The Story Behind “A Scrappy Fourth of July” (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 29)

[Note:  Last time, I regaled you with “Confessions of a Historical Pack Rat,” a light-hearted look at where I’ve gotten some of the material for posts at “Retired But Not Shy” (hereafter RBNS) over its first eight years.  As it turns out, with July 4th only a few days away, I now have the chance to retell that story, focusing on the “history” of a single post that has already appeared here three times, in different forms, and is appropriate for the coming national holiday.]

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Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS) is a “unit school,” which means, among other things, that, at least in theory, its curriculum across the K-12 educational spectrum should be synchronized over the course of those thirteen years.  The question always is, what does that mean to the classroom teacher?  This is something that each department head wrestles with, as I did during eight years as Chair of the History Department.  Admittedly, I did not do as much with the concept as I might have during my tenure as Chair.

As the 2009-2010 school year opened, my last at AFPS, I had been “back in the trenches” (i.e., a fulltime classroom teacher) for more than a decade.  In addition, I was the editor of the department’s newsletter.  As a sort of farewell gift (?) to my History colleagues, I asked them to share, through the newsletter, how they taught their students about the Declaration of Independence.

I introduced what I called the “Declaration Project” during our pre-school department meetings.  The plan was for each division (elementary, junior high, high school) to contribute an article on the topic to the newsletter, for the January, March, and May 2010 issues, respectively.  So that my colleagues would have an idea of what I expected of them, I wrote an article in the September 2009 issue, “The Declaration Project: Introduction,”  which, as it turned out, would, a couple of years later, be the genesis for a series of posts at RBNS on July the 4th celebrations in Antebellum Georgia.

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By late 2011,  I’d been retired for eighteen months; since June 2010 I’d been the blog-meister at RBNS; and I need something to write about for December.  Pondering alternatives, I seized upon that September 2009 newsletter article–perhaps, if I expanded  it, adding a number of specific examples of political activities on the 4th of July in Antebellum Georgia drawn from both my dissertation research and my current project, I might produce an interesting post, at least to readers who, like myself, were “In Pursuit of Dead Georgians.”  The result, posted on December 1, 2011, “A ‘Fourth Dimension’ in Georgia Politics,” both had a vague title and was published at the wrong time of the year, but, hey, it took care of December 2011!

A few years later, as I was thinking once again about what to put up at RBNS in July, I returned to that earlier post.  “Why not make a few revisions, and post it in the chronologically appropriate month?” I wondered.  So, on July 1, 2015, a slightly different version of that 2011 essay debuted as “A Scrappy Fourth of July.”

Two years later, I revived that 4th of July post, thinking that, like my treatment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., posting it might become an annual event.  The result:  “A Happy Fourth, from Antebellum Georgia!” appeared on July 3, 2017.

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All of which–son of a gun!–brings us to late June, 2018.  I had been working on a different post for July 1, but it occurred to me last night that a 4th of July post would perhaps be  more appropriate.  So, here it is, for those who might have missed it, my homage to Antebellum Georgians, their shifting views of the Declaration of Independence, and what that might mean to us today:

Happy Fourth of July!

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For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several 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 4th of July, American "republicanism", American History, American Revolution, Education, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Popular Culture, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Confessions of a Historical Pack Rat: “Retired But Not Shy” at Eight

[ Note:  One question any new blogger should—but probably doesn’t—ask is, “Will I be able to find sufficient material to keep this blog alive?”  I know that I didn’t think about this question in May 2010, when I contemplated establishing a blog. Yet in 2018, as “Retired But Not Shy” cruises past its eighth birthday, I can finally admit that my blog has lasted so long because I’m something of a historical pack rat.  Let me explain.]

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I gradually saw that my blogging interests centered around several themes.  Not only had I written about, lectured on, and opined concerning these issues on numerous occasions, but I also had kept copies of those notes, lectures, talks, articles, and editorials.  So, yes, “Retired But Not Shy: Doing History after Leaving the Classroom” (hereafter, RBNS) could have become little more than a collection of my “Greatest Hits,” but that’s not what happened.

Although the blog’s archives reflect some walks down memory lane, other posts broke new ground.  But, just for the fun of it, let’s concentrate this time on “old war horses,” posts I pulled from basement filing cabinets, revised, or otherwise gussied up so that they might enjoy new life in the blogosphere.

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“Blues Stories”—eight of these posts originated in “Back to School Night”  lectures I offered annually to returning alums at Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), the nom de blog of the place where I taught for nearly forty years.  Most of the others came from books I’ve read since retiring from AFPS.  Rather than mention any titles here, I’ll refer you to the Year Eight “Top Ten List” below, where half of the items are Blues-related.

“Dead Georgians”—twenty-eight posts, and counting.  Quite a few were offshoots of earlier research, for my dissertation (and the book that resulted from it), and later, as I piloted ideas that eventually found their way (or didn’t) into my second book.

The story of the “Fourth Dimension” in Georgia politics began as an article in AFPS’s History Department Newsletter.  The two-part tale of Elias Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix (here, here) was my contribution to AFPS’s “Explore!  Native Americans” program, and subsequently became a staple in my AP United States History course (APUSH).  “Georgia and the American Revolution,” grew out of a course presented to an adult evening class at AFPS in 1976, during the bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution.

Other posts in this section originated as public lectures.  “Georgia and the Federal Constitution” (here, here) comprised a talk to a group of Georgia History buffs during the bicentennial celebration of that document.  I trotted out “Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806,” based on my dissertation, for a class at Emory University’s Oxford College in Covington, Georgia, taught by my good friend, Dr. Arnold Shankman, and subsequently used “up the road” from AFPS, at a neighboring prep school.

“Meanings of ‘Liberty’ in Georgia During the American Revolution” grew out of notes created for a discussion on a public television station in Augusta, Georgia,  arranged and hosted by Dr. Ed Cashin of Augusta College.  A recent two-part post, “Georgia Visions,” (here, here) was based on a talk I gave to groups of foreign high school students visiting AFPS.

I was proud of the “historical problem,” “Who was a ‘Citizen’?,” which tried to identify the author of a pamphlet on Georgia politics in the years after the end of the American Revolution.  Perhaps the answer to this question mattered only to me, because I had been unable to answer it while researching my dissertation nearly fifty years ago.  Still, I took what I knew (or thought I knew) and organized it as a sort of “DBQ on Steroids,” the kind of documents-based essay assignment I had used with my APUSH students many times. And, I offered “a solution” as the final post in the series, something I’d been unable to do in the early 1970s.

Finally, posts on antebellum Georgia governors George Gilmer and Wilson Lumpkin, the treatment of “An Anti-Slave Trade Movement in Middle Georgia?” and several on the Cherokee and the Creeks sampled research for my second book.

“Historical Reflections”—this collection drew on material I had prepared during my years at AFPS, though many of them also appear on other blog “pages.”  (See links at the top of the home page.)

“Growing Up in Colonial New England” was originally prepared for an evening “Education” course I took while trying to become “certified” to teach high school history in Georgia.

A series that began last year and concluded in Year Eight, “Betts: A Mother’s Memoir,” combined edited versions of my late mother’s family history and a memoir covering her two families, from the early 1920s through 1964, with two concluding episodes I wrote to fill in gaps and provide a broader context for Betts’ story.

“Interdisciplinary Work”—most posts in this category also stemmed from my years at AFPS, when I responded to requests for help from colleagues in other departments.

In addition to the series on the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper and its founding editor, Elias Boudinot, noted above, other posts drawn from school-wide interdisciplinary projects were “The Uses of History in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’” and “Echoes of the Scopes Trial.”

Additional efforts to aid colleagues seeking a historical perspective for difficult topics included: “Denying the Holocaust”; “American Witch Hunters:  Salem and McCarthy”; on “American Republicanism,” for AFPS’s “School for the Common Good”; and “Reckoning with the ‘Dispossessed Majority’,” for my older son’s summer school New Testament class.

“The Book that Changed My Life” answered a request from our high school librarian for faculty essays on that topic to be included on the library’s new website.

“Is Wolf Hatred Really Wolfism?” was orchestrated by my brother Rick, a wildlife advocate who now lives just outside the gates of Yellowstone National Park, and cross-posted with his blog.

“Prep School”—these posts also were direct outgrowths of my teaching career at AFPS.  Among the highlights:

One of my favorite posts, “That’s Why They Paid Me the Big Bucks,” originated as a farewell editorial in the History Department Newsletter in 2010.  Another post, “Testifyin’ at the PDC,” was a “pep talk” delivered to the school’s “big givers” at a dinner held at an  exclusive club.

Early in my final year at AFPS, our principal asked us to critique the school’s “faculty forum” [“pre-planning”] topic.  “Teaching 21st-Century Students: A Reflection” was based on the letter I sent in response.

Last, but not least, are the popular posts in the “Teaching Prep School with a PhD” series.  There, I suggested to graduate students in My Old Graduate School’s “Beyond the Professoriate” program that, in these parlous times for History PhDs, aspiring college professors might be able to leverage their degrees into a secondary school setting and be content there.

 “Teaching History”—this series of posts features some essays included under other topics, especially “Historical Reflections” and “Interdisciplinary Work.” Among those not previously mentioned, my favorite is “Teaching History ‘Backwards,” based on an article for the History Department Newsletter about an experimental approach adopted in an elective Civil Rights history course.

