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)

POTP Cover

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





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Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud and Its Consequences, Part 2 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 27)


[Note: The first post in this series discussed the Yazoo land fraud and its consequences between 1795 and 1815 or so.  This part carries the story through the late 1830s, when Georgia, strongly supported by President Andrew Jackson, finally realized the oft-delayed promise in the controversial “Compact of 1802,” which transferred the Yazoo lands to the federal government:  the removal of the Creeks and the Cherokees from Georgia.]

* * * * *

A more tragic legacy of the Yazoo fraud grew out of the state’s cession of its disputed western territory to Congress in the “Compact of 1802.”  As cotton culture spread across Georgia, federal officials proved either unwilling or unable to extinguish quickly enough for land-hungry Georgians the claims of the Creeks and the Cherokees to lands within the state.  Angered over this delay in fulfilling the terms of the “Compact,” throughout the 1820s and 1830s Georgia’s leaders regularly prodded Washington to complete the process of Indian removal. By the late 1830s, this process was complete, after one of the ugliest campaigns in the nation’s history.

* * * * *

William Harris Crawford (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

In 1814, in the Treaty of Ft. Jackson, the Creeks ceded 22 million acres of land in the southeastern United States, including a large swath, but not all, of their lands in Georgia.  To help nudge the Creeks towards complete removal, Secretary of War William Harris Crawford, a long-time power in Georgia politics, convinced President James Madison to appoint Georgia Governor David Brydie Mitchell as federal agent to the Creeks, a position he held from 1817 to 1821.  When he accepted this appointment, Mitchell clearly believed that his main task was to secure additional lands from the Creeks.

David Brydie Mitchell (Nat. Govs. Assn)

Despite pressure to cede tribal lands exerted on them both by Agent Mitchell and the government of Georgia, the Creeks dug in their heels.  The Compact of 1802 was irrelevant, the Creek National Council argued in 1824, because its provision that the United States could acquire Indian land only “peacefully and on reasonable terms” meant that the Creeks were within their treaty rights to refuse to sell the lands.  Therefore, the Creeks insisted, “we must positively decline the proposal of a removal beyond the Mississippi, or the sale of any more of our territory.”

Chief William McIntosh (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

And yet, in 1825, Georgia concluded a flagrantly corrupt treaty at Indian Springs with a small group of Creeks led by Chief William McIntosh, who–wait for it–was Governor George Troup’s cousin.  This pact transferred all remaining Creek lands in Georgia to the state.

Governor George M. Troup

Although the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, when newly-inaugurated President John Quincy Adams learned of the corruption involved in securing it, he disavowed the agreement.  Governor Troup angrily insisted that the treaty was valid and threatened that, if challenged by Adams, the state would meet force with force.  This hasty threat of civil war blew over, but only after the Adams Administration negotiated new treaties, in 1826 (Washington, D.C.) and 1827 (Ft. Mitchell), that finally procured the last Creek lands in Georgia, this time without the rank odor of corruption that had accompanied the Indian Springs pact.

(William McIntosh’s role in signing the Treaty of Indian Springs cost him his life, because the Creek National Council earlier had voted that any tribal member who disposed of Creek territory without permission was guilty of treason, a capital crime.  Governor Troup and the Georgia authorities claimed that McIntosh had been “assassinated”; tribal officials termed McIntosh’s death a legally-mandated “execution.”)

* * * * *

In the aftermath of Troup’s—and Georgia’s—triumph over the Adams Administration, Georgians who shaped public opinion clearly indicated the next step:  with the Creeks vanquished from Georgia, the turn of the Cherokees had come.  Once again, the Compact of 1802 reared its head.

Moreover, the creation of a republican government by the Cherokee Nation in 1827 outraged Georgians, who saw it as an attempt to create a state within a state, and, thus, as an unacceptable attack on Georgia’s sovereignty, a violation of Georgia’s “state rights.”  To Georgians, the federal government’s duty remained fulfillment of the Compact of 1802:  Washington must secure Cherokee lands for Georgia, or the state would be forced to act unilaterally, as it had against the Creeks.

George Troup’s gubernatorial successors, John Forsyth, George Gilmer, and Wilson Lumpkin, had cut their teeth in Congress defending Troup’s approach to Indian affairs, so, once they entered the Governor’s office, none of them could afford to be less demanding than Troup. And, beginning in 1829, Georgia had a powerful, unswerving ally in Washington, President Andrew Jackson, who shared the state’s views on the need for Indian removal and encouraged Georgia to ignore efforts by the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the rights of the Cherokees in the cases of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).  (Claiming, on state rights grounds, that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over the state’s dealings with the Cherokees, Georgia’s governors refused even to appoint a lawyer to represent the state before the Court.)

Like the Creeks before them, the Cherokees enacted a law (1829) making further cessions of tribal land without their National Council’s permission a capital offense.  By June 1830, however, sure of President Jackson’s backing, Georgia had annexed Cherokee territory; extended state laws over the area; prohibited the Cherokee National Council from meeting within the boundaries of Georgia (except to cede lands); forbidden Cherokees from mining gold found on their lands; and required an oath of allegiance to Georgia from all whites living in the Cherokee Nation, in an effort to weaken the influence of Christian missionaries there.

John Ridge

By 1831, John Ridge, a member of the Cherokee delegation of lobbyists in Washington, had heard from supporters that there was no longer any hope the Cherokees could stave off removal.  He also had seen editorials in northern newspapers that had once defended the tribe, now conceding that the time had come to give up their fight.  President Jackson himself told Ridge that, while the Cherokees were certainly free to try to remain in the East, the national government would do nothing to aid them.

Consequently, John Ridge, his father Major Ridge, and his cousin Elias Boudinot, editor of the tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, concluded that removal to the West was inevitable.  They would form the core of the so-called “Treaty Party” that shortly organized to negotiate a Cherokee removal treaty on the best possible terms.

John Ross, Principal Chief

The Cherokees’ Principal Chief, John Ross, and the National Council continued to reject the idea of leaving Georgia, but, in December 1835, the Treaty Party signed an agreement at New Echota exchanging Cherokee lands in Georgia for new territory west of the Mississippi River.  Even though the Treaty Party represented only a small minority of the Cherokee people, both the Jackson Administration and the government of Georgia accepted the agreement as legitimate.

Principal Chief John Ross worked strenuously to abort the new treaty or to secure better terms, to no avail.  The Compact of 1802, the federal government’s recognition of the success of James Jackson’s effort to overturn the Yazoo Land Fraud in 1796, had at last been fulfilled, at least to the satisfaction of white Georgians.

“Trail of Tears”

The end of the Indian removal campaign came in the winter of 1838-1839.  Most eastern Cherokees moved West along the infamous “Trail of Tears,” during which an estimated 4000-5000 of them died.  And, in a bloody epilogue to the drama, in June 1839 several groups of Cherokees, loyal to John Ross but purportedly acting without his knowledge, killed Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot for their part in arranging the Treaty of New Echota.

* * * * *

Governor John Clark (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

 Georgia politicians continued to use the “Yazoo” label to discredit their political opponents for decades following the 1814 congressional settlement. For instance, Troup party members employed “Yazoo” as a partisan club to bludgeon supporters of opposition leader John Clark, who had received some of the Yazoo lands.  In 1821 and 1825, Troup newspapers published detailed accounts of the Yazoo Fraud to inform readers who had no personal memory of that infamous transaction of what had occurred, and why those long-ago events should lead them to vote for George Troup instead of John Clark for Governor.  (Clark defeated Troup in 1821; in 1825, though, with the popular Treaty of Indian Springs in his pocket, Troup was elected.)

The use of “Yazoo” to discredit opponents did not end in 1825.  There are references in Georgia newspapers to the Fraud and its perpetrators during political campaigns as late as 1835, forty years after the original sale!  That virtually all of those actually involved on both sides of the Yazoo question had either retired or died by 1835 evidently made no difference.

* * * * *

Moreover, by the late 1830s, the political landscape in Georgia had changed almost beyond recognition:  Indian removal was all but complete; the low country had become a political backwater; what had been referred to, sometimes sneeringly, as the “upcountry” was now the center of economic and political influence in the state; and there was a new frontier, this one wrested by whites from Georgia’s original inhabitants.

Georgia’s infamous Yazoo Land Fraud proved an almost perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.  The sale was conceived and executed by avaricious speculators and their enablers and fought by angry white Georgians and their allies, using George Troup’s concept of “state rights.” Once the lands were transferred to the national government in the “Compact of 1802,” Georgia’s–and eventually the nation’s–focus shifted to the removal of the Creeks and Cherokees from within the state’s borders. The eventual, but ignoble, success of this long campaign opened the way for the further expansion of slavery in Georgia and in Alabama and Mississippi, states created from the Yazoo lands. Finally, the expansion of slavery in the southeast, and the increasingly bitter, bloody effort to push it into lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and the war with Mexico, strengthened the importance of the region’s “peculiar institution” to the nation’s economy as well as to the idea of “state rights” that helped sustain it; this sparked the cry that “Cotton was King,” which underlay most of the incidents on the long “road to the Civil War” between 1848 and 1861.

* * * * *

SOURCES (Parts 1 and 2):

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

Lamplugh, George R.  Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806.  Newark, Delaware:  University of Delaware Press, 1986.

______________.  Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1807-1845.  Lanham, Maryland:  University Press of America, 2015.

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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)

POTP Cover

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

Posted in "Cherokee Phoenix" (newspaper), American History, Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Removal, Chief John Ross (Cherokees), Creek Indians, George M. Troup, George R. Gilmer, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, John Clark, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, William Harris Crawford, Wilson Lumpkin, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Georgia’s Notorious Yazoo Land Fraud and Its Consequences, Part 1 (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 27 )


[NOTE: The Yazoo land fraud was the key issue in my doctoral dissertation (and the book that grew out of it), which treated the evolution of political parties in Georgia between the American Revolution and 1806.  And yet, the Yazoo story was not over, as I realized once I began research on a sequel to that first book.  During four decades after 1806, Yazoo transcended its parochial beginnings in Georgia to become a factor in regional and national events.  It is that more complete story that I hope to tell here.  A list of sources will be appended to Part 2.]

