[Note: This post is another in a series examining the Jim Crow-mindset of southern Whites after the Civil War, this time through the eyes of Williams College history professor Charles B. Dew, who grew up in the Jim Crow South. The title he has selected for his memoir, The Making of a Racist is in some ways misleading; more apt to his topic might be the subtitle: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.]
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Author Charles B. Dew describes this book as “a strange combination of autobiography and history—the story of my growing up on the white side of the color line in the Jim Crow South, my engagement as an adult with southern history, and the power of the past, and on occasion a single piece of documentary evidence, to rock us back on our heels and send us off in a quest for understanding.” (ix-x)
In writing this volume, Dew was inspired by primary sources he has encountered on the slave trade, especially one: an 1860 broadside on “market conditions” from a Richmond, Virginia, slave auction firm. He has spent his career trying to understand the South, especially the role of race in its formation and the impact of that development up to the present. One of Charles B. Dew’s ancestors, Thomas Roderick Dew, wrote in 1832 that “Virginia is in fact a negro raising state; she produces enough for her own supply and six thousand for sale.” (2) This proved to be a heavy legacy for Professor Dew.
About half the book is an autobiography, emphasizing how Dew was taught what to believe about race as he was growing up, which, he claims, made him an “accidental racist” (i.e., he didn’t realize what was happening to him until it was too late).
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Charles B. Dew was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1937, to middle class parents, Amy Meek and Jack Carlos Dew, both of whom had southern roots. Dew’s mother was called “Dear,” his father Pop, by him and his siblings. Pop’s brothers, who put him through college and law school at the University of Virginia, were businessmen. Jack Carlos Dew met Amy Meek at UVa; they had planned to marry, but the Great Depression forced a postponement until 1931. Pop established his law practice in St. Petersburg, where young Charles had a “Confederate youth.” For instance, his paternal grandmother belonged to the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and she presented him with a subscription to the UDC magazine.
When Charles turned fourteen, he received from Pop a .22 caliber rifle and a set of Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants. Pop’s law partner presented the youngster with Facts the Historians Leave Out: A Youth’s Confederate Primer, which blamed everything on the North, including slavery! (17-19). Both Charles and his older brother were offered the chance to attend Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, and each accepted. Charles admits that he “grew up,” to some extent, during his time at Woodberry Forest, but the place also solidified his “Confederate” views of the South and its history, thanks in part to his American History teacher.
Summing up what he learned as a youngster, Dew asserts that his “education” made him “part of the problem, the major problem of the South of my era: racial injustice on a massive scale, cradle-to-grave segregation. I had become a son of the Jim Crow South.” (60)
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In explaining how he became a racist, Charles Dew recalls a book of stories about Ezekiel by Elvira Garner (1937) that his mother read to him when he was young. In retrospect, he sees the volume as the beginning of his education about the southern view of race—told in Negro dialect, it reinforced White folks’ stereotypical view of Black people. Growing up, Dew also could see examples of southern White social customs regarding Blacks all around him—separate eating utensils; no use of titles in addressing Black employees; the requirement that Blacks come to the back door if they needed to communicate with White members of household.
One of Pop’s favorite books, frequently quoted, was an anti-Eleanor Roosevelt screed, Weep No More, My Lady, apparently set off by Mrs. Roosevelt’s view of the South and the Negro as revealed in her newspaper column, “My Day.” The southern White male fear of interracial sex (instigated by “lusty” Black males, of course) was made explicit in this volume. The lesson Charles Dew drew from the volume was that “absolutely nothing was more important to white southerners, and particularly white southern men, than defending the purity of white southern womanhood.” (42) Moreover, Pop and other White southerners viewed Black women as sex-crazed “Jezebels” who set their caps for southern men.
Dear believed that segregation was best for both races, as did Pop. And yet, when their Black maid, Illinois, and her husband Joe Culver could not find “decent” housing, the Dews pulled some strings to get them into “better” quarters. (47) Another book young Charles received when he turned fourteen was Eneas Africanus, by Harry Stillwell Edwards, a collection of stories about a grown-up version of Elvira Garner’s Ezekiel that reinforced “Sambo” or “good darkie” stereotype. Dew argues that books like Ezekiel and Eneas Africanus circulated widely among White southerners. He claims that they did yeoman work in shaping White southern racial views, serving as “the equivalent of a Jim Crow blogosphere, confirming crude and outrageous stereotypes, validating sulfurous misinformation and historical myth, and elevating our prejudices and our bigotries to the status of revealed truth.” (52)
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Dew was, like every high school senior everywhere, caught up in the chase for the perfect college; as a consequence, the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal Brown decision pretty much went over his head. Still, Pop made no secret of his “rock-ribbed conservative” ideas on that and other subjects. Pop also was increasingly a drinker, and eventually an alcoholic. However, when the time came for college, Mr. Dew, perhaps surprisingly, urged his sons to attend Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was a believer in the power of education, especially of the liberal arts variety at colleges that were “first-rate teaching” institutions. Once again, he left the choice up to his sons, and they did as he wanted. While he never asked Pop why he was so high on Williams College, Charles Dew speculates that his father believed Williams would provide the sort of education he favored, but without affecting their views about the South and race.