“The South/Civil Rights”—This page includes several posts about The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The first, published in 2012 (revised in 2015),  grew out of editorials written for the History Department Newsletter.  Thereafter, I began to post annually a commemoration of the King Holiday, including, most recently, part of a talk I delivered in a 1987 high school assembly to introduce a panel discussion of King’s life and legacy.

“Teaching History ‘Backwards’” is included in this section as well, along with several other milestones on the road that led me to the Civil Rights history course.  One was an article from the Georgia Association of Historians Newsletter (1978) about a course I offered for a few years, “The South and the Sectional Image.”  (And, like the post about growing up in colonial New England mentioned earlier, this essay originated in an “Education” course.)  The winding path to the Civil Rights course also involved introductions to two panel discussions on Southern History, one at AFPS, the other on “Myth and Reality in Southern History,” organized for a regional independent schools meeting in Atlanta.

“The Vietnam Era”—the main reason I created this page was to highlight how I finally came to terms with the Vietnam War during my early years at AFPS:

The four-part series, “Growing Up with Vietnam,” was based on a talk I gave several times in the school’s “Senior Lecture Series,” then incorporated into my APUSH course each spring.

Two posts (here, here) grew from editorials from the History Department Newsletter.

Finally, “Past Personal: Teaching the Vietnam War as History,” originated as a paper delivered at a meeting of a local independent school organization.

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The top ten posts for Year Eight (June 2017-May 2018):

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So, what’s the message for aspiring bloggers this post?  “Don’t throw away your written past if you plan to carve out a future in cyberspace” might just fit on a bumper sticker. Another suggestion:  have lots of interests, or, if you have only one or two topics you like to write about, space your efforts so that you always have something in reserve, for when it’s time for a new post but, alas, you just can’t think of one.

Finally, as RBNS approached its eighth birthday, it reached a milestone:  In November 2017, this blog received more than one thousand visits, nearly a third more than were recorded for the entirety of Year One (June 2010-May 2011); subsequent months in Year Eight have come close to four figures, but none has reached it.

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By the time this post appears, RBNS will have received around 29,000 visits over its lifetime.  Thank you, one and all, for making this happen, and please continue to stop by  “Retired But Not Shy”!  Pack rat or no, I’ll try not to let you down.

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For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several 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 "Education Courses", "In The Temple of Wolves", 4th of July, Age of Jim Crow, American "republicanism", American History, American Revolution, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Books, Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Removal, Creek Indians, Denying the Holocaust, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Elias Boudinot, family history, George R. Gilmer, Georgia History, Historical Problem, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Martin Luther King, memoir, Muddy Waters, Popular Culture, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Research, Retirement, Rick Lamplugh, Scopes Trial, Skip James, Son House, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, The Blues, Theology, Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia", Uncategorized, Urban Blues, Vietnam War, Wilson Lumpkin, Wolves, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Draining the Creeks (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 28)

A Review of

William W. Winn, The Triumph of the Ecunnau-Nuxulgee:  Land Speculators, George M. Troup, State Rights, and the Removal of the Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama, 1825-38.  Macon, Ga.:  Mercer University Press, 2015.

[Note:  As an historian of Georgia political party development from the American Revolution to the Civil War, I had a difficult time coming to terms with Georgia’s Indian removal campaigns of the 1820s and 1830s.  The volume under review is a perfect example of why that should have been so.  Mr. Winn’s hefty tome (475 pages of text and another 80 pages of end notes and index), with its old-fashioned, all-encompassing title, is an almost excruciatingly detailed treatment of Georgia’s and Alabama’s determined, and ultimately successful, drives to evict the Creek Indians.]

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The story of the ouster of the Creeks from Georgia, which Winn presents in the first five chapters, held few surprises for this reviewer. The author correctly emphasizes the importance to that effort of the concept of “state rights,” which had originated in the era of the infamous Yazoo Land Fraud (1795-1796), especially after the cession of the Yazoo lands to the United States government.  In that so-called “Compact of 1802,” the national government agreed to remove native American tribes (i.e., Creeks and Cherokees) residing within Georgia’s boundaries when that could be done “peaceably” and on “reasonable terms.” The fulfillment of that promise was a bone of contention between Georgia and Washington for nearly four decades and kept the campaign for “Indian removal” alive.

George M. Troup

Moreover, after the Yazoo lands had been transferred to the federal government, disappointed Yazoo purchasers, barred from being reimbursed for what they’d paid to the original Yazoo speculators after Georgia rescinded the sale in 1796, launched a methodical campaign in Congress to secure compensation from the national government.  Georgia congressmen, and allies from other southern states, blocked those efforts until 1814.  A key figure in that anti-Yazoo coalition was Georgia Congressman George Troup, who opposed settling with the Yazoo purchasers on state rights grounds.

A decade later, Troup, then Governor of Georgia, greased the skids for the corrupt Treaty of Indian Springs (1825), that would have ousted the Creeks from the state, but the newly-elected President, John Quincy Adams, appalled by the stench of corruption in the negotiations, refused to enforce the treaty.  Only the signing of two additional, less corrupt treaties (Washington [1826], and Fort Mitchell [1827]) finally pushed the Creeks from Georgia—and, initially, into Alabama.

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Alfred Iverson (Wikipedia)

I found fresh and interesting the last four chapters in Winn’s book, covering the decade the Creeks in Alabama (including those previously ousted from Georgia) struggled to forestall their seemingly inevitable departure.  Another helpful feature of this latter section is a detailed treatment of the debate in Congress over the Jackson Administration’s Indian Removal Bill in 1830, which tends to be obscured in other discussions of this period.

The “Ecunnau-Nuxulgee” (Creek for “those greedily grasping after lands”), who “triumph” in Winn’s title, were the aggressive land speculators who swooped down on the Creeks, secured their Alabama lands, and helped drive them out.  Another term the Creeks used to characterize those speculators, translated as “dirt-eaters,” was, according to Winn, “meant to classify such individuals as a particularly unappealing sub-species of the white race.” (xiv)  Anyone who reads this book—and has a empathetic bone in his or her body–will find it difficult to quibble with Wynn’s description.

Perhaps the most active group of land speculators during the Alabama phase of what Winn terms the “Great Creek Land Grab” was made up of men I already recognized as “state rights”-spouting Georgians who lived in the relatively new town of Columbus, Georgia.  Included among their number were Judge Eli S. Shorter, Alfred Iverson, John W. A. Sandford, and James C. Watson, all of whom made out financially like bandits during the “Great Creek Land Grab,” thanks to the Columbus Land Company, but then lost their financial shirts in the Panic of 1837—yes!!!

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The key event in the Creeks’ exit from Alabama was another Treaty of Washington (this one signed March 24, 1832):

  • The Creeks ceded lands east of Mississippi River (approximately five million acres) to the United States, in exchange for a comparable quantity of land west of the Mississippi, plus financial compensation for their improvements on lands within the cession, three million acres of which were “prime cotton land, . . . no small acquisition on the part of the United States.” (303)
  • After a survey of the ceded Creek lands east of the Mississippi, each principal Creek chief was to select one section (allotment) of 640 acres, and every other head of household was to receive a half-section of 320 acres.
  • Allotments could not be sold for five years. If, at the end of that time, an allotment holder wished to remain in Alabama and become a citizen and subject to its laws, he could do so, and receive a patent from the United States for his land.
  • The Creeks could sell their allotments, but sales had to be certified by someone appointed for that purpose by the President, who must also approve each sale before it became final.
  • A  controversial provision of the treaty was Article V, dealing with white “intruders” who had already settled on Creek lands in Alabama.  Intruders were to be removed from those lands until the tracts were surveyed, unless they had made improvements on them and had not expelled Creeks from them, in which case they could remain until their next crops were gathered.  Intruders who were removed would be barred from the lands for five years after ratification of the treaty, or until the lands were conveyed to the whites by the Creeks.
  • Article Twelve allowed federal recruiting agents “to renew their efforts at enrolling Creeks to remove to the West.” (326)  But, speculators were not interested in this aspect of the treaty until they finished hornswoggling the land from the Creeks. Put another way, the Creeks were “damned if they did and damned if they didn’t” want to sell out.

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The real message of the Treaty of Washington turned out to be, “let the games begin!” Speculators did their best to separate Creeks from their allotments; “intruders” protested that they needed to remain on land they’d occupied for longer than provided in Article V (cue the violins); and Creeks who were not principal chiefs soon found themselves fair game to be tricked, made drunk, and swindled out their “allotments,” through a variety of methods, the most popular of which reportedly were developed by the now infamous Columbus (Georgia) Land Company.  You’re familiar, I trust, with the old card-player’s expression, “read ‘em and weep”; well, the same phrase seems to apply once the reader has completed the pages Winn devotes to the consequences of the 1832 Washington treaty.