* * * * *

The Yazoo land fraud was one of the most significant events in the post-Revolutionary history of Georgia and the United States. The bizarre climax to a decade of frenzied speculation in the state’s public lands, the Yazoo sale of 1795 did much to shape–and warp–Georgia politics for decades and to strain relations with the federal government for at least a generation.  Reaction to the great land fraud guaranteed that political party development in Georgia would be different from that process in other states; divided one of the nation’s major parties; produced a landmark Supreme Court decision; helped pave the way for Indian removal; and played a major role in establishing the belief, at least among southern white males, that the theory of “state rights” was a legitimate response to the power of the national government, thus nudging the country down the road to the Civil War.

* * * * *

Yazoo Lands (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Georgia was too weak after the Revolution to defend its vast western land claims (roughly, the modern-day states of Alabama and Mississippi), called the “Yazoo lands” for the river that flowed through the westernmost part of them. Consequently, the legislature listened eagerly to proposals from companies of land speculators willing to pay for the right to form settlements there.

In the 1780s, Georgia supported two unsuccessful speculative projects to establish counties in the western territory, and then tried, again without success, to cede a portion of those lands to Congress. In 1789, the legislature sold about 25 million acres of Yazoo lands to three companies of speculators, only to torpedo the sale six months later by insisting that payment be made in gold and silver rather than in depreciated paper currency left over from the American Revolution.

Pressure continued to build on legislators; by mid-November 1794, a majority reportedly once again favored the sale of the western territory to speculators. On January 7, 1795, Georgia governor George Mathews signed the Yazoo Act, transferring 35 million acres of land to four companies for $500,000 (about 1½ cents/acre). To bring off this coup, the leader of the Yazoo speculators, Georgia’s Federalist U.S. Senator James Gunn, distributed money and land to legislators, state officials, newspaper editors, and other influential, land-hungry Georgians.

Cries of bribery and corruption accompanied the Yazoo Act as it made its way to final passage. Angry Georgians protested the sale in petitions, anonymous newspaper essays, political speeches, and raucous street demonstrations.  Despite this swelling opposition, the Yazoo companies completed their purchases, then promptly sold their lands to other, supposedly “innocent,” speculators, most of whom resided in New England.

* * * * *

James Jackson (New Georgia Encyclopedia)

Learning of the circumstances surrounding passage of the Yazoo Act, Georgia’s leading Jeffersonian Republican, U.S. Senator James Jackson, resigned his seat and returned home determined to overturn the sale. Making skillful use of county grand juries and newspapers, Jackson and his allies gained control of the next session of the legislature. After holding hearings substantiating corruption charges in the sale of the Yazoo lands, Jackson himself dictated the terms of the 1796 Rescinding Act, nullifying the sale, which was signed by Governor Jared Irwin, a Jackson ally.

Burning the Yazoo Act

James Jackson also arranged for the destruction of records connected with the sale; ensured that state officials tainted by Yazoo were denied re-election and replaced by his own anti-Yazoo, pro-Jefferson supporters; and, in 1798, orchestrated a revision of the state constitution that incorporated the substance of the Rescinding Act.

* * * * *

The Yazoo Fraud played a major role in determining that political party development in Georgia would be very different from most other states in the new nation.  There had not been many influential Federalists in Georgia, and most of them were implicated in the Yazoo Fraud.  So, beginning in 1795, what mattered in Georgia was not Federalists vs. Republicans, but Yazoo vs. Anti-Yazoo.

To prevent speculators claiming lands under the Yazoo purchase from receiving a sympathetic hearing in a Congress still dominated by the Federalists, James Jackson and his lieutenants blocked any cession of the western territory to the national government until Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party was in control, after the election of 1800.  In 1802, commissioners from Georgia, including James Jackson, transferred the lands and the Yazoo claims to other Jeffersonians representing the federal government.

Under this so-called “Compact of 1802,” the United States paid Georgia $1.25 million for the Yazoo lands and agreed to extinguish as quickly as possible remaining Native Americans land claims within the state, when that could be done “peaceably” and “on reasonable terms.” This pledge, a product of the turmoil over the Yazoo Fraud, would prove controversial in the years ahead.

* * * * *

Northern speculators who had bought land from the Yazoo purchasers pressed Congress for payment, despite the Compact of 1802. After all, they argued, they had bought the lands from the original Yazoo companies and expected to be able to exploit those purchases.  But Georgia had cancelled the sale and turned the lands over to the national government in 1802, so, if the “innocent” purchasers were to get any satisfaction, it would have to come from Congress.

John Randolph (Wikipedia)

Yet, for more than a decade, congressmen sympathetic to Georgia, led by the eccentric Virginian John Randolph, rebuffed them.  (In 1795, during the excitement over the Yazoo sale, Randolph had been in low country Georgia visiting a friend, Joseph Bryan, and had experienced first-hand the emotion, violence, and charges and counter-charges accompanying the fraud.)

George M. Troup

A key Randolph ally in frustrating the efforts of the Yazoo claimants was Georgia congressman George M. Troup, who honed a powerful doctrine of state rights to do so.  Troup argued that the Yazoo Act had only passed because of corruption.  The sale had subsequently been rescinded by an outraged republican people determined to recover their landed inheritance from a pack of vile, crooked speculators, as it was their right to do.  Thus, to reward allegedly “innocent” purchasers of Yazoo lands would mean that Congress supported the fraud used to separate Georgia’s western territory from its citizens, ignoring state rights in the process.

Chief Justice John Marshall (Wikipedia)

The frustrated Northern claimants finally sued for redress, and, in the case of Fletcher v. Peck (1810), Chief Justice John Marshall ruled for the Supreme Court that, regardless of the corruption allegedly accompanying the sale, the Rescinding Act had been an unconstitutional violation of the right of contract. Rejecting this ruling, Georgia’s congressmen and their allies continued to block efforts to reach a settlement with the Yazoo claimants.  In 1814, however, after John Randolph was denied re-election by his Virginia constituents, Congress finally resolved the issue, providing $5,000,000 from the proceeds of land sales in Mississippi Territory to be shared by the Yazoo claimants.

* * * * *

The congressional debate over the Yazoo claims between 1802 and 1814 was long, bitter, and repetitive, boring even.  But not entirely:

Speaker of the House Nathaniel Macon (Wikipedia)

By December 1809, for example, the Speaker of the House, Nathaniel Macon, was at the end of his tether.  Yet another petition had arrived from a group of supposedly “innocent” New England speculators in Yazoo lands, praying that Congress settle their claims.  Speaker Macon was irate because the petitioners could not seem to take no for an answer:  every time Congress rejected one of their petitions, they simply came back with another one!  This time, Macon told the House that “to keep this petition out of these walls [of Congress], I would be willing to vote to give the State of Georgia a sum [of money] equal to what we have given for the land, to take it back.  We made a bad bargain with her; I thought so then, and I think so still.”

Almost five years later, in the spring of 1814, when it was clear that Congress finally was ready to satisfy the Yazoo claimants, angry Georgia congressmen fought a stubborn rearguard action.  By that time, however, even the clerk who reported on the speeches for the House journal had had enough.

When Representative George M. Troup rose to speak, yet again, against the proposed Yazoo claims settlement, the reporter ignored the details of the Georgian’s diatribe, writing instead that Troup had “displayed the vehemence and zeal which usually characterizes his observations on this question . . ., until he appeared to be exhausted by the effort of speaking.”  Or, as we might put it today, “yada, yada, yada. . . .”

* * * * *

The cost of the “victory” for the Yazoo purchasers was high for the nation’s dominant party, the Jeffersonian Republicans.  The long and increasingly bitter congressional debate over Yazoo was one of the factors that split the party after the War of 1812.  “Old Republicans” like John Randolph, George Troup, and Georgia political leader William Harris Crawford clung to the firmly pro-state rights rhetoric of the party’s founders, Jefferson and James Madison, and saw the settlement of the Yazoo claims as a violation of the rights of the state of Georgia.

On the other hand, younger Republicans were eager to put the Yazoo question behind them so they could turn to charting the nation’s new course. They were generally less ideological, more pragmatic, than their elders and supported significant departures from Jefferson’s principles:  the re-establishment of the Bank of the United States; passage of the nation’s first protective tariff, in 1816; and government financial support for costly internal improvements like canals and turnpikes, as envisioned by Republican Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky’s so-called “American System.”  This division helped produce two new national parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, in the 1820s.

[End of Part 1]

* * * * * *

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)

POTP Cover

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

Posted in American History, George M. Troup, Georgia History, Historical Reflection, History, James Gunn, Research, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized, William Harris Crawford, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

They don’t call me “Dr. Excitement” for nothin’, you know! (Be True to Your School, 5)

[Note:  In a previous post in this series, I discussed how certain personal eccentricities helped me construct a “classroom persona,” one “Dr.,” beard, polyester suit, and awful pun at a time.  In this entry, I’d like to offer a few examples of how the likes and dislikes that helped shape that persona also dictated  some of the choices I made in designing my Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH) course over nearly four decades at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS).  And, yes, these examples also grew out of my teaching mantra, “Never let ’em think you’re boring or predictable,” mentioned in that earlier post.

* * * * *

Jefferson (en.wikipedia.org)

“Nothing important has happened in the American past since 1800.”

This catchphrase became a staple during what I like to think of as the “Federalist Period” of my classroom persona.  After all, my dissertation treated the political history of a single American state from the American Revolution through 1806, when the state’s first “party boss” died, so when I began to teach at AFPS I knew more about those years than any others. I greatly admired—and still do—our first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, both Federalists.  I wasn’t as much of an Alexander Hamilton fan, though I did appreciate his “financial plan” designed to put the nation on a firm financial footing following adoption of the Constitution.  And, because I was such a fan of Washington and Adams, I of course had to denigrate Thomas Jefferson and all his works after the election of 1800.

Obviously, one cannot teach an American History survey course, especially on the AP level, without going beyond 1800, so, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t stop the course  with Thomas Jefferson’s election.  I did, however, develop a fairly histrionic explanation of my reluctance to go beyond that point in the nation’s history, a presentation that never failed to puzzle my students and produce multiple eye rolls in the peanut gallery.

