Southerners are said to be obsessed with their own history. It’s true, belying that old dictum that history is always written by the winners. Even now, well into the 21st century, I find myself wading into the murky waters of that Southern obsession with the past, which invariably goes back to slavery and the War.
This obsession animates the 2016 book I have just finished reading, The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade, by historian Charles B. Dew. And I feel it in myself as I riffle through about 40 pounds of family files I recently hauled up from Atlanta to Virginia.
Charles Dew, a professor at Williams College, has written books about antebellum industrial production in Virginia that used slave labor and a book about the secession commissioners who brought on the Civil War (Apostles of Disunion). But The Making of a Racist is different, a personal narrative that is half about his own growing up in segregated St. Petersburg, Fla., in the 1940s and ‘50s and half about how it feels for a historian to read documents about the business of the South’s flourishing slave traffic.
He stitches the two halves together skillfully, painfully. The banal mercantile language of the slave buyers and sellers is almost exactly the same as that of livestock traders. Cotton and slave prices rise together with the intoxicating power of an economic bubble in the 1850s. It had become just another face of capitalism, protected by the Constitution. Long after the African slave-shipping trade was abolished, Richmond auction houses sold slaves bred by the thousands, often in families that were then torn apart by that hot market.
Southern apologists for slavery, by then, had worked out their sacred dogma of white supremacy. One of these early apologists, the historian Dew confesses, was an ancestor of his named Thomas Roderick Dew, who wrote in the 1830s of Virginia as “a negro raising state.” T.R. Dew proposed that these slaves were “harmless and happy” but could be turned into “dark designing and desperate rebels” by those sinister northern abolitionists.
After World War II, the Jim Crow system that became the Southern way of life for young Charles Dew was softer, of course, but the underlying assumptions were the same, he argues. Whites believed that race relations, under segregation, were good, that Sambo books were funny, and that maids like the one the Dews employed were loyal and content, if only the NAACP and other outside agitators didn’t stir things up. Charles Dew, as a teenager, began to stray from the conservative attitudes of his gruff lawyer father and polished upper-class mother. He drove their maid home and visited with her. He went far off to Williams College in Massachusetts, learning just how much of a “Southern white” he was. He studied Southern history. He changed.
I recognize the white South of Dew’s youth, because its fading details still lingered in my salad days in Atlanta in the 1960s and early ‘70s. The roots of his family tree go deep into 19th century Tennessee and West Virginia, while mine go back at least as far in Georgia history. The letters and other documents I’m pawing through from my parents’ file cabinet and boxes tell stories that I have known most of my life. I always took a quiet pride in these stories.
In contrast to Charles Dew’s pro-slavery ancestor, mine in the Cumming line were lawyers whose letters and speeches tended to be about the dignity of the law, the virtue of public service, the charm of classical and romantic literature, and the need for industrial uplift in their fair city, Augusta. My grandfather Joseph B. Cumming was an FDR and LBJ Democrat. He served in the 1920s on an inter-racial committee to address racial problems and in the 1940s led a reform movement against the corrupt “Cracker Party” in the Georgia legislature. His son, my father, was ready for the civil rights movement as a liberal Democrat. More than that, he was in the middle of the movement, covering it for Newsweek magazine.
In one folder, I found a photo of him interviewing civil rights hero Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham in 1963, the two pressed together from behind by a group of blacks on the move.
Reading my family’s papers, I don’t experience the kind of guilt that waylaid Dew as he unearthed the past. But I have been disconcerted by something I found in the family record. It’s not exactly racist, but is related. What I found was a prickly defensiveness. The Confederate army fought a good defensive war, and its descendants have remained defensive ever since.
It’s a matter of honor and reputation. I can’t argue with the defense when it is based on evidence and history, as it is with my family. Still, it was disorienting for me to find the old defensiveness coming from my own flesh and blood, because I know that this protective pose has always been one of the main reasons white Southerners are incapable of facing what Charles Dew experiences as our deep collective sin.
My mother died peacefully a few months ago at age 90. Back in 1980, she wrote a well-researched family history constructed around her great-grandfather, Maxwell Rufus Berry, who waited out the Civil War as a money clerk in downtown Atlanta. He didn’t care about slavery or politics; he cared about business. True, he had friends and relatives who were Union sympathizers. But he was not a Unionist himself, my mother wrote in her Berry family history. The distinction was important.
So in a letter to the director of the Atlanta History Center, she said she was “shocked” to see Maxwell Berry described in an ad for a Georgia public TV feature, “Georgia’s Civil War,” as a Union sympathizer. He was a “non-combatant,” she said. Not that my mother admired our ancestor’s “practical and self-serving realism.”
A far more lavish Southern defensiveness I found in a nine-page single-spaced letter that my grandfather, the Augusta lawyer, wrote to journalist James Wooten in 1978.
Wooten, a New York Times reporter based in Atlanta and later with ABC News (not to be confused with an Atlanta Journal columnist with the same name), had published a biography of the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter. My grandfather’s letter criticized the subtle but pervasive anti-Southern bias that he detected in that biography, Dasher. It’s an essay-worthy letter, typed on the stiff stationery of the Augusta law firm from which he had retired and withdrawn the Cumming name.
He complains about Wooten rendering quotes phonetically, such as Miss Lillian saying “negra.” He questions why Wooten made a point of the local pronunciation of Albany, Ga., as Al-BIN-y. My Granddaddy was known for his florid vocabulary, his extraordinary recall of Shakespeare and other literary touchstones, and his powerful courtroom manner, in the tradition of an earlier Augusta lawyer whose oratorical sway of juries was said to be grounds for an appeal.
“My son, Joe, tells me that you regard yourself as a Southerner,” Granddaddy writes, but then sets Wooten straight. Atlanta, he says, is no more Southern than St. Augustine is Spanish or Mobile is French. Lest Wooten think this Augusta lawyer is provincial, Granddaddy notes that he was in boarding school, Princeton, Harvard Law and the Army outside his native Deep South, and in his youth was quite taken by it all. But with mature judgment, he came to regard everything north of the Potomac a mere “sub-culture” with few of the abiding standards and virtues of the ages.
In fact, he argues, it’s New Yorkers who are ignorant of the correct “iambic” pronunciation of “Albany,” he writes. (“Witness the half dozen largest cities in Georgia where the accent is on the penult.”) Wooten’s attempt at local dialect reminded Granddaddy of what Shakespeare did in Henry V with the Welsh speech of Fluellen (“The Welshman in the Globe Theater when that play was performed was not amused”).
Granddaddy was not amused. Or maybe he was – amused with himself. He cites historical tidbits that range from the Edict of Caligula to what he claims were the peculiar causes of the 1970 racial disturbance in Augusta – a city, he says, with a long history of racial harmony. His arguments sound original and even charming, full of the kind of historical flourishes we always enjoyed hearing from him. He was chairman of the Georgia Historical Commission, president of the Georgia Bar, a national advisor on historic preservation and an honorary Cherokee Indian. He wrote long well-reasoned arguments against Nixon, against pure laissez-faire capitalism, against Christian fundamentalism. . . and all in perfect rhyming couplets, in the 18th century style. He seemed to know everything and everybody.
But the defensiveness I found unbecoming. Granddaddy, not quite digging the journalistic style of Wooten (or his son or me, who also became a journalist), in this letter spoils his few gracious comments with peevish insults. Words like “supercilious” “derisive,” “patronizing,” and “offensive” call to mind the luxurious language of Southern gentlemen making a challenge for a duel. Granddaddy knew the old insulting vocabulary of the code duello. He had written a monograph about the duels between his distant ancestor William Cumming (for whom Cumming, Ga., is named) and a governor of South Carolina. In a note I found addressed to my father, he complains – self-mockingly, I hope – about a “base, false, perfidious, whoreson knave” who had failed to return one of his books.
The defensiveness, in the end, is a cover-up. At one point, Granddaddy criticizes Wooten for mentioning that a train’s passenger car was segregated. “So what’s new?” he writes, calling segregation at that time an immutable part of the then-existing circumstances of life. “None objected and all recognized that it was desirable, eliminating possible friction.” Granddaddy was buried in the historic Summerville Cemetery on Cumming Road some thirty-three years ago.
I have no wish to blame my eminent, idealistic Granddaddy for his worldview any more than he was willing to blame his segregationist forebears for being products of their time. It is not blame so much as blindness that Charles Dew tries to reveal in the white South, a moral blindness in the slave auctioneers, in his parents, and in himself. If we can see that blindness in the past, maybe we can begin to see it in our day too, and see to see.