The last phase of Creek removal was the so-called “Second Creek War” (1836), which whites at the time regarded as a “just war,” but Winn does not.  The “conflict,” such as it was, ended quickly, and almost 18,000 Creeks were ushered out of Alabama and over the Mississippi River to the new Indian Territory.  Those evacuees were followed by 4,100 more by the end of 1838. According to one estimate, when the dust of removal had settled, white speculators had swindled the Creeks out of almost 2 million of the 2.1 million acres allotted them in the treaty. (464)

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Gov. John Gayle of Ala., 1831-1835 (Encyclopedia of Alabama)

William Winn has a sharp eye for greed, empty political rhetoric, and hypocrisy.  He describes the whites who attended a meeting of the Creek tribal council in September 1832 as “Whiskey jobbers, con men, spies, US emigration agents, Indian countrymen, traders and merchants, land speculators and their agents, and lawyers of indeterminate allegiance.” (329)  In summarizing parallels between efforts by Georgia Governor George Troup (1825-1826) and Alabama Governor John Gayle (1833-1834) to defy the national government over Creek removal, Winn asserts that “state rights had won again, the second time in eight years this had been the case in a high-profile confrontation over Indian lands between a southern state and the federal government.” (369)

Winn, a veteran journalist and local historian, admits in his  “Acknowledgments” that this book wasn’t his idea.  Thomas J. Peddy, a retiree in Columbus who had long been interested in the expulsion of the Creeks from Georgia and Alabama, began researching the topic.  When Winn first met Peddy, in 1987, the Columbus man was compiling notes on Creek history from government documents, newspapers, and local records.  Peddy tried to interest Winn in taking over the task of writing a history based on this research, but Winn, busy with other projects, put him off.  Peddy died in 1990.  In 2002, the Historic Chattahoochee Commission asked Winn to take up where Peddy had left off.  In the end, Winn dedicated the book to Peddy,  honoring his role in compiling much of the evidence Winn used to buttress his own research.

Major drawbacks to this work include sloppy editing and a very confusing system of end notes.  Nevertheless, for the “general reader,” who probably doesn’t peruse notes, this won’t be a significant issue.  Winn’s style is journalistic in the best sense, direct and engaging, although his pro-Creek, anti-white speculator bias is certainly clear (and will probably be shared by most readers).  His character sketches of the “players” in this historical drama are detailed enough that the reader can form his or her own opinion of their strengths and weaknesses.

As Winn admits, this is a long book, and only those truly interested in the subject will want to read it from beginning to end.  For those hardy souls who take up Winn’s challenge, the rewards will be many, though disgust at the speculators and their machinations will also be a factor—and should be.

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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, Creek Indians, Education, George M. Troup, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Research, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Brother, the Writer: Act 2

A Review of Rick Lamplugh, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur & Controversy (2017). Available at in both paperback and e-book formats. 

Several years ago, I reviewed my younger brother Rick’s book, In the Temple of Wolves (2014), which recounted experiences he and his wife Mary shared over several winter stays in Yellowstone National Park.  That book was quite successful, boosting Rick from merely a recent retiree to a prominent advocate for Yellowstone and its wildlife, especially the wolf.

The volume under review is a sequel to In the Temple of Wolves, but with a difference.  The author’s emphasis this time is, as his subtitle suggests, “A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy.”  Rick and Mary are no longer seasonal visitors to the nation’s first national park.  Since the publication of In the Temple of Wolves, the “Oregon Lamplughs” have become the “Montana Lamplughs,” moving to Gardiner, just outside Yellowstone’s north gate. That relocation, with the adjustments required of them by their new environment, gives this book its special flavor.

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All the grandeur of the park and its wildlife you’d expect from the author’s lyrical writing in his earlier volume is here, too, but now there’s more.  Living year-round next to Yellowstone brought new responsibilities to wolf advocates Rick and Mary, plunging them into controversies about conservation of the park and its denizens vs. exploitation of its resources and wildlife.  And, thanks to Rick’s skill in describing those issues, the reader is there with him and his wife throughout that year.

The self-deprecating humor that was part of Rick’ s first book carries over to this volume as well.  For example, a chapter entitled “A New Way to Stop” highlights Rick and Mary’s efforts to master cross-country skiing. Rick is determined to learn how to ski downhill safely; after all, what could go wrong?  Try a face plant that cuts his forehead and forces him to scramble around madly retrieving glasses, sunglasses, hat, and one glove.

Another hilarious account reveals that Yellowstone wildlife pay scant attention to the needs of local advocates.  Rick and Mary decide to take a weekend off, do some chores, kick back and relax.  Well. . . . Several female elk show up with newborn calves in tow just outside Casa Lamplugh.

Watching the spectacle out of their windows, Rick and Mary are struck by the cluelessness of a jogger who got too close to one of the calves for its mother’s liking and was chased away by the angry mama.  And then—wait for it!—Rick stepped outside to work on a project, despite Mary’s warning that Mama Elk and baby were still nearby.  Rick shrugged off his wife’s advice; after all, he was a permanent resident of Gardiner, not a weekly renter like the jogger.  Then:  Rick ended up shouting at an aggressive Mama Elk, while backing slowly into his garage and slamming the door.

A final example of the author’s penchant for humor occurs when he records what happened after he and his wife awoke up on a cold September morning while on a camping trip and found themselves forced to run from three angry moose who,  it turned out, were trying to escape from them!

* * * * *

In explaining what drew him and Mary to activism on behalf of Yellowstone and its denizens, Rick offers as an example the “hunters” (“shooters—a firing squad really” [20]) who wait for hapless bison to wander from the protection of the park to adjoining land where—surprise!—bison hunting season has begun.  Moreover, this “sport” is part of an “interagency management plan” that aims to reduce the number of bison in the park from 5000 to 3000.

Rick and Mary soon joined local conservation groups, hoping to make a difference.  Even if bison escape being shot by hunters, another part of the interagency management plan allows some of the animals to be captured, penned up, and then sent to a slaughterhouse, with the meat being given to local Native Americans, again as part of an effort to control Yellowstone’s bison population.

The author’s first detailed account of what advocating for wildlife can mean for the truly dedicated describes a meeting in the Gardiner school during a “public comment” session on a proposal to increase the kill quota for “Montana Wolf Management Unit 313,” just outside the park, from two wolves to six.  Rick’s sympathies are clear, but he does give “equal time” to the other side.  A month or so later, the government agency announces that the quota would remain at two; the title of the chapter, “Saving Four Wolves.”

Another example of Rick’s introspective cast occurs when he has a nightmare while on a camping trip.  The experience leads him to ponder the nature of his fears, and he concludes that they’re primal and have been part of being human for eons:  “Our ancestors kept shooting, trapping, and poisoning any and all creatures that evoked the fight or flight response.  Kill the animal; kill the fear.”  (203)

Yet, it isn’t only the park’s wildlife that Rick and Mary try to protect.  Rick and another member of Gardiner’s Bear Creek Council joined advocates to tour the proposed site of a controversial gold mine.  While listening to the testimony of experts on the gold mining process, the author realizes that one person who also opposes mining in Yellowstone owns a wilderness outfitting business and is a trophy hunter whose kills decorate his workplace.  Can you say irony?

Moreover, there really was no force strong enough to monitor whether the mine would live up to its promises to the public.  Ultimately, the Interior Department ruled that the proposal would be put on hold for two years so that more time could be spent studying the impact of the mining proposal on areas near Yellowstone and on the park itself.  In other words, the powers that be opted for a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

* * * * *

A regular feature of the book is the use of a specific activity that leads the author to consider a broader issue.  For example, a leisurely hike sparks a discussion of the “trophic cascade theory,” which holds that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in 1995, by reducing the elk population, enabled the park’s willows, aspens, and cottonwoods to recover.

When Rick and Mary spot a grizzly couple courting, Rick reflects on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s current effort to delist Yellowstone grizzlies from the protection afforded by the Endangered Species Act.  He points out that, when wolves were delisted from the same statute in 2011, the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho essentially became “free fire zones” for wolf hunters, and he fears that, if grizzlies lose those same protections, they would face a similar fate.

Rick and Mary’s first mountain bike ride of the season takes them near a group of pronghorn antelopes and their fawns, then segues into the history of the pronghorns in Yellowstone.  Not surprisingly, these animals also are in danger.  Their numbers are down from one thousand or so in the 1930s to four hundred and fifty today.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Mary pulls a four-day volunteer stint driving tourists at Old Faithful.  Meanwhile, Rick, ensconced with a book manuscript in a room at the Old Faithful Inn, recalls how, a few summers earlier, he joined a group of tourists watching an eruption of the geyser.  The author muses about observers who became impatient with how long the process took, because they shortly had to be somewhere else to view another attraction.  Rick wonders, “When did this marvel of nature become just another stop along the vacation highway, a wonder to bag in our rush to the next must-see?” (136)

* * * * *

Rick also devotes an occasional chapter to the historical context of a current controversy.  For instance, in meditating on the role of the bison, he reviews the history of efforts to protect Yellowstone’s bison from poachers, who had been plundering herds almost from the creation of the national park in 1872.  Two decades later, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which prevented hunting, wounding, killing, or capturing wildlife in Yellowstone and became the model for protecting wildlife in all national parks.

My little brother can certainly turn a phrase.  Here’s an excerpt from his journal, when he and Mary went backpacking along the bottom of Yellowstone’s “grand canyon”:  “The clouds have unionized.  No longer separate little puffs, they have banded together, flexing billowing muscles, forming thick masses with battleship-gray bottoms and few breaks of blue.  They cover more than half the sky and drift slowly eastward, resisting the wind, demanding more time to block the sun.” (169)

* * * * *

Rick also does not shy from commenting on the impact of Yellowstone’s popularity on the park and its neighboring towns, including Gardiner.  Around the turn of the twentieth century, ten thousand visitors came to Yellowstone; in 2015, four million tourists arrived, in a park that’s designed to handle two and a half million annually.  Of course the money is good for residents of Gardiner and other nearby towns, but the tourist season puts a tremendous strain on local budgets.  For instance, the town of Gardiner has 850 year-round residents but hosts about 750,000 visitors each year.