As I began research on a second book, which completed the topic I had begun in my dissertation, carrying the story of political party development in that same southern state from 1807 through the mid-1840s, I learned more about the periods of the Early American Republic and the Antebellum decades.  While doing so, I eventually came to admire Jefferson’s political wizardry, Andrew Jackson’s stand against Nullification (though not his Indian policy or the Bank War), and Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War.

So, in the end, I only continued to dislike the period from the end of the Civil War through 1945, or claimed I did, for a while (see below).  Who says you can’t teach an old history teacher new tricks?

* * * * *

“The News from Indian Country: Elias Boudinot and the Cherokee Phoenix”

I originally prepared this lecture for an interdisciplinary program on Native American cultures that the school offered one year.  I was eager to do it because the topic of Indian Removal was central to the ongoing research project I’d begun in 1990, on the second phase of  party development in that southern state, from 1807 to 1845. Once I’d used the talk in the interdisciplinary program, it seemed natural to incorporate it into the APUSH course when we reached the Age of Jackson.  I did that, and the presentation became an annual feature for my students.  (And my discovery of the Cherokee Phoenix and its founding editor, Elias Boudinot, provided a Native American perspective on the otherwise dispiriting campaign to remove the Cherokees from Georgia.)

* * * * *

“The Wah-uh”

As noted earlier, I decided, midway through my career at AFPS, to avoid glamorizing war in all my courses, whether I was teaching Ancient, Medieval, Modern European, or American history.  I applied the same formula to each conflict, requiring my charges to become familiar with a) causes; b) turning points; and c) short and long-term consequences.  Given that my APUSH seniors were in Atlanta, the home of Margaret Mitchell of Gone With the Wind fame, they came to my class predisposed to hear a “drums and trumpets” version of the Civil War, but I refused to give them one.  A child of the Vietnam Era, I saw no need to stress the “glory” of martial conflict; and, besides, I had over the years developed a keen interest in life on the “home front” during America’s various wars.

I began our unit on the “the Wah-uh” with the first episode in Ken Burns’ memorable documentary series, The Civil War, “The Cause, 1861.”  I followed that episode a few classes later with episode five, “The Universe of Battle,” which had as its focus the Battle of Gettysburg.  My own contributions to our study of the nation’s central conflict were two  lectures, one on the home front, contrasting accounts of the War in the autobiographies of Unionist George Templeton Strong and Confederate Mary Boykin Chesnut; and another I called “The Civil War in Fifty Minutes,” which sketched the military “highlights” of the conflict, absent trumpets and drums.

* * * * *

“The Age of Jim Crow” and the Blues

Years before I inherited an elective course on the History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement, I had decided that one way to make the (to me) dreary period after “the Wah-uh” interesting was to spend time “‘splainin'” to my charges how the “Age of Jim Crow” came to be and why it was important for them, residents of the modern, post-Civil Rights Movement South, to understand where the system of racial oppression the Movement had fought against had come from.

A regular supplement to our study of Jim Crow in the post-Civil War South grew out of my love affair with the African American musical contribution, the Blues, which I managed to work into my APUSH  course each spring.  This approach proved so effective, not to mention popular, that I subsequently included it in that elective course on the Civil Rights Movement and in a series of “mini-courses” I offered for several years during an annual “Back-to-School Night” event for alumni and have subsequently published on this blog– see for example, here, here, and here.

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American History in the “Age of Lamplugh” (1944 ff):

[Eventually, I modestly converted the nation’s history since the end of World War II into the “Age of Lamplugh,” because it pretty much coincided with my time on earth.  As I grew older and settled into my role as an “Old Head” at the school, I began to see where I “fit” into that swath of time.  This was not really an attempt on my part to speak autobiographically, believe it or not; rather, it enabled me to give my sometimes jaded APUSH seniors a chance to see that history “happened” to real people, not simply to the “usual suspects” they had been learning about since elementary school.  Below are some examples.]

World War II

The most interesting topics (to me, remember) between 1941 and 1945 were life on the American home front, including the internment of Japanese Americans, and the still controversial decision to drop the atomic bombs on the Japanese homeland to bring about a quicker end to the war.  Regarding the latter issue, I was, as I annually explained, of two minds about President Truman’s use of that ultimate weapon in August 1945.  The destruction was terrible, but it did bring the war to a rapid close, which, in retrospect, was important to my family.  My father was among those American soldiers sent to Japan as part of what was expected to be an invasion force that would, by best estimates of military leaders, face fierce resistance and probably suffer large casualties during the assault.  Because of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that landing–and the concomitant American casualties–were unnecessary, and my father returned home.

* * * * *

The Modern Civil Rights Movement

A logical follow-up to the “Jim Crow” unit, this brief look at the highlights of the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s also provided some needed context to help explain the rise of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the “face” and voice of the Movement.  Of great assistance here were a few excerpts from Henry Hampton’s magnificent documentary series, Eyes on the Prize.  And, as mentioned above, what I’d learned about the period from “Jim Crow” through MLK over the years also prepared me for the junior/senior elective course I inherited a few years before I retired, The History of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement.

* * * * *

Springtime and Vietnam

As I’ve explained elsewhere, though unwilling to do so at first, I eventually found that I must come to terms with the history of our involvement in Vietnam. Having done so, I then incorporated a fifty-minute lecture on that topic into my APUSH courses (1989-2009) and even delivered it a few times to the entire senior class as a contribution to a series of “senior lectures.” [That lecture also has been published on this blog–see here, here, here, and here.]

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“Popular Music as Social Commentary”

I enjoyed this unit, and my APUSH seniors did as well. A colleague and I created an audio tape of topical songs, mostly folk and folk rock pieces, and we took a couple of days to play through and discuss the tape with our classes, stressing the importance of listening to–and, most importantly–trying to understand, the lyrics.  And, unlike a lot of the music my students normally listened to, the songs on the tape actually had lyrics that were worth paying attention to and told a story, if one listened closely, a story that could be related to a number of key issues and episodes in the nation’s post-World War II history.

Discussion was a key element of this assignment, which we first offered in the late 1980s and continued to use for the next decade or so, periodically revising the play list to keep up with current events.  Among the topics covered were:  ‘60s counterculture; Vietnam; the Cold War, including, during the Reagan years, the always uplifting prospect of nuclear annihilation; drugs; urban unrest; the decline of manufacturing and agriculture; modern American religion; small-town America and its discontents; and several anthems that raised even broader questions about the mood of the nation itself (e.g., Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and “American Tune”; Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin’”; and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” which Republican politicos who thought the title would aid their “patriotic” cause never quite understood).

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The Best Thing to Come Out of New Jersey (Other Than the Turnpike)

Speaking of Springsteen, in the 2000s I let my fondness for the music of the “Bard of New Jersey,” come to the fore each spring, when we looked at the Great Depression, believe it or not.  First, I used an excerpt from the classic movie version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and photos from the Depression era to illustrate the plight of “Okies” and other migrants during the 1930s.  Next, I asked my classes to consider the plight of the modern “dispossessed,” showing the music video version of Springsteen’s powerful, angry ballad, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which transports Steinbeck’s character to the first decade of the twenty-first century, with words, music, and images courtesy of “The Boss.”

* * * * * *

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 "The Race Beat", Age of Jim Crow, American History, Civil Rights Movement, Civil War, Cold War, Dr. Martin Luther King, Elias Boudinot, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, Interdisciplinary Work, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Teaching, The Blues, Uncategorized, Vietnam War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Local Obituary for “King Cotton” in Georgia (In Pursuit of Dead Georgians, 27)

A Review of William Rawlings, A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff: The Great Recession and the Death of Small-town Georgia.  Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2013.

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[At his website, William Rawlings bills himself as an “Author of Southern Stories,” and this volume certainly supports that description.  Mr. Rawlings tells two “Sothern stories” here:  One is a “true-crime” tale involving his great-uncle, Charles G. Rawlings, who was tried and convicted of orchestrating the killing of his first cousin, Gus Tarbutton, in 1925; the other, and arguably more important, story tells how the “Great Recession” of 1919-1921, along with the boll weevil, brought an end to the reign of “King Cotton” in Georgia (and, by extension, in the rest of the South).

There’s not enough information about the “killing on Ring Jaw Bluff” to make a satisfactory book; the economic history of the post World War I recession and its consequences, while important, would, if presented by itself, probably not appeal to the “general reader,” Rawlings’ target audience.  So, the author decided to weave the two stories together.]

* * * * *

The main characters, Charlie Rawlings and Gus Tarbutton, were deeply involved in the cotton economy that had dominated middle Georgia since before the Civil War.  The small town of Sandersville, in Washington County, where Charlie and Gus had grown up together (Gus was a sort of foster brother to Charlie), serviced the needs of cotton planters, like numerous other crossroads settlements in the region.

Charlie Rawlings, born in 1858, had begun his business career selling horses and mules. By dint of hard work, “flexible” ethics, and a willingness to use the court system to advance his fortunes at the expense of rivals and relations, Charlie became one of Sandersville’s leading citizens. He expanded into cotton planting, farm supply, banking, and railroads, all dependent upon the whims of Mother Nature and the price of “King Cotton.”  Rawlings’ cousin Gus, born in 1875, was a cotton planter, set up in business by Charlie and indebted to him for loans.

Author William Rawlings characterizes the generation following the end of the Civil War as the “Long Depression,” even though it was ballyhooed by influential Southerners as the “New South,” the future of which rested upon continuing belief in the mythical “Old South” of courtly white planters and happy, contented slaves.  This era, usually referred to as the “Age of Jim Crow,” spread more oppression and pain than happiness or contentment, especially for African Americans.

Although the damage dealt Georgia’s cotton economy by the boll weevil was devastating, the critter arrived on the scene relatively late.  Rural Georgia’s small towns had already been set up for a fall by a number of weaknesses, including “the system of tenant farming, the dependence on African American labor, the expansion and subsequent contraction of credit during and following the war years, the lax regulation of the banking system, the phenomenal period of inflation from 1916 through 1920, and the unsustainable bubble of cotton prices that crashed during the Great Recession in 1920.” (68)

* * * * *

It is a textbook truism that, in the South, the Great Depression actually began at the end of World War I, a decade before the 1929 Stock Market crash, and William Rawlings’ treatment of the tangled lives of Charlie Rawlings, Gus Tarbutton, and other residents of Sandersville and vicinity fleshes out what that meant for one rural Georgia community.

Charlie Rawlings had played fast and loose with ethics on his way to prosperity, and, once the “Great Recession” of 1920-1921 struck, everything came crashing down.  The price of cotton tumbled, and, for Rawlings and his neighbors, the future looked grim.  Charlie’s luck also failed him when, a month after he’d purchased it, a cottonseed oil mill mysteriously burned to the ground, and arson was immediately suspected.

Even a delay in the arson trial brought little relief, because Charlie was also accused of peonage on his farm in Johnson County; his brother Ben sued him for failing to distribute their late father’s estate among the heirs as the law required; and, when Charlie’s wife Lula died unexpectedly late in 1921, rumors suggested that she might have taken her own life.  Moreover, according to the author, it was perhaps in 1921 that the newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan paid Charlie back for his philandering by ambushing him on a back road and castrating him.

Eventually, a local jury found Charlie not guilty of arson.  Of that verdict, William Rawlings dryly notes, “Justice had been served.  Or, more likely, purchased.” (156)  Charlie’s innocence might have been debatable, but his financial condition was not—he was ruined.

What little good repute Charlie Rawlings had left vanished in 1925.  He and his overseer, Jim Tanner, were walking with Gus Tarbutton over some property Gus owned on Ring Jaw Bluff, investigating whether the area might yield valuable deposits of bauxite ore, and thus, contribute to diversifying the area’s economy now that “King Cotton” had vacated his throne.

According to the story told by Charlie Rawlings and Jim Tanner, Tanner had tripped while holding a shotgun, “accidentally” killing Gus Tarbutton.  Charlie claimed he was devastated by Gus’ death, but on the day Tarbutton died, Charlie remembered to ask about Gus’ insurance. A grand jury indicted Charlie and Tanner for murder.  Rawlings’ attorney moved for a change of venue.  While that motion made its way through the state’s court system (it was eventually denied), Charlie lost control of his remaining business affairs and Gus’ son filed a $250,000 civil suit against him and Tanner over his father’s death.

Both Rawlings and Tanner were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Charlie was released from prison for health reasons in December 1932, after serving almost eight years.  He spent the next six years living in straitened circumstance and, weakened by poor health, died on November 15, 1938.

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How successfully did author William Rawlings combine his seamy “true crime” tale and the larger story of the factors that led to the death of small-town Georgia?

In establishing the historical context within which the Charlie and Gus tragedy played out, Rawlings is concise, but thorough. His chapter on the “Long Depression” (1865-1900) is broad enough to work in the rise of the “New South” idea, along with the continuing importance of the “Old South” myth.  He also treats the development of tenant farming, sharecropping, the crop lien system, and the monetization of cotton in Georgia.

Once he arrives at the post-World War I era, Rawlings covers the beginnings of the “Great Migration,” the movement out of the South by black (and some white) sharecroppers to the supposed “promised land” of the industrial Midwest and Northeast, in search of better jobs and more civil and political freedom.  He also carefully notes the efforts of local planters, using the area’s weekly newspapers, to try to dash the hopes of sharecroppers that nirvana awaited them in Chicago, Detroit, or Harlem. To substantiate his interpretation of those important topics, Rawlings includes seven graphs in an appendix.

I found it interesting that, to Rawlings, the stereotypical emphasis during the “Roaring ‘20s” on “ballyhoo,” what we now call hype, reached even to small-town Georgia.  Once it became clear that cotton was no longer king, and that the region’s economy badly needed to be diversified, various promoters, some of them rank charlatans, stepped in to fill the void.  For example, there was a (probably spurious) “oil boom(let)” in Middle Georgia, which, though unsuccessful, distracted rural residents from the ravages of the boll weevil.  Some entrepreneurs, including Charlie Rawlings and Gus Tarbutton, also turned to the prospects of locating valuable clay deposits in the area (it was on just such an expedition that Gus Tarbutton was shot by Charlie’s employee Jim Tanner).  Sandersville’s “Babbits” also had praised ambitious local bankers, including Charlie Rawlings, as the area’s potential saviors, but the post-war “Great Recession” brought their sandcastles crashing to earth.

In short, William Rawlings’ A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff is a useful, sometimes fascinating volume on a little-studied aspect of modern Georgia history.  Written for a general audience, it should inform and entertain them in equal measure.

William Rawlings (amazon.com)

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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 Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Georgia History, History, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

“Who was that Masked Man?”: Building a Classroom Persona (Be True to Your School, 4)

[NOTE:  In a previous post in this series, I saluted the two best teachers I’ve ever had, Miss Gertrude Weaver (high school) and Professor James Rabun (graduate school).  In addition to deep knowledge of history and loads of energy and enthusiasm, each of these mentors brought certain eccentricities to the classroom.  What follows is a survey of ways I applied, sometimes without realizing it, their examples while 1) constructing my own classroom persona over a long teaching career at “Atlanta’s Finest Prep School” (AFPS); and, 2) trying to fulfill what I eventually decided was my mission statement, “Never let ’em think you’re boring or predictable.”]

* * * * *

The “Dr.” is in—I arrived at AFPS with a doctoral degree in hand, but initially I was reluctant to use the title, given that I was not teaching at a college and so was probably “over-qualified” and didn’t want to be seen “putting on airs.” Yet, several of my new colleagues also had doctorates and were not reluctant to use the honorific from the get-go. My first year, however, I introduced myself as “Mr.”  As that year ended, I agreed to teach summer school and decided to call myself “Dr.” for those nine weeks, just to “try it on for size.” I soon discovered that my students would call me whatever I wanted them to—Mr., Dr., Agha, Prof., Rev., Your Honor, it didn’t seem to matter.  So, I used “Dr.” for the rest of my career, even answering readily to “Doc.”

* * * * *

Bearded fount of knowledge—I had worn my hair very short while growing up, and I didn’t consider growing either a mustache or a beard until I was in college. By that time, however, I was in Army ROTC, and was required to keep my face clean-shaven, which of course carried over after graduation through my two-year stint in the Army.  While in graduate school, however, I cultivated a mustache, which still adorned my visage when I hired on at AFPS. Then, over my first Xmas Break there, in December 1973, I grew a beard, and it has been with me, for better or worse, ever since.  So, “Dr.” and beard–see what persona I was aiming for early on . . .?

* * * * *

“Polyester on Parade”

Fashion Plate—I guess it was the style of the era, but as I was purchasing my classroom “uniform,” I developed a fondness for polyester slacks and jackets.  I wasn’t alone: that sartorial fashion was so prevalent among younger male faculty that the student newspaper featured several of us in an illustrated article, “Polyester on Parade.” Ouch!

Even when styles changed and I gradually replaced my polyester wardrobe, I still had a problem:  I am partially colorblind (a red/green deficiency).  This frequently led to some odd “fashion statements” from yours truly, at least in the eyes of people who were not colorblind.  My wife and children tried to catch any glaring color or pattern clashes before I left home each morning, but they weren’t always successful.  And, truth to tell, eventually I stopped caring.

* * * * *

“Sweat Equity”

Jogging—From the time I turned thirty, I jogged regularly, so much so that my principal eventually asked me to start a program called “Intramural Jogging” as part of my “coaching” responsibilities. This activity was intended mainly to, um, “whip into shape”  students who were as yet unable to complete successfully the school’s required timed mile run, administered at the start of each academic year.

It was an interesting experience, given the unwillingness of most of my charges to exert themselves in a quest for intramural glory.  But my sense of humor did not desert me.  I wangled funds from the athletic director to purchase t-shirts, which I awarded to those in the program who fulfilled their timed run requirement under my tutelage.  Among the slogans on those shirts over the years, two stand out: “If jogging’s the answer, what is the question?”; and, “Competitive Intramural Jogging: Only at AFPS!”

* * * * *

“I Hate New Jersey.” “What do you have against New Jersey?” a couple of generations of my students asked.  My dislike for the Garden State was real, at least at first.  It began with my family’s drive from Georgia to Massachusetts to see one set of parents, a trip that required use of the New Jersey Turnpike (NJTP), no fun at all at that time. And, heck, lovely petrochemical plants with belching smokestacks welcomed travelers heading to Jersey via the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  And Newark (that’s “New-urk,” NJ, not to be confused with “New-ark,” Delaware, my home town), was an urban battle zone, especially in the 1960s and ‘70s. Even popular culture occasionally reinforced my acid portrait of the state as a cesspool of crime and corruption (“The Sopranos,” anyone?).

Early in my time at AFPS, my “Garden State phobia” led to creation of “NJ Inspiration Corner,” on the door of an ungainly wooden cabinet in my classroom: e.g., posters celebrating “Ski NJ” (fully-clad skier posed in front of a chemical plant); “Smell Tours of NJ” (from National Lampoon); the “NJ Air Force” (enlarged photo of a mosquito);  snapshots taken of various NJTP toll booths by students on “college trips” to Princeton University (AKA, “PU”—“smell tours of NJ,” get it?); coffee cups (“I Love NJ”) and other memorabilia brought back to me by students visiting or passing through the Garden State.

Why “NJ Inspiration Corner”?  I used to tell my students, “If you’re not enjoying today’s essay, test, DBQ, lecture, discussion, etc., just cast your eyes on ‘NJ Inspiration Corner’ and realize that, as bad as things are going for you right now, they could be worse:  you could be doing the assignment in New Jersey!”  (You can imagine the fun I had on our annual “Parents’ Night,” when parents scanned the front of my cabinet and asked, often in all innocence, why I liked NJ so much. . . .)

[Note:  Eventually I changed my mind about NJ, at least somewhat.  Why?  Well, additional lanes were added to the NJTP for one thing, making our journey to Massachusetts slightly less hectic.  With time, too, there was a gradual tapering off of the number of trips we made from Georgia to what I sometimes refer to as the “Great White North.”  I also remember being struck by the almost “New England” look of a couple of small towns in northern NJ I visited on a research trip while in grad school.  Finally, for my sin in tagging Princeton “PU,” in 1990 I attended a summer program there, and the place won me over.]