Dew admits that his views on race changed, but he contends that the process took a very long time. He argued with books that challenged his beliefs, while also being embarrassed by a defender of “the southern way of life” who spoke at Williams and delivered “one of the most intellectually barren and boring talks I had ever heard.” (30) Dew also told a racist joke within hearing of a Black Williams classmate, who might, or might not, have heard it, which brought him up short and remains a painful memory. So, yes, eventually Charles Dew would emerge from his racism, but the process—and his memories of it—raise an even more painful question: “How had I, we, all of us white southerners, become such unthinking racists to begin with?” (32)
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Dew credits his mother, Dear, who had instilled kindness in both him and his older brother, with playing a key role in his escape from racism, though that happened gradually. He was so relaxed about race while living at Williams that he only noticed the change when he returned home for vacation, when he saw the “Jim Crow curtain” descend upon the dining car in his train. Dew also started to pay attention to race-related current events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Massive Resistance in Virginia. He found out that his Uncle Jimmy, a physician in Orangeburg, South Carolina, felt that he “had to” join the local White Citizens Council to protect his livelihood and his family.
Moreover, young Charles began “really talking” to his family’s maid, Illinois Culver, about Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement when he drove her home after work during his last two summer vacations while in college. He began to see the color line from her side, until one day she posed the question that would push him towards the study of southern history: “Charles, why do the [White] grown-ups put so much hate in the children?” (73)
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Two events during Dew’s senior year at Williams also proved crucial. One involved extending the hand of friendship to a Jewish student who had initially been barred from the college’s fraternities. Then, a national officer for Dew’s own fraternity told him, “Charles, I hope the house here will have the good sense never to pledge a nigger.” (77) Dew also took “a life-changing seminar on the history of the Old South” as a junior, in which his professor showed him that there was much more to the history of race in the pre-Civil War South than had been handed down to him when he was younger. He did his honors thesis under this professor, which determined him to major in history and aim for graduate school.
In March 1958, while speaking with Pop after dinner, Charles finally had had enough of his father’s denigration of the Brown decision, and he lashed back. When Charles returned to Williams, his mother called and begged him to call Pop and apologize, which he did. This was toward the end of his senior year, when he had already been accepted for grad school at Johns Hopkins University, where he would study under renowned southern historian C. Vann Woodward.
Thereafter, relations between Pop and Charles warmed some, although Charles learned that it was wiser to discuss professional football than politics. Pop died of leukemia in 1975, at the age of 72. His death also freed Dear to leave Jim Crow behind—she died in 1991, at 86. Her son concluded that, “In the end, despite everything that had gone before, my parents helped me bend the arc of my own moral universe, my personal moral universe, toward justice.” (86)
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At a conference after publishing his second book, about a Virginia iron manufacturer and his slave workers, Charles Dew was stopped in his tracks by a Black participant, who asked how someone as white as he, was writing about Black history. After dancing around the question for a bit, Dew replied that he’d been drawn to the study of slavery because he wanted to know how southern Whites had been able to come to terms with, first, slavery, and then, Jim Crow segregation—how could they see the evil around them every day and say so little about it?
In the late 1970s, Professor Dew was offered a permanent post at Williams College, where he found a document in the special collections section in the library that metaphorically smacked him across the face, and he’s never forgotten it. It was a printed broadside reviewing the slave market prices at the Richmond, Virginia, firm of Betts & Gregory, dated August 2, 1860, which, to Dew, encapsulated in one page “what lay at the core of the South’s slave system—the chattel principle, human beings as property, as commodities, as merchandise.” (97) Dew put the document into context: it was issued in the summer of 1860, with civil war seemingly looming on the horizon. This broadside listed categories of slaves as merchandise, the prices for each (without consideration of the slaves’ humanity). In sum, the broadside illustrated “a world of unspeakable human degradation and exploitation.” (105) Professor Dew used this broadside with his history students thereafter, meanwhile realizing that he needed to discover how such a world came to pass.
Greed was certainly part of the answer, he believed. At its heart, Dew argues, it was all about race, beginning with, of course, belief in White supremacy, from which flowed everything else. Nevertheless, Charles Dew asserts that “we are not doomed by it. We can do better, we have done better. But we must do better still.” (167)
And all of this is what he’s being telling his students for decades now—and through this book, the rest of us.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: