came here with certain preconceptions about Georgia (whose Governor at that time was the ever-popular Lester Maddox, who had been elected largely on the strength of his determination to use axe handles to drive Black customers from his chicken restaurant!), and about the region as a whole.
For example, I had arrived in Atlanta under the impression that its Black citizens were probably being treated as second-class citizens, but that turned out to be more complicated. Soon after I entered grad school at Emory, I also began undergoing a long-term treatment at an orthodontist whose practice was in downtown Atlanta. I traveled there every couple of weeks, by bus. Now, this was the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were “old news” when I arrived. But, here’s what I observed during my regular bus rides to Dr. Morrison’s office:
When older Black adults, who had grown up during the Age of Jim Crow, boarded the bus, most of them seemed automatically to pick up their ticket at the front of the bus, then move to the rear, as had been mandatory before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Younger Black riders, on the other hand, paid their fares, took their tickets, then sat anywhere they wanted, even right behind the bus driver.
When I began to teach American History at Emory as part of my fellowship, I mentioned this, to me, interesting dichotomy, and, later, when I was teaching the same course across town at a prep school, I continued to use that example to suggest some of the long-term effects of the Age of Jim Crow on Black folks who had lived under its mandates, as well as of the freeing effect of the Civil Rights Act on younger African Americans.
[Note: The Greater Atlanta Area always has been, in some ways, in the “real South” but not of it. Even after my wife and I arrived in Atlanta and read The Atlanta Constitution, local journalists continually pointed out that there was Atlanta, and then there was the rest of the state of Georgia.]
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Looking back on it, what I learned about the South at Emory as a student came primarily from a combination of, first, my training there as a southern historian, and because we continued to live in the Greater Atlanta Area after grad school.
There were not a lot of African American students at Emory during these years, and only a handful among the History grad students I knew. There also were no Black faculty members in the History Department. During my five years at Emory, I became a historian of the South, thanks mainly to two professors: Dr. James Z. Rabun, from whom I took courses on the American Revolution and the Old South, and who directed my dissertation; and Dr. Bell I. Wiley, whose legendary course on the Civil War drew throngs of undergraduate and graduate students each year. Moreover, preparing for comprehensive exams, required before I could begin research on a dissertation, enabled me to fill in gaps in my historical knowledge, including what was then called Black History.
It was also while in graduate school that I finished the rest of the military obligation I had accepted when I enrolled in the Advanced ROTC program at the University of Delaware in 1964. Those remaining two years in uniform came as a member of an Army Reserve Quartermaster unit in Rome, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. Once more, I experienced life in an integrated environment, at least one weekend a month and two weeks each summer, which reinforced the impact of my first two years of Army duty on my view of race. The Army was the most integrated organization I had been involved with in my life to that point, and it played a major role in enabling me to come to terms with the question of race in American society. Working together in an integrated, interracial Army unit opened up a broader view of American society.
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The Westminster Schools, Atlanta, Ga. (1973-2010)—When, in the Spring of 1973, I signed on to teach History at an Atlanta prep school, I felt very well prepared, especially in American History. Whether that would prove true, though, was by no means guaranteed.
Atlanta was, in the 1970s, the self-proclaimed “Capital of the New South,” but a good many White Atlanta residents, even some who were college-educated and affluent (including a number of Westminster parents), seemed to be looking for a pro-Southern Civil War version of the past, as portrayed in Atlanta native Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind (1936) and the blockbuster film based on it that premiered there in 1939.
As part of my preparation to teach American History at Westminster, I began to read more widely about the role of African Americans in the making of the South and the nation. During my early years at the school, based upon my experience in college, I told my senior American History classes that, if they really wished to learn about the power of racism, a Klan meeting was a great place to do so. At that time, the Ku Klux Klan still advertised in Atlanta newspapers their annual meeting atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain each Thanksgiving night (where the Klan had been reborn early in the twentieth century following release of D.W. Griffith’s epic film, “Birth of a Nation”). The ads were low-key, simply inviting those curious about the Klan and its beliefs to attend. To my knowledge, none of my students took me up on that recommendation, although a few parents were unhappy with my suggestion when they learned of it!
At Westminster I helped develop and teach a course, “The South and the Sectional Image” that had originated in an assignment in an “Education” course that I was required to take in order to become certified to teach History on the high school level in Georgia. One year, a colleague and I even arranged to show “Birth of a Nation” after school to our classes. To do this, we had to contact parents, explain our rationale for showing the film, and agree not to penalize students who opted out of the viewing. As I recollect, the evening, while a bit tense at the outset, turned out pretty well, and we received little negative feedback.
I also had several opportunities to speak with local independent school teachers and other audiences about the significance of race in trying to understand the history of the South. (See, for example.)
My study of one African-American contribution to this nation’s cultural history, the Blues, and of the historical context in which it arose, convinced me that, to understand the Modern American Civil Rights Movement, it was absolutely essential to treat the Jim Crow South, so that my students would understand what it was that the Civil Rights Movement was trying to escape from, and why. (See, for example).
That view definitely carried over into the course I inherited a few years before I retired, “The History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement.” When I revised the syllabus, I opened the course with several weeks on the “Age of Jim Crow.” Probably because of my undiminished admiration for The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the wealth of material available to supplement our texts, though, I never got much past King’s assassination over the remainder of the course.
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Retirement (2010-Present)—when I retired from Westminster, I had “all the time in the world” to work on scholarly projects, which eventually produced two books, published in 2015 (see below). Moreover, because I missed my role as editor of the school’s History Department Newsletter, I decided to launch a blog. Now in its twelfth year, “Retired But Not Shy,” has allowed me to continue researching the Age of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement and share what I’ve learned.
More recently, in this era of Covid 19 and of “Black Lives Matter,” I found myself following all sorts of online clues about modern racism, Confederate monuments, and related topics, including Zoom discussions of pressing current issues. These too found their way into the blog.
It’s been a long road, one I plan to continue exploring. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
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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)
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)
Thanks for your comment, Marianne. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
Ah, those were the days before “woke” suggested something other than an awakening to more of the true story of race in America that many of us, and several generations, failed to get in high school and even college. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Talk about before “woke” (a term I am not comfortable with) is to hit the issue squarely on the nose (as you tend to do–delightfully!–) on my blog! I got my version of the story of race, as I’ve tried to explain here, mostly through post-college “studies,” including service in the U.S. Army and five years of grad school in Atlanta’s Emory University. And, of course, built on it from there, once I started teaching across town in “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AKA, Westminster). Considering my age, though, it’s no surprise that high school and college didn’t come within miles of being “woke,” when it came to understanding the history of race in this country!
Thanks, as always, for your perceptive comment.
And so, we continue to visit the crossroads and for those of us born in the Deep South, search for which portion of our soul we have mortgaged for being so slow to understand and change.
You put it better than I could, Rick. Thanks for the comment!