* * * * *

Big Bucks!  In addition to denigrating NJ at every opportunity, I also began regularly to toss in a catch phrase during class discussions, “That’s why they pay me the Big Bucks!”  At first I did this on a whim, but it soon caught on with my classes.  Thereafter, I reserved the right to use that line at any time—and did! One result was the creation by an AP student of a poster for my classroom, featuring piles of cash, along with the slogan. Not as cute as the poster above, but more in the spirit of the catch phrase.

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“U-Pun my word!”  Unfortunately for my students, not to mention my wife and kids, I am an inveterate punster. On those days when I was in a good mood and full of energy (most Mondays, because I knew my students would be worn out from their weekends and so would be relatively defenseless), I’d get on a roll with puns, each greeted with moans and groans, most of them deserved because of the depths my punning sometimes plumbed.  Some brave students even tried to play “I can top that” after one of my puns, but again, if I was full of energy and enthusiasm, I easily beat them into whimpering submission.

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The First State

Delaware—How could my birthplace contribute to my classroom persona? Glad you asked: It began with my stating, usually on the first day of class, that, I was “one of the few native Delawareans you’ll ever meet.”   That simple declarative statement was almost invariably greeted by the innocent question, “Where is Delaware, anyway?” (which led to an immediate refresher course in the nation’s geography).

I also liked to tell a story about a “Candid Camera” skit from long ago (when the program was hosted by its creator, Alan Funt): Folks driving from NJ to Delaware on the Delaware Memorial Bridge were greeted by barricades at the toll booths and signs informing them that they’d have to turn around, because Delaware was closed for the day.  And, because that was a more innocent, less jaded time (social media had not yet been invented), many drivers obediently turned around and headed back to the Garden State. . . .

* * * * *

Golden Shovel(s)—Once upon a time, I had a very bright, but lazy, group of seniors who seemed incapable of producing the kind of written work I expected from a purportedly AP American History class. When my earnest entreaties failed to spur them on to greater heights, I devised a new “grade” that I drew, first on the blackboard and, if necessary, inside the front covers of their “blue books,” explaining said mark when asked, as only grade-grubbing, college-admission stressed seniors can, “What’s this grade supposed to mean, anyway?”

In response, I launched into a story about how I spent one summer while in high school, cleaning stalls in the barn located behind our house. It was one of the most satisfying jobs I’d ever had, I’d declare:  I’d arrive in the morning to find piles of horse manure in each stall; I’d put in a couple of sweaty hours removing the ordure and replacing the straw.  And, best of all, I could clearly see the results of my efforts.  But, when the horses came in from the pasture, what would happen, I’d ask.  My students nailed the answer easily enough:  why, there would soon be new piles of manure and smelly straw and, thus, more sweaty work for you the next day.  That’s right, I’d respond with a smile–just like what’s been happening lately when I grade your essays!

That grade I drew on their papers?  It was a pile of reeking dung, a shovel standing upright in the middle of it.  And someone invariably asked, “But what does that grade mean, Doc?”  To which I’d reply, “That’s my ‘Golden Shovel Award,’ designed especially for those of you who produce essays full of sentences and paragraphs that tell me absolutely nothing about the assigned topic!”

The “Golden Shovel Award” caught on quickly, especially once members of a later AP class bought a shovel, cut off the handle, spray painted the business end of the implement gold, and presented it to me at the end of the year.  That shovel proved a very useful tool, for decades, to return, um, “piles” of less than scintillating “historical essays” and tests.  A subsequent class gave me a much smaller golden shovel, complete with a handle.  When I retired, I left the original shovel to the head of our English Department and carried the smaller one home with me, where it still enjoys pride of place on my desk.

* * * * *

[Disclosure:  None of Miss Weaver’s or Dr. Rabun’s eccentricities were harmed in the making of this blog post or copied by me in creating my own classroom persona.  Oh, and about the classroom philosophy mentioned at the end of the introductory note:  I’ll furnish additional examples another time.]

* * * * * *

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 "big bucks", American History, building a classroom persona, classroom eccentricities, Delaware, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History Teaching, jogging, memoir, New Jersey, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Southern (Georgia) History, Teaching, The Blues, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Ol’ History Curriculum Merry-go-Round Comes ‘Round Again (History Lesson Plans, 12)

[NOTE:  In a two-part series in The American Historian, David Arnold reviews a recent movement aimed at reforming  the way history is taught in colleges and universities.  An eighteen-year veteran of teaching history in a community college, Professor Arnold’s average teaching load is ten classes of forty-five or so students a year.  This alone, Arnold wryly notes, means that he has probably taught more history survey courses—and history survey students—“than most university professors will teach in two lifetimes.” (I, 11)

The reform agenda Arnold reports on is (rather clumsily) labeled “the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” (or SoTL); its purveyors consider the traditional lecture method ineffective.  Instead, they  proclaim an “inquiry-based” approach far superior, because it encourages students to “do, think, and value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing.” (I, 10)  Put bluntly, SoTL reformers “seek to destroy the authoritative ‘sage on the stage’ professor, who sees history teaching as simply transmitting content from his mouth to students’ brains, and nurture the ‘guide on the side’ who focuses on student learning rather than the expertise of the professor.” (I, 10)]

* * * * *

Arnold admits at the outset that the requirements of the SoTL approach proved impracticable when he and several other History faculty evaluated them for possible use at his junior college, because “large classrooms filled with non-history majors, large teaching loads, and little institutional support restrict our teaching choices.”  Moreover, professors at four-year colleges and universities haven’t exactly been flocking to the SoTL movement, largely because of the “significant logistical challenges” involved in re-organizing introductory survey courses on the SoTL model. (I, 11)

Professor Arnold opines that perhaps SoTL might work on the K-12 level and in large, wealthy universities, but not in junior colleges or lower-tier four-year institutions. SoTL’s proponents, he avers, are “ensconced at universities where they teach less and receive more funding, as well as graduate research assistants to carry out their scholarship on teaching and learning.” (I,12)

* * * * *

Professor Arnold is aware that this is not a new battle being fought for the soul of “history education.”  In different guises, historians and history teacher have been wrestling for generations with the distinction presented by SoTL’s backers between what are now called the “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side.”  The “sage” represents the stereotypical history prof, handing down the wisdom of the ancients (himself  included) in lectures, as his adoring students stare raptly, all the time taking detailed notes.  The “guide” is more up-to-date, using gentle nudges to draw eager students in the direction of “doing history,” employing primary sources, critical thinking, essential questions, and the innate interest in history all his students surely harbor (don’t they?).

Overdrawn?  Sure, yet, as Arnold concedes, “No amount of research will convince true believers on either side.” (II, 31)  Nevertheless, he argues that SoTL is at least worth a shot, for three reasons:  unlike the lecture approach, SoTL “privileges the historical method above all other things”; links its practitioners “to a larger community of scholar-teachers who are grappling with similar problems and concerns”; and might convince history teachers to see their classrooms “as places of scholarly investigation and problem-solving rather than drudgery.” (II, 33)

* * * * *

History Curriculum Merry-Go-Round

When I was in college in the early 1960s, a history major at a state university, our faculty evinced little concern about “teaching style,” because, at that time and place, the lecture method ruled the roost, except during the dreaded early Saturday morning “quiz section,” when one of our professor’s harried teaching assistants tried to convince us that “discussions” were fun.  Uh-huh. . . .

A few years later, when I was in grad school at a southern university, ideas about how to pass on historical “knowledge” hadn’t changed much.  Although classes, now called “seminars,” were smaller and courses more specialized, our professors still relied on lectures to convey information, at least for the first couple of years.  Thereafter, we were launched into dissertation research mode, while also teaching a class of our own each semester, usually employing lectures, the teaching, um, strategy emphasized in a required first-year course, “Introduction to College Teaching.”

When I began teaching at an Atlanta prep school in the fall of 1973, my department head explained that the school’s history faculty was committed to the “lecture-discussion method.”  As I understood it, this meant that, while lectures should continue to be used to convey “knowledge” (i.e., names, dates, and other significant facts), teachers should feel free to employ class discussions, primary sources, videos, etc., at least for part of each period.

So, I began my prep school teaching career by lecturing to my AP and “regular” American History students (using lectures I had written while a teaching assistant in grad school) but relying more on alternative approaches in Ancient and Medieval History and in  European history.

* * * **

Professor Arnold is absolutely right on a key point in this curricular kerfluffle:  the distinction between “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” is both artificial and misleading.  Over my long career teaching history on the secondary level, I participated in this debate several times, every dozen years or so; and I concluded—surprise!—that a teacher needs to include both approaches in his or her academic arsenal.

For example, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, I created a course, “Introduction to History,” a one-semester elective for high school freshmen and sophomores.  I felt that I was “introducing” the discipline of history to young students who were, while not blank slates or empty vessels, still products of earlier classes that tended to be more content driven and heavier on memorization, without much time spent on appreciation of context and complexity, let alone the importance of critical thinking. (Folks without the latter experiences, by the way, while chatting later in life at social gatherings with a grizzled history teacher in attendance, are apt to observe, “I didn’t really enjoy my history courses—too many names and dates!”)

But, this did not mean that I spent each semester in my Intro sections solely as the “guide on the side.”  There was always room for “sage” action, especially mini-lectures to provide my charges with necessary information not covered very well in the text.  No question, though, Intro frequently used primary sources in translation, from various early civilizations east and west, and tried to foster critical thinking during discussions of the textbook, primary sources, and videos.

The department’s first required course, History of the Ancient World, a one-semester offering for sophomores, treated Roman history, the beginnings of Christianity, the so-called “Middle Ages” in Europe, and Asian civilizations.  Once more, the emphasis was on trying to keep a balance between the teacher’s “sage” and “guide” proclivities, though, in my classes at least, the “guide on the side” predominated.