The author points out that the National Park Service’s multi-year ad campaign, “Find Your Park,” was too successful; in fact, it’s a major factor in the park’s problem of overuse.  He offers a modest proposal, “Reserve Your Park,” as a way to limit visitors to the nation’s park system.  Basically, “Reserve Your Park” amounts to asking the Park Service to cap the number of both overnight campers and day-trippers, and, once reservations reach the limit, to accept no more.  Yet, everyone Rick shared this idea with pointed out that, while it might look good on paper, in practice it would arouse controversy and, ultimately, end in failure.

A fascinating chapter concerns the role of the grizzly in Yellowstone’s ecosystem.  Returning to the site of  a big male grizzly feeding on an elk carcass, Rick and Mary watch as the grizzly, who is loading up for his approaching hibernation and isn’t eager to share the carcass with interlopers, eventually comes around.  At that point, Rick imagines the same grizzly preparing for hibernation if the carcass had been brought down outside Yellowstone and, thus, beyond the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act in the park.  And the twist:  he also recognizes that it’s people like him and his wife, watching grizzlies in a context where the animals are in no danger from humans, who actually help condition the bears to view humans as harmless, even if they’re packing heat.

* * * * *

Deep into Yellowstone is a fine book, illuminating the evolving interests of Rick and Mary  in their now permanent home environment, just outside the gates of Yellowstone. The seasonal organization of this volume stresses the year-round demands made upon the time and energy of local residents who care about the future of the park, its wildlife, and its resources.  As was the case in his first Yellowstone book, in treating controversies Rick strives for objectivity, and  succeeds much of the time.  If you liked In the Temple of Wolves,  you’ll certainly enjoy Deep into Yellowstone.

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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)

POTP Cover

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







Posted in "In The Temple of Wolves", Books, Current Events, family history, Historical Reflection, memoir, Research, Retirement, Rick Lamplugh, Uncategorized, Wolves, Yellowstone National Park | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Georgia Visions: A Continuing Drama in at Least Six Acts, Part 2 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 10)

[NOTE:  This is the concluding part of a post derived from a talk I presented, on two occasions, to foreign students visiting my school, on the history of the state of Georgia. For Part I, go here.]

* * * * * 

Henry Grady (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Henry Grady’s Vision

The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War was traumatic for Georgia and the other southern states, and the period of Reconstruction that followed the war was considered a humiliation by most southern whites.  Military rule was imposed on the former Confederate states for varying periods of time (nearly six years in Georgia); and a series of amendments to the Federal Constitution abolished slavery, defined freed persons as citizens, and protected African Americans in the exercise of their civil rights.

During these years, several energetic young southerners developed a program, the “New South Creed,”  intended to give the region’s humiliated whites grounds for hope.  Perhaps the most effective prophet of a “New South” was a Georgian, Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution.  The “New South” idea supported by Grady and others included  diversification of agriculture, to break the pre-Civil War “tyranny of cotton”; industrialization of the South, using outside capital but avoiding outside control; sectional reconciliation; and participation of African Americans in southern life on a “separate but equal,” or racially segregated (“Jim Crow”), basis.

By 1900, northerners and southerners were convinced that a “New South” had indeed arrived, but they were wrong.  The largely agricultural South entered the 20th century in the same position it had occupied earlier, an economic “colony” of the industrial North.

There had been some progress in crop diversification, but not much.  Economic conditions in the post-Civil War South led to the creation of systems like crop lien, tenant farming, sharecropping, and convict leasing, all of which bound both blacks and whites in a vicious cycle of indebtedness for nearly a century, with cotton still the main crop. Industry came to the South, but so too did outside control.  Moreover, the industries that arrived were extractive ones, producing only raw materials or involving just the early stages of manufacturing, with the finishing processes being done outside the region.

About the only aspect of Grady’s “New South” vision that worked well was his desire for sectional reconciliation and racial segregation.  For nearly another century, African Americans in Georgia and other southern states lived a life that was rigidly separated from, but decidedly unequal to, that of whites.  This segregation was approved by the United States Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which would be the law of the land for the next 58 years (until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954).  A prominent spokesman for Southern blacks, Booker T. Washington, even used a speech in Atlanta in 1895 to acquiesce in “Jim Crow” social segregation in return for access to economic opportunity for African Americans.  And so, with segregation essentially taken off the table, the North and the South found much to admire in each other, joined hands, and marched into the sunshine of a reunited nation–for a time.

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Tom Watson (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Tom Watson’s Vision

Even as Henry Grady’s dream of a “New South” took hold in the minds of Georgians and other southerners, a competing vision was being developed by another Georgian, Thomas E. Watson.  Watson believed that the conservative Democrats who controlled Georgia after Reconstruction were only using Grady’s “New South” rhetoric to enrich themselves and to keep other Georgians mired in poverty.  Watson envisioned a Georgia peopled by simple, rural folk. His view, while anti-urban and anti-capitalist, was bi-racial, at least at first.  He became the leading spokesman for the forces of agricultural protest that eventually produced the Populist Party, whose vice-presidential candidate Watson became in 1896.

Gradually, however, because of a series of political defeats and the frustrations of thwarted ambition, Watson’s vision became distorted in bizarre and dangerous ways.  He turned against African Americans, Catholics, and Jews.  As powerful and appealing a speaker as Watson could be, his prejudices produced dire results.  He touched off a race riot in Atlanta in 1906 and urged the lynching of Jewish factory owner Leo Frank in 1915 for the alleged rape and murder of the “little factory girl,” Mary Phagan.  And Watson’s ideas, if not Watson himself, played a part in the revival of the virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain, also in 1915.

Tom Watson’s racial, religious, and ethnic prejudices helped shape—and warp—Georgia politics for the next half century, and his defense of rural Georgians against “corrupt” capitalists and the sinful city was engrafted onto the state’s political system in 1908, with the adoption of the “county unit system” for electing the governor.  Under this system, the eight most populous counties each had six unit votes; the next thirty largest counties had four votes each; the 121 smallest counties each received two votes; and the candidate receiving a plurality of popular votes got all of the unit votes in each county.

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Governor Jimmy Carter (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

The “Sunbelt” Vision

During the first half of the 20th century, no single vision imparted any sense of unity to Georgia and the South.  It was a time of transition, when Grady’s creed for a “New South” and Watson’s vision of a rural paradise competed for dominance.  What finally emerged, thanks to the boll weevil, the Great Depression, World War II, the modern civil rights movement, and the energy crisis of the mid-1970s was a vision of Georgia as part of the so-called “Sun Belt,” a perception rather close to Grady’s “New South” but without the racial segregation.

After World War I, agriculture in Georgia continued slowly to diversify and manufacturing to develop.  In the early 1920s, the arrival of the boll weevil spelled disaster for Georgia’s cotton production.  By the mid-1920s, for the first time in the state’s history, industry produced manufactured goods worth more than the products of Georgia agriculture. By the time the rest of the nation began to suffer from the Great Depression in the 1930s, conditions already existed in Georgia and other southern states that led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to label the South as “the nation’s #1 economic problem.”  FDR’s New Deal proposals had as one goal reversal of the South’s economic problems, but the real turning point came during and after World War II.

The period between the world wars also saw the beginnings of the challenge to the system of racial segregation that dominated the social system in Georgia and the South.  Then, in March 1946, a federal court in New Orleans declared unconstitutional Georgia’s “white primary,” which had effectively disfranchised the state’s African American voters during Democratic primary elections that chose candidates for the state’s dominant political party.  Electoral reform would continue when later courts broke the rural domination of state politics by outlawing the county unit system and by requiring that election districts be drawn based on the principle of “one man, one vote.”

Even before World War II, federal courts had begun to attack segregation in education.  The climactic case was the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision mandating the integration of public schools.  This, plus the raft of civil rights laws of the 1960s and early 1970s, brought black Georgians, and their brothers and sisters elsewhere, into the mainstream of American life for the first time.

The vision proclaimed so movingly in August 1963 by one of the greatest Georgians, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech, slowly came to have the shadowy shape, and at least some of the substance, of reality, when, for example, Maynard Jackson was elected the first African American mayor of Atlanta in 1973.  And, two years earlier, in 1971, newly-elected Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, one of the racially moderate “New South Governors” of the era, could proclaim that “the time for racial discrimination is over.”

By the late 1970s, it seemed clear to many observers that Georgia was part of a “New South,” this one called the “Sun Belt,” the southern and southwestern rim of the United States, where racial peace and economic prosperity seemed to go hand in hand.  Yet, as was the case with the other “visions” we’ve examined, the “Sun Belt” vision also reveals a gap between perception and reality.

For example, studies consistently showed that the prosperity of the “Sun Belt” was unevenly distributed.  In 1985, for instance, only three of Georgia’s 159 counties had per capita incomes above the national average, and only eight others were above the state average.  Much of this “prosperity” was urban-based.  As one Georgia professor put it, “Without Atlanta, Georgia is poorer than Mississippi.”  This has given rise to the phenomenon of the “Two Georgias,” with the state divided economically between the Greater Atlanta region and everyplace else.  Capturing the Olympics for Atlanta in 1996 also had a tremendous impact, for better or worse, on the Greater Atlanta area, but it’s hard to see how the rest of the state benefited.

The Sunbelt (Wikipedia)

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The visions we’ve examined have one thing in common:  They describe aspirations rather than reality.  In other words, they encompass what those who held to them hoped to achieve, not necessarily what they accomplished.  Of them all, only the  “Sun Belt vision” seems realistic enough actually to be achieved.  But will it be?  Even after all these years, the jury’s still out.


Numan V. Bartley, The New South, 1945-1980 (1995).

Kenneth Coleman, general editor, A History of Georgia (2nd ed., 1991).

______________, The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763-1789 (1958).

Paul M. Gaston, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking (1970).

George B. Tindall, The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945 (1967)

C.Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951).

________________, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (1938).


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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, Georgia History, Henry Grady, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Martin Luther King, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Sun Belt, Teaching, Tom Watson, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Georgia Visions: A Continuing Drama in at Least Six Acts, Part 1 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 10)

[NOTE:  On two occasions, separated by more than two decades, I was asked at my school to address visiting foreign students about the history of the state of Georgia.  In 1985, the audience was a group of students from France; in 2008 the audience was made up of teenagers from Kenya. The second version of that presentation was a revision of the first, and I added a dozen or so Power Point slides.  The post that follows is based on the outline of the 2008 version. On both occasions I prepared more material than I could fit into the time allotted, as I usually do, and had to cut (and simplify) as I went along.  A list of suggested sources is appended to Part 2.]

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I’ve been asked to talk to you this morning for less than an hour about the history of Georgia. Obviously, it’s impossible to cover everything significant in that time, so I won’t try.  Instead, I’d like to offer a very selective approach to this state’s past, focusing on a series of “visions” (or collective perceptions and myths) that give unity to the ways even native Georgians understand the growth and development of the state.  We’ll examine each “vision,” then try to determine its accuracy as a picture of the period in Georgia history it purports to describe.

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Gen. James Oglethorpe (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

The Trustees’ Vision

 Let’s begin with the vision of the twenty-one Englishmen who secured a charter from King George II in 1732 empowering them to found and control a new colony south of the Savannah River.  Most of the Trustees were idealistic dreamers.  They believed that settlers would be poor but honest English people of good character who, through no fault of their own, had fallen on hard economic times and been imprisoned for debt.  The Trustees envisioned their new colony as a producer of exotic products like silk and wine.  Finally, they believed that the early colonists would be so grateful for the opportunity to start life anew that they would be satisfied with small landholdings, and with prohibitions against the use of slaves and alcoholic beverages.

The most significant “realist” among Georgia’s founders was General James Oglethorpe.  He hoped that the new colony would become an armed bastion to protect the older, neighboring colony of South Carolina from Spain and her Native American allies.  Crown officials in London tended to share Oglethorpe’s view.

The idealism of the Trustees was frustrated almost from the first, and they ended up turning control of Georgia over to the Crown a year earlier than required under the terms of their charter.  Of the 5000 settlers who arrived in Georgia between 1733 and 1750, only 2000 were on public charity, and, of those, only 646 were British males who might possibly have been imprisoned for debt.  Other early Georgians included European Jews; Salzburgers (German Lutherans); Moravians (who didn’t stay long because they refused to bear arms); belligerent Scots; even transported New England Puritans.

Since the first settlements were established south of the Savannah River, and because South Carolina lay north of that river, Georgia colonists became quite familiar with conditions in that colony, where one could own as much land and as many slaves as he could afford and consume as much alcohol as he could hold.  Thus, many early Georgians rejected as overly restrictive the rules imposed by the Trustees, protested those restrictions, and eventually moved across the Savannah to Carolina. Only General Oglethorpe’s vision of creating an armed camp between the Savannah and the St. John’s rivers came close to being realized.

Once Georgia became a royal colony in 1752, the coastal area set out to emulate the plantation economy of lowcountry South Carolina (rice and sea island cotton), while colonial Georgia’s upcountry became almost indistinguishable from other frontier regions in Britain’s North American colonies. The colony’s first slave code revealed the attitude of white Georgians toward slaves, “the haunting fear of the black man, which still persists today, especially in our cities,” according to one historian. Moreover, the economic pattern developed in Georgia before the American Revolution would last until well into the 20th century, “a dependence on others for things she could well produce herself out of her own raw materials.”

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Sir James Wright (Wikipedia)

The Patriots’ Vision(s)

 Most Americans have a rather heart-warming view of the American Revolution, of freedom-loving American colonists unanimously rising in righteous wrath to throw off the shackles of British tyranny.  This picture bears almost no relation to the reality of events anywhere in British North America, and it certainly doesn’t come close to describing things in Georgia.

In the years after 1763, when the Mother Country began to tighten the bonds of empire, setting in motion the events that eventually produced the Revolution, Georgia always seemed slower than other colonies to demonstrate outrage.  One reason for this was that Georgia was only thirty years old in 1763 and had not had time to develop a strong tradition of self-government.  Another was that, beginning in 1760 the colony’s royal governor was one of the most skillful officials in British North America, the American-born, English-educated James Wright.  For example, Wright was so influential that he coerced the colonial legislature to support the much-hated Stamp Act, and Georgia became the only colony to use the stamps.

When war finally came to Georgia, there were few large-scale battles.  Instead, patriots fought British regulars and loyalist forces in savage hit-and-run guerrilla actions, with no quarter asked and none given.  Moreover, the Whigs, those who favored independence, fought and occasionally killed one another, as they struggled to impose conflicting visions on the small part of Georgia outside British control.  Georgia was the only rebellious American province to have its colonial government restored during the War for Independence, with a royal governor and British troops occupying the port of Savannah between 1778 and 1782.

When the last British ship sailed away from Savannah in July 1782, 7000 persons had left the now independent state:  5000 slaves; 1200 British troops and Georgians still loyal to the king; 500 women and children; and 300 Native Americans.

* * * * *

Margaret Mitchell (Wikipedia)

Margaret Mitchell’s Vision

Perhaps no book has influenced how we view the American past more than Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.  Her novel, along with the popular 1939 film based on it, has fixed in the popular mind, probably forever, an attractive vision of the Old South in general, and Georgia in particular, from the 1850s through the end of Reconstruction.  It was a prosperous region peopled by beautiful, strong-willed white women, and handsome young white men willing to die in defense of their way of life; large plantations; and slaves who were relatively content with their lots in life.  There is an element tof truth in this, but Mitchell’s vision of Georgia and the South is incomplete, to say the least, in several crucial respects.


The expansion of Georgia had come at the expense of the Creek and Cherokee Indian tribes.  The process had begun in the colonial period and culminated in the late 1830s in the so-called “Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of the Cherokees from the state to what is now Oklahoma, during which an estimated 4000 to 5000 of them died.

A cotton gin, which made possible the spread of cotton to the upcountry, was invented in Georgia in 1793 by a visiting New Englander, Eli Whitney.  If Whitney’s invention helped make possible the rise of the “Cotton Kingdom” in the South, then the ensuing prosperity rested squarely on the backs of the slaves.  Between 1800 and 1860, the number of slaves in Georgia increased from 60,000 to 460,000 and the price of an able-bodied black field hand rose from $300 to $1800.

Georgia was a rural society before the Civil War, but there were in the state growing cities like Atlanta, Macon, Columbus, and Augusta that were important as manufacturing and transportation centers.  Finally, in a state where slavery and cotton were so important to the so-called “Southern Way of Life,” only about 40% of white families in Georgia owned slaves, about 41,000 out of 110,000 families, which means that about 69,000 families owned no slaves.


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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, American Revolution, Colonial Georgia, Education, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, Popular Culture, Prep School, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Howlin’ Wolf,1910-1976: His Life, His Times, His Blues (Blues Stories, 28)

A Review of James Segrest and Mark Hoffman, Moanin’  at Midnight:  The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf. New York:  Pantheon Books, 2004.

Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett, June 10, 1910, near West Point, Mississippi.  (His grandfather nicknamed Chester “Wolf.”) Wolf’s father, Leon “Dock” Burnett, was a sharecropper; his mother, Gertrude Jones, a cook and maid. His parents split when Chester was one year old—Dock moved permanently to the Mississippi Delta, while Gertrude took Chester north to Monroe County.  Gertrude was a mentally unstable  religious zealot who sent her son away when he was ten, and Chester never really knew why—probably as a result, he had “mommy issues” for the rest of his life.

Young Wolf made his way to the home of great-uncle, Will Young.  Will mistreated all of his own children, but was especially hard on Chester—he never let him go to school, often didn’t provide food, meted out severe punishments for even minor infractions.  Chester was interested in music early on—he sang while plowing, made a one-string diddley-bow, and began to learn how to play the harmonica.  Driven away by Will at age thirteen, Chester made his way to the Delta in search of his father.  Although he seldom spoke of his miserable, poverty-stricken, brutal childhood, Wolf’s feelings came out in some of the songs he wrote.

Dock Burnett was glad to see his son and took good care of him.  That this meant something to young Wolf became clear when, no matter how far he traveled from Dock’s farm during his wandering years as a neophyte bluesman, he returned each spring to plow Dock’s fields.