* * * * *

In upper level history courses, required or elective, older students were expected to build upon the foundations laid in earlier classes.  A key element in these offerings was the distinction between “regular” and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

AP classes are supposed to be taught “on the college level,” yet the most significant grade, the score on the standardized, end-of-year, comprehensive, content-driven exam, does not affect the student’s final average in the course. While AP offerings do not require an AP teacher to be a “sage on the stage” every day, the emphasis remained on presenting content through lectures.  AP history exams also include a documents-based essay question (DBQ) that assesses a student’s facility with inquiry-based assignments grounded in primary sources.  An obvious way to prepare students for this part of the exam is to have students tackle old DBQs at appropriate chronological points.

Even if a school encouraged stronger students in “regular” European or American history classes to take the AP exam (as mine did), teaching regular classes still provided room to experiment with more “guide on the side” activities, including a few DBQs, while also employing lectures, discussions, projects, and videos.

* * * * *

 It is also true, as Professor Arnold states, that, like other aspects of life in the classroom, curricular “guidelines” and “reform” efforts for secondary schools history programs are frequently created, not by historians, but by “education” professors, who might not have been in an actual history classroom for quite some time.   Yet, once their ideas take off, these pearls of  “scholarship” tend to be handed down as received wisdom, at least for a season.  This leads to a final point. . . .

Education “reform” efforts are both cyclical and faddish.  They come along as the “next new thing,” flourish for a season, and are eventually superceded by a new “reform” effort.  Oh, and then these discarded movements manage to return—again and again—pushed by younger professors and usually with different labels attached to them. For example, “inquiry” based instruction, like SoTL?  Been there, done that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. . . .  “Interdisciplinary instruction”?  Don’t get me started. . . .  Lecturing?  You betcha!  Few of its proponents call lecturing a “reform,” at least not with a straight face, but they do love, every decade or so, to remind us how crucial the lecturer’s proficiency as a “story teller” is to passing on the wisdom of the ages to students, around that ol’ classroom campfire, whether students enjoy lectures and whether the lecturer bothers to try to keep students interested in the material.

In other words, if your favorite instructional technique falls from favor, do not despair; it will return after a few more turns of the history curriculum merry-go-round.


David Arnold, “Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher:  History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part I,” The American Historian, Number 10 (November 2016), 10-15.

___________, “Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher:  History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part II,” The American Historian, Number 11 (February 2017), 28-34.

* * * * * *

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 "Education Courses", American History, Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Skip James, “Emotional Hermit” of the Blues (Blues Stories, 26)

A Review of

Stephen Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James + the Blues. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008.

His music was the defiant product of an emotional hermit: “I wanted it different all the way—I always have had that intensity, to go contrary to the rest.” (p.19)


* * * * *

Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born on June 21, 1902, on the Whitehead plantation, near Bentonia, Mississippi.  His mother, Phyllis, was cook and babysitter for the Whitehead family; his father, Eddie, was a guitarist and bootlegger. Described by Calt as a “local lowlife,” (25) Eddie James fled the area about 1907, abandoning his family and creating in young Skip “daddy issues” that would dog him for most of his life.

James became a self-taught guitarist, using an instrument purchased for him by his mother. Hoping to sound forlorn, he also adopted his distinctive falsetto early on.  Baptized in his early teens into his mother’s fundamentalist denomination, Skip didn’t let his religious bent interfere with either his way of living or his blues playing, though it would trouble him later. Her son’s flirtation with “the Devil’s music” did not seem to upset Phyllis James, for she arranged for him to take piano lessons from a cousin.

Evidently, young James hoped to use his musical skills to earn enough money to become a pimp, and he largely succeeded.  This, um, skill, along with bootlegging, would allow him to survive the Depression without any real need to earn big bucks as a bluesman. Skip dropped out of school and left Bentonia in 1919, working as a laborer, gambler, and pimp, and revealing a violent disposition when challenged in any of these endeavors.

Five years later, when Prohibition shut down “barrelhouses” and “juke joints,” reducing opportunities for blues players, not to mention pimps, James returned to Bentonia, where he acquired a bootlegging “franchise” from Kirk Whitehead, owner of the plantation on which Skip had been born and grown up. James claimed that he could make $60-$70 a week as a bootlegger, and enjoy Whitehead’s protection from revenue agents, so playing the blues became merely a sideline.

During the 1920s, James honed his skills as a piano player, and, whether performing on the guitar or the piano, his instrumental skills were more of a draw than the songs he wrote, sang, and played. In the late ‘20s, James married a clergyman’s daughter, Oscella Robinson, who helped organize “house frolics” in Bentonia where Skip not only performed but also peddled his bootleg whiskey. This marriage was short-lived—Oscella abandoned Skip, dealing his ego a blow, helping to convince him that women were untrustworthy.

* * * * *


Perhaps trying to stoke his bruised self-esteem, Skip James drifted reluctantly into making records. A   talent scout, H.C. Speir, was so impressed that he arranged a recording session in 1931 with Paramount Records in Grafton, Wisconsin.  James’ reputation as a blues singer would rest on the eighteen tunes he recorded there.

The timing of James’ Grafton sides could not have been worse: the Depression was in full swing, and Paramount was on its last legs. Consequently, few copies of James’ 1931 sides were sold, and he would not record again for more than three decades.  His biographer contends, though, that even without the Depression Skip was doomed to fail as a blues player.  He was not much of a “performer,” and the songs he sang revealed an alienated, tortured soul with few friends and fewer prospects, the “emotional hermit” referred to above.

Surely the best known of the eighteen tunes that emerged from the Grafton session was Devil Got My Woman, one in a long line of blues songs featuring satanic imagery and thus reinforcing the belief held by many religious African Americans that the blues was “the Devil’s music.”  To Stephen Calt, James was ambivalent on that issue: he regarded “satanic possession” as “little more than a figure of speech,” (111) yet “considered the blues the product of Satan.” (118)

* * * * *

Shortly after Skip returned from Grafton, his father came back into his life, after twenty years.  Now a peripatetic minister, Eddie James asked his son to join him in his religious mission. Skip finally agreed to abandon the blues, for “a patron, a protector, and a father” (167), yet his “religious conversion” was neither sudden nor complete.

The younger James might have surrendered his guitar, played piano for his dad’s church, even organized a short-lived gospel group, but he continued his battle with Demon Rum, played pool, and accepted financial support from a local prostitute.  In 1936, when Eddie moved to Birmingham, his son returned to the Whitehead plantation, bootlegging, and the blues.  A year later, though, Skip rejoined his father in Selma, becoming for a few more years a “kept man” in Eddie’s seminary before the two drifted apart again.  (204)

Skip James was finally ordained to the ministry, but wanderlust once more overtook him and he abandoned religion.  After marrying his second wife, Mabel, a cook in a labor camp, James traveled around Mississippi doing farm work. In the early 1950s, he joined a cousin working land on a plantation, but that venture died when James ran out on his partner and returned to the blues, performing on piano and acoustic guitar.

While James was acting out his Hamlet-like “God or the Blues” drama, disparate groups, composed mainly of whites, rediscovered “old-fashioned music,” including folk songs and the blues, though of the acoustic variety, not the electrified version associated with post-World War II Chicago. Moreover, by the early 1960s, a few young white blues fans were prowling the South attempting to locate survivors of the early “race record” era that had died in the Depression.  Two notable “rediscoveries” by these long-haired “talent scouts” were Son House and Bukka White.

The trio that had found Bukka White also located Skip James, in a Tunica, Mississippi, hospital, where he was being treated for cancer.  James initially did not trust these emissaries from the “Blues Revival of the 1960s,” who were mainly interested in making money off what remained of his talent. As had been the case three decades earlier when his father re-entered his life, though, Skip eventually gave in, and he soon was on his way to the Newport Folk Festival.

* * * * *

It was at Newport in July 1964 that Skip James met an eighteen-year old blues groupie, Stephen Calt.  He agreed to allow Calt to interview him at length and record his thoughts; these tapes ultimately became the primary source for this biography.  Sounds like serendipity, right?  Not according to Calt, who writes, “Had I known how our lives would intersect over the next four years, I would not have initiated that first conversation.” (265)

James’ medical issues did not disappear with his re-emergence on the blues stage.  By early 1965, a cancerous tumor on his penis led to castration.  (Skip characteristically attributed the cancer to a former girlfriend.)  James also used his “rediscovery” as a blues man to abandon his wife Mabel and move to Philadelphia, where he took up with a widow named Lorenzo Meeks, a fervent member of the “sanctified church.”

James’ amateurish managers were unable to guide him to the promised pot of gold at the end of the “blues revival” rainbow, so he sought new, more professional help, but without much luck.  Skip sold the rights to his songs to a new manager’s company, but the album produced under his direction sold few copies.  His next manager secured a two-record deal with Vanguard for him, but those albums also did poorly. James was unhappy with both the money he made and the underwhelming reception he received from the largely white crowds in coffeehouses.  He asked young Stephen Calt for help, and Calt arranged a few gigs for the blues man on more receptive college campuses.

The “folk blues” movement succumbed to rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1960s, with much of the damage done by hirsute rock “guitar heroes” who appropriated songs and guitar techniques from the old blues guys without compensation.  Fortunately, Eric Clapton and Cream brought James a financial windfall, crediting him as composer of “I’m So Glad” when they covered that tune on their million-selling album Fresh Cream.  Even so, Skip, like his rediscovered contemporaries, still struggled financially, which placed a strain on his relationship with his wife.  Calt even claims that James spoke to him of making a new will leaving his estate (what there was of it) to Calt and his sister.

Skip’s guitar skills atrophied because he disliked practicing and increasingly withdrew into a shell of cold self-interest.  Then, in late October 1968, he was readmitted to the hospital, diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and sent home to die.  James interpreted this latest setback as divine punishment, and he vowed that, if God saved him, he would play only spirituals thereafter.  Skip James died on October 3, 1969, his passing receiving little notice, his funeral sparsely attended.  Stephen Calt came, of course, and offered James’ cousin a shot at interpreting the arc of Skip’s career:  “He woulda been better, but see, what messed him up was—people tried to shame him outta singing the blues.” (351)

* * * * *

This work lacks both notes and bibliography. Calt relies heavily on five years of taped interviews with James, supplemented by a few with other blues men, either by the author himself or by researchers Gayle Wardlow and Edd Hurt.  Calt also insists that what he collected from James were “discourses” rather than interviews, because Skip enjoyed rambling and did not like interruptions.  Like many white fans who interviewed old blues performers in the 1960s, Calt doesn’t always assess the plausibility of his subject’s assertions, and his heavy reliance on a single acknowledged source occasionally magnifies the weakness of this approach. Moreover, that Calt himself becomes a “character” in the book while recounting the last five years of Skip’s life also can be problematic.

Every now and then, Calt inserts a chapter that sketches in the larger context of blues history, but again the lack of a bibliography makes it difficult for the reader to evaluate some of the generalizations offered by the opinionated biographer.  For example, he denigrates the Chicago blues as essentially “easy listening” music, “studio blues” cranked out by a series of “facile lyricists.” (199-200) He also dislikes the “country blues” label often attached to unaccompanied, acoustic guitar performers like James, denying that there were any significant geographical differences in blues “styles” growing out of performers’ places of origin. (217-223)

Likewise, Mr. Calt rejects the notion that Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s hits on Chicago’s Chess label in the early 1950s sparked a revival of “down-home blues,” arguing that other record companies didn’t rush to emulate Chess, and that only “payola” to disc jockeys accounted for their success. (227)

Calt also emphasizes how small the community of “hard-core blues enthusiasts” was in the early 1960s; to him, the “Blues Revival” was largely the creation of mass-market and blues specialty magazines.  He argues, correctly I think, that the term “revival” was relative—at its peak, the blues had about 1% of a mostly white music market, because African American music fans had moved on to rhythm and blues or rock.  As he writes tartly, “The blues ‘revival’ of the 1960s actually represented the placement of blues upon a white respirator.” (249)

James’ biographer is not a fan of ‘60s “folk music” either, describing it as “characterized by a pretentious loftiness, consisting largely of an affectation of purity.” (256)  Maybe, but thanks to the “folk movement,” old bluesmen like James had a chance for a “second act” in their careers.

In short, although Mr. Calt might have intended to produce a “warts and all” biography of Skip James, his emphasis seems to be mostly on the “warts”; the “all” is harder for the reader to discover.

* * * * * *

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 Age of Jim Crow, American History, Books, Delta Blues, History, History of Rock and Roll, Popular Culture, Skip James, Son House, Southern History, Stephen Calt, The Blues, Theology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

BETTS, A MOTHER’S MEMOIR, 1923-1964, Part VII: After Words–Betts on Family, History, and Family History

[NOTE: When I posted Part VI of this series, I thought it was the concluding installment.  And then I returned to a notion advanced in Part I:  Betts had been a “late-blooming historian.” I still wondered about her decision to undertake what would turn out to be a two decade detour into the past.  So, I returned to a cache of letters from Betts written at various points along that twenty-year odyssey.  Who better to shed additional light on her motivation in deciding to unearth her family’s history–and her own–as well as her view of the past, than the author herself?]

* * * * *


June 1987 (at the end of “Dobson-Knighton Family” essay)

This, I am sure, is not a complete history of our family, but I have attempted to put a few things down on paper for future reference since our children and grandchildren are bound to want to know something about the history of our family.  I hope this proves to be interesting to family members—as it was interesting [to me] to try to finally write it—quite a challenge.  Had planned to do this after I retired, but figured this was a good time to do it since I could give copies of it to the family members who attend the picnic [in Alexandria, Va.] this year.

October 13, 1994

I am enclosing information on our family.  Honestly, it seems like I will never finish it.  Luckily, Uncle George [Knighton] is doing a lot of research on the family at the Mormon Church Genealogy Center at Alexandria, Va., where he lives.  Also, . . . Rick [Lamplugh] and his wife did some searching on the Knighton-Lamplugh families when they were travelling through Utah this summer.  Like I told my brother George, even though no one else in the family is really interested, I get a great satisfaction out of knowing that I did this.  Still ha[ve] more info to search [for]. . . [which is proving] hard to do because most of the relatives are now deceased and the younger members of the family (in my age group) do not have much info.  Well, we are doing all we can. . . . [Included in the packet containing this letter was a 1987 version of the “Dobson and Knighton Family” as well as printouts on the Dobson-Knighton families from the Mormon Center.  For more on George and the other Knightons, see Part II.]

Rus and Betts (December 1944)

November 14, 1994

The enclosed baby shoe was yours, Rus, and I thought you might enjoy seeing it.  I had to clean out the bedroom closet and found it in a bag of “memories.”  I had sent you and Rick (and Judy) the family pictures that I was lucky enough to keep all these years but forgot to send the shoe—guess you could say it was an antique? . . . Seems like I can’t throw away very many things—sentimental, huh?

March 28, 1995

I am sending a far from perfect bit of [my] life. . . . Kind of started in the middle—but maybe if I can think back a lot further I may be able to do something about my (our) early years.  We will see.  Am I on the right track—or is there some other way to do this[?]  Kind of feel like a lot of things are best forgotten.  [Included with Part 2 of Betts’ memoir, “Slub of Slife,” which carried her story from 1945 to 1964.]

Betts (holding Judy) and Rus, in 1947

April 5, 1995

. . . After you called last week I checked to see if I had Ginny England Bachman’s address—and I did.  I called her on Sunday and really did surprise her.  Haven’t talked to her since 1989 when her brother died. . . . [S]he gave me [her sister] Betty’s address and I wrote to Betty—maybe we will find out that she really did teach you to tie your shoes.  It amazed me that you remembered that.  Memory like an elephant, like me, huh? [See Part IV for Ginny and Betty England’s role in Betts’s life during World War II.]

July 8, 1995

. . . Wanted to try and mail this “work of art” today.  Will no doubt bore you to tears, but guess this is the way my childhood was.  Good thing my Mom and Dad and doctor took such good care of me, look how long I have lived.  Surely never expected to make 65, let alone 72.  [Sent with Part 1 of  Betts’ memoir,“Slub of Slife,” which told her story from 1923 through World War II.]

March 25, 1996

[My brother] George [Knighton] and I have pretty much completed the family project.  I have been told by several people who read my articles about our family [i.e., the “Slub of Slife” memoir] that I skipped a few years between part one and part two—and they are right.  Told them this is a “Mystery story.”  Maybe I will get around to finishing it but I make no promises.  Since the weather has been awful this winter, one would think I could have finished it all by now, but I get depressed and that is no time to have to think about the past, present, or future.  [Grandsons Drew and Keith, daughter Judy, and brother Bob had already moved, or would shortly be moving, from Newark.]  I feel like someone stole my “security blanket,” but I will adjust to that change as I have had to do in the past.  I HATE CHANGE. . . . Well, since I have long been accustomed to my family being on their own—and Rus & Rick and their families miles away, [Georgia and Oregon, respectively], all this should be easier.  If I was younger I am sure it would be.  My Mom and Dad had 6 children, 5 of whom lived away from this area—if they could adjust to that, I am sure I can, too.

April 4, 1996

. . . Wanted to send the article [J.B., an old friend] wrote about his time in the military (U.S. Marines) during WW II.  He said that anything he says about the Army [Rus’ branch of service] is not personal, so you should overlook that.  Also, this was not edited by any professional—so please overlook any errors in English or grammar.  That goes for any of my effort, too, but I guess you already knew that. [For more on J.B., see Part IV.]

Old friend Evelyn Jacobs and Betts (in front of 50 Choate Street)

November 8, 1997

About two weeks ago, Evelyn Jacobs and her daughter Sue came for a short visit from Baltimore.  Haven’t enjoyed myself like that in a long time.  We had a lot to talk about because we have known each other since about 1950—they were our neighbors [on Helicopter Dr., Middle River, Md.]—and more like family than just friends.  Talking over old times is always very interesting.  Ev and I agree that we are glad we raised our family back in the good old post-war days—raising children these days is like a war—tough to win. [See Part V for this period in Betts’ life.]

July 27, 1998

I thought you might be interested in this article—since it does mention Joe Lofthouse, a friend of your father’s when he was in the Maryland National Guard.  They were in the Guard around 1939-1940 and were taken into the regular Army following the Dec. 8, 1941, declaration of war.  When I met your Dad, he was stationed at Fort Meade, Md.  Eventually Joe and Ben decided they wanted to join the Paratroops and were sent to Ft. Benning, Ga., for basic training.  After basic they went to Ft. Bragg, N.C.  Ben was in the 82nd Airborne Div. and Joe ended up in the 101st Airborne Div., but I don’t know any details about Joe’s service, except that he was in the 101st during the Normandy invasion and lots of other missions.

Your dad did not remain in the 82nd because he was hurt in a “jump” and was transferred to a Field Artillery outfit at Camp Rucker, Ala.  After several months training his outfit went to Hawaii, and then on to Japan.  They expected to be involved in the war with Japan, but that did not happen.

I spent some time in Fayetteville, N.C., when your dad was stationed there—and did meet Joe Lofthouse and his wife Aggie—enjoyed time we spent there.  Sure heard a lot of stories from Joe and Ben about the time they spent in the Nat[ional] Guard and regular Army.  They really were “characters” to remember!!!

Betts and grandson David (1994)

November 8, 1999

[I] received a letter from a woman in Roswell, Ga., whose grandparents had lived in this house [50 Choate St., Newark, Delaware] back in 1915-1918.  She wanted to find out if the house was still standing.  What a surprise!!  I did write to her—short note—to let her know the house has been in our family since 1923.  When I checked the old deeds to the house, I found that her grandparents’ names were on it.  Her grandmother sold the house in 1921 and granddad [George T.] Dobson bought it from the new owner in 1923.  I plan to send her a picture of the house and some other info.  I think she is researching her family.  Also, she lives in the area near [you] and [your wife] Faith—4 postal zones away! [For more on the “back story” of the Dobson-Knighton house at 50 Choate St., see Part III.]

April 9, 2000

My brother George [Knighton] died suddenly last Wednesday [March 28]—heart attack—at age 73—would have been 74 in July.  It certainly was a big shock to all of us.  He and his family live in [the] Alexandria, Va., area.  We haven’t visited each other often but since his retirement we did keep in touch by phone, and he did a lot of the family [history] on his computer.  Hard to accept the fact that he is no longer with us.