Though he wasn’t educated himself, Chester encouraged his step-sisters to learn to read and write.  Despite—or more probably, because of—his lack of education as a youngster, Wolf’s “belief in self-education was a lifelong habit.” (16)  This self-education included regular academic subjects, as well as a steady diet of lessons on reading music and playing both the guitar and the harmonica. By the time Wolf received an honorary doctorate from Chicago’s Columbia College in 1972, he had been taking academic classes at a local high school for six years and weekly guitar lessons for more than ten. (287)

Among Wolf’s early teachers was one reputed “Father of the Delta Blues,” Charley Patton.  Wolf, fascinated by Patton, asked Dock to buy him a guitar.  With the new guitar, Wolf began spending more time with Charley, who helped him learn to play, and, eventually, he performed with Patton around Ruleville.  Before he left the Delta, young Wolf also traveled and played with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), who helped hone his skills on the harmonica, and performed with Robert Johnson, Son House, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Johnny Shines, and Jimmie Rodgers.  Wolf admired Rodgers’ yodeling but couldn’t duplicate it, so he adopted a “wolf’s howl” that furnished the most famous of the half dozen or so names he eventually performed under. (Wolf’s gravelly voice was the product of boyhood tonsillitis that damaged his vocal cords. [22-23])

* * * * *

A strapping, handsome man, Wolf had no trouble attracting women, but these encounters sometimes led to trouble.  In Hughes, Arkansas, for instance, Wolf tried to protect one female acquaintance from an angry boyfriend, and the two men clashed, with Wolf killing his opponent with a hoe. (What happened afterward is a matter of dispute—Wolf either   fled the area or did some jail time.) While sharecropping and performing around Pace, Mississippi, Wolf took up with Elven Frazier, who bore him a son, Floyd, in 1939.  The two didn’t marry, perhaps because Wolf had to flee to avoid an angry white sharecropper, who threatened to kill him for playing a song for the white man’s wife on their porch.

Wolf’s service in the U.S. Army during World War II was an unpleasant experience.  He never took to Army discipline; even the military’s efforts to teach the young man to read and write involved physical punishment.  Finally, in late 1943, he was given an honorable discharge “for disability not in line of duty and not due to his own misconduct.” (55)

In 1947, Wolf married Katie Mae Johnson in Penton, Mississippi, and then retrieved his son Floyd from Elven Frazier.  While still trying to break into the blues bigtime, Wolf  encountered his mother Gertrude, who, as would be the case every time he met her, remained upset because he  played the “devil’s music,” an attitude that was not unusual in the African American community.

Both his son Floyd and his musical acolyte Johnny Shines claimed that Wolf had told them  he’d “sold his soul to the devil.”  Segrest and Hoffman concede that Wolf was “conflicted” about religion, as were several other noted blues men, including Charley Patton, Skip James, and Son House.  The authors assert that Wolf was sure of only one thing: “He wouldn’t stand with the hypocrites he’d known who called themselves Christians and then did ungodly things.” (63)

After he moved to West Memphis, Arkansas, in the late 1940s, Wolf and various bands he organized experimented with “electric blues” and developed strong local followings. It was in West Memphis that Wolf first witnessed the guitar skills of Hubert Sumlin, who would eventually join his band in Chicago, creating “one of the great musical partnerships in blues history.” (87)

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Young Wolf (

Wolf’s big break came in 1951, when legendary producer Sam Phillips invited him and his band to move to Memphis to record.  Phillips sent a demo to the Chess Brothers in Chicago, and the rest is blues history.  Wolf’s proficiency with “electric blues” made his records strong sellers both in the Deep South and in northern cities of refuge during the “Great Migration.”

When Wolf moved to Chicago in 1953 to join Chess Records, that label’s star was Muddy Waters, who offered Wolf a place to stay in the Windy City—for a price.  Wolf plunged ahead with his band, quickly displacing Muddy and his group at the Zanzibar Club and igniting a celebrated feud.

Wolf’s wife Katie Mae did not accompany him to Chicago, and she later died of breast cancer.  In the late 1950s, Wolf met a widow, Lillie Handley.  They hit it off at once, lived together for about seven years, and married in 1964.  Wolf became a loving stepfather to Lillie’s daughters, whose boyfriends must have been intimidated, to say the least, when they dropped by to pick up their dates and heard their large, imposing stepfather explain his rules of dating to them!

* * * * *

Life in Wolf’s bands was rocky and sometimes violent, because Wolf believed in rules and enforced them rigorously, much to the chagrin of some of his players. The move to Chicago eventually brought to Wolf’s band skilled performers like guitarist Hubert Sumlin; drummer Sam Lay; and saxophonist Eddie Shaw, who became his band leader. Wolf genuinely cared for the welfare of the members his band, eventually taking both Social Security and unemployment insurance from their wages, which, according to Segrest and Hoffman, was “unheard of for a Chicago blues band then and probably even today.” (179)

Wolf Rediscovered (

Wolf’s blues career peaked in the 1960s, but the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and Motown soul began to weaken his appeal to younger African Americans.  Like other blues performers during this period, Wolf eventually was “rediscovered” and in demand. Various “British invasion” bands considered him an idol and did all they could to emphasize his influence on their music, as did aspiring American blues men like Charlie Musselwhite, Michael Bloomfield, and Paul Butterfield.  Overseas promoters also hoped to bring the music of African American blues performers like Wolf to European audiences.

Meanwhile, Wolf scrambled to keep in touch with his audience at home.  Chess pushed him to try different musical styles as the blues market shifted, issuing albums featuring Wolf as an electrified blues singer (like Muddy Waters’ “Electric Mud” album); a soul singer; a folk singer; and a member of a blues “super group,” along with Waters, Bo Diddley, and Little Walter. Wolf had misgivings about these tactics, but he persevered, trying to find his groove, or at least locate the groove his fans preferred to see–and hear–him in.

In late 1969, Wolf’s health began to deteriorate.  He suffered a heart attack in Chicago, and only quick work by Hubert Sumlin saved his life.  Three weeks later, in Toronto for a gig, Wolf experienced additional heart and kidney problems but refused an operation recommended by his Canadian doctors, telling his wife Lillie that his band needed to continue working.

In May 1970, while in the UK to record The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions, additional health problems cropped up.  One year later, Wolf had another heart attack, and his kidneys failed.  Yet he plunged on:  by May 1973 Wolf was on the road again, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his opening acts included Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, and George Thorogood.

By late 1973, Wolf had soured on the music industry, believing that he was being exploited by young, white musicians who were making millions off his music.  In May 1974, his attorneys sued Arc Music and Chess Records for taking advantage of him. Wolf would not live to enjoy the fruits of his lawyers’ efforts; diagnosed with a brain tumor, he died on January 10, 1976.

In summing up their subject’s career, Segrest and Hoffman argue that “Today [Wolf is] considered one of the giants of American music.” (321)  Their last paragraph is a dandy, especially if you don’t mind metaphor, personification, and wordplay clacking like pinballs:

The Wolf has stalked away in the end, but he didn’t wipe out his tracks.  He had a very rocky furrow to plow in life, out of which he created music of incomparable beauty.  In it, you hear all the joys and sorrows of a hard life fully lived.  His art speaks to people across oceans and ages.  It whispers about morality while moaning of mortality.  It’s the blues. (325)

Still Howlin’ (

* * * * *

Segrest and Hoffman surround Howlin’ Wolf with such a great “cloud of witnesses” that, in their hands, he becomes multi-faceted and comprehensive.  In building their case, the authors frequently cite veteran Bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards.  It’s a rare chapter that does not include recollections of at least a few of Wolf’s contemporaries—family members; acquaintances; fellow Blues performers; and, especially once he got established in Chicago, members of his band.  Segrest and Hoffman love to provide biographical and critical information on their hero’s bandmates.  Moreover, once Wolf began to record, the authors seldom let an album go by without offering their take on its most significant songs.

James Segrest and Mark Hoffman have produced a fine biography, their conclusions buttressed by a raft of sources, including reminiscences by numerous contemporaries of Wolf.  The volume is well-illustrated with striking black and white photographs. It’s difficult to imagine a better, fuller, or more interesting biography of Howlin’ Wolf.  Moanin’ at Midnight is definitive.

James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (

Additional Sources

Howlin’ Wolf:  The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs 1951-62.  Acrobat Music (ACTRCD9039), 2014.

Howlin’ Wolf:  His Best.  MCA/Chess (CHD9375), 1997.

The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.  MCA Records (CHD9297), 1989.

The Howlin’ Wolf Story [DVD].  Blue Sea Productions (82876-56631-9), 2003.

* * * * * *

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 "Charley Patton", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Chicago Blues, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Popular Culture, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, Southern History, The "Great Migration", The Blues, Uncategorized, Urban Blues, WP Long Form | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

History, Family, and Memory in the Jim Crow South:  Comparisons and Contrasts (Teaching Civil Rights, 8)

[NOTE:  Both during my teaching career and since I retired from the classroom, I have been fascinated by the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I decided early on that, if my students were to understand the accomplishments of the Movement, they first needed to grasp the history and power of the “legal” racial discrimination that undergirded the Jim Crow South.  I‘ve already reviewed several books on life in the Jim Crow South for this blog.  This post compares and contrasts three of them.  Click on the author’s name below for the full review of each book.

 Karen Branan, The Family Tree:  A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth (2016).

Joseph Madison Beck, My Father & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama (2016).

Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (2015). ]

             * * * * *

Back Stories

Karen Branan

 Karen Branan graduated from the University of Georgia in 1962, during a tumultuous period when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were trying to desegregate the school; Branan supported their efforts.  For almost fifty years, Branan has worked in journalism, contributing to newspapers, magazines, and television.

The inspiration for Branan’s book, about a 1912 lynching in the small Georgia town of Hamilton, in Harris County, came when she asked her grandmother about her “most unforgettable memory.” The old woman replied, “The hanging. They hanged a woman and some men right downtown in Hamilton when I was young.”

Joseph Madison Beck

Joseph Madison Beck graduated from Emory University in 1962 and subsequently earned an M.A. at George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.  Beck became an intellectual property attorney in Atlanta and a member of the law faculty at Emory.  He has written an account of his father Foster Beck’s doomed effort to ensure that a black man, Charles White, received fair treatment in a small Alabama town after being accused of raping a white woman in 1938.

Kristen Green

Kristen Green, grew up in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia.  She graduated from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  Like Karen Branan, Green became a journalist, and her career took her to San Diego, Boston, and Richmond, Virginia.  Green, who was born in 1973, focused her research on the quality of education available to students in Prince Edward County, Virginia, between 1959 and 1964, when county officials closed the public schools.

During Green’s grandparents’ generation, officials in Prince Edward, including her grandfather, influenced by Virginia political boss Harry F. Byrd’s call for “massive resistance” in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal Brown decision (1954), chose to shutter the county’s segregated public schools.  To ensure educational continuity for their children, however, these white leaders established a private school, Prince Edward Academy, one of the first “segregation academies.” The academy was tuition-free for the first year after it opened, but thereafter  students were expected to pay tuition.  Green’s parents had graduated from Prince Edward Academy (PEA), and her mother later worked there as a guidance counselor.  When Green and her siblings were ready for school, their parents enrolled them at PEA with no real discussion, and, as she grew older, Green began to wonder about that.

* * * * *

The Politics of Jim Crow

Karen Branan’s great-grandfather, Sheriff Buddy Hadley, was warned that standing in the way of the “Hamilton [Ga.] Avengers,” organizers of the lynching, could harm his political career. Consequently, the sheriff was conveniently “busy” in nearby Columbus, Georgia, when the “Avengers” struck. Two decades after the Hamilton lynching, as pressure grew on Congress to enact an anti-lynching bill, President Franklin Roosevelt, well aware of the importance of white southern Democrats to his governing “New Deal Coalition,” refused to support the legislation.

The involvement of Joseph Beck’s father Foster in the Charles White case was the direct result of a political decision by a local judge, who drafted attorney Beck to represent White so that the American Civil Liberties Union would not be attracted to the case. And, when White refused to plead guilty and accept life imprisonment (instead of a death sentence) for a crime he claimed he did not commit, the color of his skin, the nature of the crime, and the era in which it occurred doomed him to execution, despite Foster Beck’s  efforts.

In Green’s case, Senator Byrd’s state political machine and his call for “massive resistance” to integration lit the fuse to racial tension in Farmville and Prince Edward County.  On the national level, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower seemed uninterested in what was happening there, and the administration of Democratic President John F. Kennedy talked tough while keeping in mind the strength of southern whites in the national Democratic Party, just as FDR had three decades earlier on the anti-lynching measure.

 * * * * *

Sources and Voices

Branan, Beck, and Green grounded their research in similar primary sources—newspapers and public records—and Branan and Green were able to conduct oral history interviews as well.

Karen Branan relied on the memory of a group she called the “Ancient Mariners,” very elderly people of both races whose insights occasionally come heavily laced with local lore that strains the reader’s credulity. In her research, Kristen Green interviewed former students, black and white, willing to discuss how they had been affected by the school closings; and older people of both races who had lived in Prince Edward County between 1959 and 1964.  Because she reconstructs events of a more recent past than either Branan or Beck, Green had a larger group of living witnesses from which to draw and makes good use of them. Because of the importance of their families in the story they tell, both Branan and Green have produced works that are part history and part memoir.

In addition to the record of the White case provided by local newspapers and court documents, Joseph Beck’s sources included conversations with his parents over the years (Joseph was not born until 1943, five years after White’s execution); and his father’s handwritten family history, which unfortunately ended before it could devote much space to the Charles White case. There were holes in the evidence available to Joseph Beck, and he makes scant use of oral history, so he is reduced to “filling in [some of] the blanks” using educated guesses and his imagination.

* * * * *

The Importance of Context

Branan and Green also work hard to place their stories in a broader context, explaining what had occurred before and after the events they cover. Karen Branan treats slavery; Reconstruction; the Myth of the Lost Cause; and the establishment of legal segregation during the Age of Jim Crow before moving on to the Hamilton lynching.  She also examines what happened to the “Hamilton Avengers” after the lynching and sketches failed efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation through Congress.

Kristen Green traces the forces that produced Brown and those that led Prince Edward officials to close all public schools in 1959.  After telling her story, she examines public and private education in the county since 1964, when the public schools were reopened. (Prince Edward Academy, from which Green graduated, did not admit African American students until 1986, when she was in eighth grade.)  During her research, Green was constantly frustrated by the lack of empathy, even fifty years later, shown by local whites, including her own parents and grandparents, about the impact of the school closings on black–and poor white–students, and their families.

Joseph Beck’s focus is so tightly on his father’s work on behalf of Charles White that he does not spend much time establishing the broader historical context.  On the other hand, his description of small-town life in the Jim Crow South is more detailed than Branan and Green offer.

* * * * *


Branan, Beck, and Green wrote as racial “liberals” whose college years and subsequent careers took them outside their native region, at least for a time, and exposed them to different cultural values, including those of race, before they returned to the South.  Each author considers events in a single southern state during the Age of Jim Crow; features one or more of the author’s family as historical actors; and draws in part on individual and group memories as primary sources.

Each historian investigated the role of one or more family members in a particular incident that revealed something about life in a small community in the Jim Crow South.  By the time they had completed their research, all of them were profoundly disillusioned by what they’d found.

Karen Branan had been raised in Hamilton, Georgia, to admire her great-grandfather, Harris County Sheriff Buddy Hadley, who, according to family tradition, had acquitted himself well while trying to avert the lynching. Instead, Branan learned that Hadley had chosen the path of political expediency, absenting himself from town after being warned that if he tried to interfere with the work of the “Hamilton Avengers,” he would be putting his career—and perhaps his life—in jeopardy.  Moreover, Branan gradually realized that the picture of idyllic life in Hamilton presented by her parents and grandparents when she was young could not have been true, because her research revealed deep layers of racism, crime, and violence there.

Joseph Beck chose the title My Father & Atticus Finch for his book because he believed that Harper Lee might have modeled the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird on Foster Beck.  Lee gently turned this suggestion aside, but Beck evidently had difficulty letting go of his preconception.  Then, too, the fact that the “good [white] citizens” of Enterprise, Alabama, ostracized Foster Beck, assaulted him, and vandalized his office led Joseph to abandon a view he’d once shared with his father, that southern whites were not unified in their acceptance of the “depravity” of African Americans.

Kristen Green seems to have sailed blithely through her years at Prince Edward Academy before leaving for college.  It was only later, when she worked for a Richmond newspaper, that she returned to the events in Prince Edward between 1959 and 1964.  Much that she discovered in the course of her research disabused her of the rosy picture she’d had of her childhood in Farmville, as well as her view of the racial attitudes of her grandparents during the school closings and of her parents later.  Green also came to feel strongly that area whites had not—and, to an extent, still do not—understand the permanent harm closing the county’s public schools inflicted on African American and poorer white students in Prince Edward.

* * * * *

As in an earlier post comparing books about growing up white in the Jim Crow South, the volumes assessed here add personal perspectives on that time and place, while also suggesting problems inherent in trying to understand the “mind” of a diverse and complicated region, or even a small part of it, through autobiographies and memoirs.  Nevertheless, these books include fascinating pieces to the puzzle that is the tangled history of racism and civil rights in the United States.

* * * * * *

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)

POTP Cover

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









Posted in American History, Books, Civil Rights Movement, Current Events, family history, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, memoir, Prince Edward County Virginia, Southern History, Teaching, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reckoning with “The Dispossessed Majority,” 1989 (Adventures in Interdisciplinary Land, 9)

[NOTE:  As I’ve explained elsewhere (for example, here and here), some of my “adventures in interdisciplinary land” came in response to requests from colleagues in other disciplines asking for help in dealing with an “historical” issue.  Here is another example, a book by one Wilmot Robertson (real name, John Humphrey Ireland [1915-2005]), The Dispossessed Majority (1972), sent to rising seniors at my school, and other local independent schools, on at least three occasions (1983, 1987, and 1989) by an “anonymous donor.”

I’m not even sure I was aware of the “gift” in 1983 and 1987, but I certainly was in 1989, because my older son was a rising senior at the school.  In June, he and a few classmates were enrolled in a senior New Testament summer school course, trying to clear a slot on their schedules for elective coursework during senior year.  When Robertson’s volume began to arrive at their homes, several of the students in New Testament mentioned it during class.  Because the work purported to be “history,” their instructor asked my son if he thought that I might be willing to address the book and its message for a few minutes in their class.

Cramming my “interdisciplinary” hat on my head, I agreed to undertake the task of explicating a truly wretched, allegedly “historical,” work for my son’s Bible class.  What follows is a lightly revised version of my introductory and concluding remarks.]

* * * * *

To read Wilmot Robertson’s The Dispossessed Majority is to be forcefully reminded of the staying power of ideas, even dangerous ones long since discredited by modern scholarship or rendered untenable by events of the twentieth century.  I should state here that the fact no respectable scholar, and for that matter no thinking American, would accept either Robertson’s thesis or the assumptions on which it is based, probably does not bother the author in the least:  Robertson apparently believes that a massive conspiracy has been operating for a very long time aimed at suppressing the supposed “truths” in his book.

Mr. Robertson writes not a work of history, but a polemical morality play, with clearly-delineated “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.”  He believes in a hierarchy of races, for example, with the “Nordic” at the top, the superior race.  Robertson also adheres to the Aryan or “master race” concept, although he does admit in a few places that Hitler’s policies towards the Jews and other so-called “inferior races” have made it impossible for anyone to discuss this concept and expect to be taken seriously.  Still, Robertson claims that only members of Northern European “races” managed to construct true “civilizations.”  The American descendants of these various offshoots of the “Aryan race” Robertson labels “the Majority.”

These are Robertson’s “Good Guys,” the “true Americans” who have been “dispossessed” by the “Bad Guys,” whom he terms the “liberal minority.”  The most dangerous elements among the so-called “liberal minority,” according to Robertson, are African Americans and Jews.  In his mind, African Americans are mindless adherents to 1960s-style “Black Power” ideology.  Robertson claims Jews control the nation’s wealth, communications media, and artistic life, and thus are at the center of that supposed gigantic conspiracy that has kept from “the Majority” the knowledge that they have been “dispossessed.”

* * * * *

The Dispossessed Majority is a slickly packaged mishmash of bad anthropology and even worse history.  Robertson’s notion of “superior” and “inferior” races draws heavily on a few works published by the same extremist organization that published his book and ignores virtually all of the findings of modern, mainstream anthropology.

What I know about American history does not agree with Robertson’s story in any important particular.  It is not that Robertson lies consistently to make his points; indeed, there are “facts” in the book.  No, it is what Robertson does with those “facts,” his fondness for outdated interpretations, penchant for distortion, and habit of cloaking half-truths with the appearance of Holy Writ.

* * * * *

In short, The Dispossessed Majority has so little to recommend it that none of you would willingly have paid for the book; perhaps that’s why it was sent to you for free!  Like you, I wonder why this school was selected by Robertson’s backers for this dubious distinction.  Was it because we pride ourselves on being a “Christian school” and the misguided zealots who publish Robertson’s book assume that graduates of an institution like ours will find this work appealing?  Or, has someone in the parent body, or perhaps an anonymous “friend of the school,” paid to have Robertson’s bizarre version of  “the truth” put into your hands, maybe out of a conviction that the view of the past you receive here is simply part of the grand “conspiracy of silence” described by the author?

It seems to me that Robertson’s tome, as worthless as it is, raises questions in at least three areas.  First, to what extent do we who teach History actually aid and abet people like Wilmot Robertson who argue that only the “superior” Nordic or Aryan “races” have actually created “civilizations”?  So long as we focus in our teaching of the past on “Western Civilization,” “European History,” or a version of American History in which all important achievements are made by white males, just so long will we give Robertson’s narrow, twisted perspective a degree of plausibility it does not merit.  Like the society we are still trying to build in this country, the history we teach must include everyone, must not be the exclusive property of any single “race” or group.

The second area that concerns me is that of public policy during the Reagan-Bush era.  To what extent does the gutting of social programs by President Reagan reflect a mindset similar to that of Robertson?  And what about recent Supreme Court rulings against affirmative action programs handed down by a court which, thanks again to President Reagan, now has a slim conservative majority?  The jury is still out on President George H.W. Bush, but, if the campaign that won him the White House in 1988 is any indication, things may not improve very much.  (Remember the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that exploited white fears of black criminals?  The trashing of the word “liberal” until it became something of an obscenity?)  What message do these things send about the nature of the society we are trying to build?

Finally, I wonder about the sense of community here at our school.  This, it seems to me, is an especially appropriate topic for discussion in a New Testament class.  We are a Christian school, but not all of us are Christians, and even among Christians there are honestly held differences of opinion about theology.  So, what do we mean when we describe this institution as a “Christian school”?  Most of us are white, but some are not, and even among what Robertson might call this school’s “Majority” there is a lack of unanimity on just about any political, social, or moral question you care to name.  On what basis do we build our community?  Robertson assumes he can identify an “American type,” at home or abroad; can we recognize a “type” here, on campus or off, by how individuals look or by what they profess to believe?

These are questions worth wrestling with, especially in light of what we read in the New Testament.  I only regret that it took a despicable book like Wilmot Robertson’s The Dispossessed Majority to get me to raise them here.

* * * * *

[Postscript, January 2018:  Reading through this manuscript recently, I was struck by how the venom spewed in Wilmot Robertson’s book in the 1970s and 1980s remains sadly relevant to our nation’s present political and cultural strife.  In our era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” of Steve Bannon and “Breitbart,” of our President labeling (and libeling) the press as “enemies of the people,” Robertson’s tome would no doubt find an eager readership among members of at least one political party, at least those in it who support the President.

Yet, considering the almost daily appearance of even more outrageous statements from our public officials (especially one of them), statements that then become chum for social media sharks out there before being displaced by yet another outrageous pronouncement, perhaps The Dispossessed Majority too might quickly disappear without leaving a ripple, a fate it would richly deserve.

Nearly three decades ago, however, when Robertson’s book arrived–for the third time in six years, remember–at the doorsteps of our rising senior class, my son’s New Testament teacher asked me to furnish perspective, context for that volume, and I could not ignore his request.

Finally, I admire how the president of our school described Robertson’s work in a letter to members of my son’s class, the Class of 1990:

“In my opinion, shared by some faculty colleagues and many [or our] graduates who received the book, The Dispossessed Majority contains racist trash written by a known extremist.”]


* * * * * *

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, building a classroom persona, Current Events, Denying the Holocaust, Education, family history, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, memoir, Popular Culture, Prep School, Southern History, Teaching, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A Post for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2018

[NOTE:  I have described in several earlier posts the long and winding curricular road that eventually led me to teach a course,  the “History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement,” for a few years at an Atlanta “prep school.”  (See here, here, and here.)  Recently, I came across another milestone on this journey to the Civil Rights course, a brief talk I gave to help commemorate the life and legacy of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during an assembly at my school on January 16, 1987.

The head of the History department had asked me a couple of weeks earlier to prepare a 5-10 minute biographical sketch to introduce a panel discussion on Dr. King and his historical significance. To me, the most important part of the talk was not the biographical information.  Rather, I was more concerned with the final section, where I shifted from a rather dry, objective overview to a more personal take on the man and what he meant to us as a nation.  That section appears below, lightly revised.]

* * * * *


Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most eloquent and best-known voice of the civil rights movement between 1956, the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, and his assassination twelve years later.  His dedication to the philosophy of non-violent resistance against segregation and discrimination; his powerful, moving speeches; and the sympathetic eye of television news made him the most visible symbol for the strivings of his people.  To many of us growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, King was the Movement.  That, of course, was a vast oversimplification, unfair to other talented leaders, and especially to those anonymous “foot soldiers” they led.

Even if Dr. King symbolized the civil rights movement to a child of television like me, there was much more to him than that.  His concern for equal rights was not abstract or intellectual.  His commitment was deeply spiritual:  his grounding in the Christian faith, combined with his natural gifts, created a leader who was charismatic, compassionate, and self-sacrificing.  Nowhere is this more evident than in a talk he gave to 2000 people tightly crammed into a Memphis church on a rainy spring evening.  I would like to share some of what he said on that occasion with you this morning.

Dr. King was tired and his nerves were frazzled because of a bomb threat that had delayed his flight earlier that day.  He didn’t want to speak that evening, but his aides convinced him that he should.  At the beginning of the talk, he reviewed his career and spoke of the challenges that lay ahead for the civil rights movement.  Then he turned to various threats against his life:

I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  Like anybody I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  And I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. . . . With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day, when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old, “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God almighty we are free at last.”  (Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, p.486)

Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered this message on the evening of April 3, 1968.  Less than twenty-four hours later, he was dead.  The words of the Negro spiritual quoted by Dr. King are carved on his tomb.

Wikimedia Commons

* * * * *

There were black leaders more militant than King, shrewder, better organizers.  But none could rouse listeners—whether black or white—as he did:  to indignation against injustice; to marches and demonstrations at the risk of facing policemen’s clubs, tear gas, dogs, and cattle prods; to faith in the inevitable triumph of love over hate, brotherhood over persecution.  Martin Luther King, Jr., is, to me, one of the truly heroic figures of the twentieth century.

* * * * *

For a subsequent evaluation of King’s significance, the product of additional decades in the classroom, what I trust is a broader understanding of the history of the civil rights movement, and several years teaching a course on that topic, I invite you to read this post, from 2015.

* * * * * *

For  those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several 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 Uncategorized | 2 Comments