Betts in front of her future “room” at the home of her daughter and son-in-law in Lewes, Delaware (2003)

April 27, 2000

I know I haven’t been writing as often [as] I should, but I will try to do better.  The loss of my brother George has really been tough for all of us—devastating to all.  His own family is in shock since he was not ill or anything like that.  I know we shouldn’t question this, but that is the way it is for me—I’m the oldest in our family [now], but I never expected to . . . reach the ripe old age of 77.

June 1, 2000

Holidays are kind of hard to handle since I am mostly alone at those times.  My family sure is scattered around and have their own lives. . . . Sure has been a rough year for the whole family.  Have been trying to kind of finish up on the family [history] thing I have been doing the past 12 years since I retired.  Actually, I started getting info about 20 years ago.  I have been having copies made of pictures of family members—some taken in the 1920s-1950s.  I was fortunate enough to have spent time in my life with my own parents, grandparents, and even my great grandmother.  Think it is time for me to finish it—but I have enjoyed doing all this.

Betts and granddaughter Allison (2004)

April 24, 2003

It is nice not to be alone.  Judy and Jay [Bestpitch] are very thoughtful and appreciate me because I finally realized it was time to make this decision [to sell her Newark home and move in with her daughter and son-in-law in Lewes, Delaware].  They were right–but it is hard to adjust in a way.  Newark was my home for such a long time.  I feel at home now [in Lewes]–don’t know why I was so long making up my mind.  Guess I didn’t want to give up my independence!  Guess I just had to prove I could be an independent person the past years.

* * * * *

At the Country Rest Home

Additional Sources  (Series)

Rick and Mary Lamplugh, The Best of Betts.  This is a “memory book,” prepared for Betts and her caretakers, first at a rest home and then in a personal care home.  I have drawn freely on this work, especially the photographs, to help put Betts’ words into context.

Finally, my deepest thanks and appreciation to my siblings, Judy Bestpitch and Rick Lamplugh, for their support of this project from start to finish.  I couldn’t have done it without them.



Posted in American History, family history, genealogy, Historical Reflection, History, memoir, Retirement, Uncategorized, WP Long Read | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Hillbillies

A Review of

J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.


[NOTE:  An inveterate reader of op-eds, I was well aware of this book months before I bought it. According to commentators across the American political spectrum, Hillbilly Elegy was a work to be reckoned with; one reviewer even described it as the “Rosetta Stone” for those who were really interested in understanding the political appeal of 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to the white working class in the so-called “Rust Belt.”  Liberal and progressive columnists generally opined that Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton would ignore Vance’s findings only at her peril; conservative writers found hope that the Republican Party’s policy prescriptions might prevail, even if some of them clearly doubted that Mr. Trump could, or should, win.

And yet, this book is not about candidate Trump. Rather, as the subtitle indicates, the author is concerned with “a Family” (his own) and a “Culture” (that of the white working class in the industrial Midwest and Upper South, many ex-pats from Appalachia ) that he sees as “in Crisis.” Op-ed writers and others among the northeastern cognoscenti only latched onto Vance’s work when their own efforts to “explain” the Trump phenomenon were proven wrong.]

* * * * *

Like many Appalachian natives during the 1940s, J.D. Vance’s grandparents, Jim and Bonnie Vance, whom he refers to as “Papaw” and “Mamaw,” left home (in their case, a “holler” near Jackson, Kentucky) and moved to the industrial Midwest in search of steady work.  Papaw found a good-paying job at the Armco steel plant in Middletown, Ohio, and things looked rosy, at least for a time.

Yet, as had been the case a generation earlier, when thousands of African Americans abandoned the Jim Crow South for economic opportunities in Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, white Appalachian migrants like the Vances experienced culture shock that they never outgrew.  The elder Vances had brought their “hillbilly” culture with them.  They clung stubbornly to the American dream, especially their faith that education would improve the lives of their three children, but cultural dissonance and family dysfunction were everywhere.

And, if that wasn’t enough, those “good jobs” eventually disappeared, thanks to technological innovation, automation, globalization, the steady decline of labor unions, and business decisions made in the interests of corporate and shareholder welfare, no matter their effects on the workforce.

J.D. Vance describes “hillbilly” culture as “a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism” that could produce “a sometimes explosive mix.” (41)  For example, Papaw was a violent drunk while his wife proved to be a violent non-drunk.  Mamaw once threatened to kill Papaw if he ever came home drunk again, but he ignored his wife’s warning.  The next time Papaw passed out on the sofa, Mamaw set him afire with gasoline; although Jim Vance survived the ordeal, his marriage was fractured.  Papaw moved to another house in the same neighborhood but still spent time with Mamaw, and their grandchildren moved easily between them.

J.D.’s mother, Bev, was also a piece of work. She became pregnant while still in high school, married early, and embarked on a life featuring a series of husbands and boyfriends, as well as regular bouts of drug addiction.  J.D. and his older sister Lindsay looked out for each other as best they could and found support from their grandparents when their mother was indisposed or otherwise unavailable.

Papaw died when J.D. was thirteen; his sister Lindsay married shortly thereafter; his mother’s addiction kicked in again; and his life threatened to careen out of control. Mamaw eventually allowed J.D. to live with her so he could finish high school, which he believed saved him, and he was also taken in hand by a teacher, who reinforced Mamaw’s maxim about the importance of education if he were to “make something of himself.”

And did he ever!  Feeling unprepared for college, J.D. chose after high school a tour of duty in the U.S. Marines, just as the first Iraq War broke out. Basic training replaced the “learned helplessness” of Vance’s youth with the “learned willfulness” of the Corps, and enabled him to “live like an adult,” even in the face of Mamaw’s death and his mother’s continuing escapades with significant others, drugs, and time spent in rehab.

His military service behind him, Vance attended Ohio State University, where he graduated in less than two years, thanks to his military-induced self-discipline, truly impressive work ethic, and native intelligence. Then it was on to, of all places for this self-conscious “hillbilly,” Yale University Law School, where the generous financial aid package he was offered made his acceptance a foregone conclusion. Three years later, the newly-minted attorney and his wife Usha, a law school classmate who had taken him in hand and “civilized” him, became law clerks in northern Kentucky.  Thereafter, Vance took his talents to Silicon Valley, where he was very successful financially.

* * * * *

In trying to draw from his own experiences broader lessons about the culture in which he had been raised, Vance does more than simply assume his family’s experiences were typical.  He frequently draws upon studies in sociology and economics that place “hillbilly” culture in a broader context. Vance rejects as insufficient the usual argument that the Rust Belt’s white working class was suffering solely from “economic insecurity.”  He describes instead “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it,” producing “a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” (7)

His grandmother’s insistence that J.D. hold down an after school job taught him a lot about American society, or so he believed.  He saw evidence of class divisions everywhere, and he gradually came to resent those of his fellow “have-nots” who lacked a work ethic, learned how to “game” the welfare system, and seemed “content to live off the dole.” (139)  That belief led Vance to formulate an alternative explanation for the decisive swing from the Democratic to the Republican party by Appalachian and southern whites who saw the world as he did:   This seismic change, he contends, had less to do with the Democrats’ pro-civil rights stance or the influence of Evangelical church leaders than with the Democratic commitment to continue the welfare state.  To Vance, the “hillbilly elegy” is “a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” (145)

Vance also maintains that hillbilly patriotism, or “love of country,” was unfathomable—perhaps even funny—to “people on the Acela corridor.” (189)   Barack Obama was viewed from Middletown as an alien, a President who “strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities.” Moreover, when the mainstream media defended Obama against the ridiculous accusations of the “birthers” that Obama had not been born in the U.S. and was thus not eligible for the presidency, people Vance knew in Middletown believed that “the free press—that bulwark of American democracy—is simply full of shit.” (191-192)

In looking towards the future, Vance returns to the social sciences, this time citing a study showing that “no group of Americans [is] more pessimistic that working-class whites,” and another finding economic opportunity and the prospects of social mobility for children in the United State unequally distributed geographically, with kids in the South, the Rust Belt, and Appalachia continuing to struggle.  Among the factors cited to explain this are the prevalence of single parents and income inequality, which suggests to Vance that social services need to be reformed so that they can actually help children like the ones he grew up with.

Vance concludes that “the government” cannot “fix” every problem, and that it does no good simply to blame either the President or the government for this systemic failure.  Rather, he argues, it is more important to “ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” (265)  And Vance seems ready to take his own advice:  he is, according to recent reports, planning a move to Columbus, Ohio, to launch an organization to tackle the opioid epidemic in the region where he grew up.

* * * * *

Whatever one thinks about J.D. Vance’s prescriptions for administering public policy CPR to the Rust Belt’s white working class, this book is an engrossing read.  The account of growing up amid family dysfunction, clashing cultures, and economic decline is powerful—and at times scarifying.  The reader eagerly follows Vance’s quest for social and economic redemption, a decent chance to live out the “American Dream,” wondering how he will avoid the fate of so many of his friends and relatives caught up in the clash between “hillbilly culture” and the declining Industrial Midwest.

And, when Vance actually does make it from Middletown and the Rust Belt to the Marine Corps, Ohio State, Yale Law, and Silicon Valley, he is careful to point out landmarks along his escape route:  the influence of certain family members (especially Mamaw, Papaw, and Vance’s older sister Lindsay); Usha, the woman who helped him through law school, taught him to function among the upwardly mobile, and became his wife; the importance of finding a mentor or two along the way; the power of networking; and unusually good luck. Although it seems unlikely that many of those Vance is determined to help will be able to duplicate his success, the story of his escape to a better life remains both eye-opening and inspiring.


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Additional Sources:

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016); Chapter 10 (especially, pp. 256-261)

J.D. Vance, TED Talk, “America’s Forgotten Working Class” (Sept. 2016)

Vance, NYT op-ed, “Why I’m Moving Home,” Mar. 16, 2017

Vance interview, “Washington Journal,” CSPAN, Dec. 18, 2016

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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)

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



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