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A Life in History
When C. Vann Woodward died, on December 17, the celebrated Southern historian and author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow left a legacy that included fundamental changes in the way America deals with issues of racial separation.

In 1961, when C. Vann Woodward decided to leave Johns Hopkins University to become Sterling Professor of History at Yale, everyone in the history department here celebrated. Woodward was already reputed to be the most distinguished historian of the South and one whose works had successfully challenged older versions of Southern history since Reconstruction.

Woodward was actually the third major scholar of Southern history to have taught at Yale in the 20th century. Ulrich B. Phillips, an exceptionally popular teacher who was an authority on slavery and the antebellum period, trained many students in the 1920s and 1930s. David M. Potter, whom Phillips had taught, and who had undertaken remarkable studies on the coming of the Civil War, was the second distinguished Southern historian at Yale until he resigned to accept a position at Stanford University.

Potter and Woodward had been undergraduate classmates at Emory University in Atlanta. Woodward remembered that he and Potter had become friends and had sat side by side in a very dull American history course. Because Woodward’s writings had focused on the South since 1877, chronologically at least, he seemed to be the logical successor at Yale to his friend Potter.

Yale historians and graduate students were soon to be even more pleased with their gracious, handsome, outgoing new colleague when they realized that although Woodward was a southerner from Arkansas, he was not a “professional” southerner. Indeed, they were fascinated by not one, but a series of books that were far more complex and expressed a critical—sometimes tragic—view of the South since Reconstruction. In his 1938 biography, Tom Watson, about a man whom most historians had seen as a violent racist demagogue, Woodward found that in his youth Watson was more of an idealist who had actually supported black participation in the Southern Populist Movement of the 1890s, before dramatically turning against black Americans, Jews, and Catholics in his later years. But the biography also effectively challenged the common belief that Southern Populism was itself a backward-looking, narrow, negative, political movement. After Tom Watson, however, Southern Populism came to be seen as a much more positive third-party reform movement.

Tom Watson was followed by Woodward’s magisterial Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, published in 1951, in which he asserted that the so-called “New School” of Southern history, which argued that after 1900 the South was safely set on a national road to “peace, progress and prosperity,” was incorrect. Origins of the New South demonstrated that the economic and political leadership of the so-called Southern Redeemers had often been marked by corruption and that blacks and poor whites had been kept in poverty.

Then in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published in 1955, a year after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education had declared segregation of races in schools unconstitutional, Woodward pointed out that the existing rigid laws segregating blacks and whites in the South had not always been on the books, but had been imposed on blacks during the 1890s. The publication of The Strange Career of Jim Crow not only coincided with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it also provided historical justification for questioning segregation, and led Martin Luther King Jr. to declare that it was the “historical Bible” of the movement. By 1999, The Strange Career of Jim Crow had sold a million copies and was listed by the Modern Library as one of the 100 most outstanding nonfiction books of the twentieth century.

Many graduate students hoped that they had found in Woodward an activist historian who would point the way in his classes to a better, more democratic America. They were surprised and initially disappointed when, in his seminars, Woodward used the Socratic method of questioning all of their assumptions in order to elicit a clear expression of issues and facts. He questioned the findings of their research papers in similar fashion. One result, recalls a former Woodward student, was that he “taught us to think for ourselves and to present our own conclusions clearly and persuasively. At the same time he listened carefully to what you had to say and sometimes changed his own views as a result of a student’s research.” In fact, some students openly questioned Woodward’s own interpretations of Southern history; he listened with utmost attention, great courtesy, and good humor, occasionally joking that they were not supposed to treat their teachers this way. That sense of humor was recalled by Woodward research assistant Michael McGerr '76, ‘84PhD, who remembers meeting Woodward in the Yale Co-op one day. The historian looked slightly puzzled, and McGerr asked if he could help. “Yes,” said Woodward, with a twinkle in his eye, “I am looking for the greatest word processor ever invented—a pencil.”

Listening to others challenging him and responding thoughtfully became a hallmark of Woodward’s scholarly career. When prominent critics pointed out an omission or flaw in his works, or disagreed with his conclusions, Woodward patiently explored the issue and did more research until he had either changed his mind or chose (to use a favorite word of his) to remain “unrepentant.”

Anyone who came to know Woodward well, however, soon discovered how deeply he had always believed in racial integration and equality for black Americans. When he was a student and a young teacher in Atlanta, he befriended such black leaders as Saunders Redding. He also spent a summer in New York where he visited Harlem and got to know Langston Hughes, the black poet and playwright, and even tried unsuccessfully to persuade W. E. B. DuBois to allow him to write the latter’s biography. Later Woodward and John Hope Franklin worked together on a history of reconstruction that was to be part of a report to the Supreme Court when it was considering civil rights cases. It came as no surprise to those who knew him that Woodward joined Martin Luther King Jr. on the famous civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital, in 1965. In his friendly, courteous way, Woodward pointedly questioned President Kingman Brewster about the nature of Yale’s first Black Studies program, which he feared might lead to a new form of segregation by offering separate courses.

Undoubtedly all the members of the history department recall with pleasure Woodward’s faithful attendance at weekly lunches and the many parties given by the Woodwards at their home. He joined his colleagues John Blum and Edmund Morgan, as a coauthor of a highly successful text book, The National Experience (published in 1963), which went through many editions.

In addition, he shared ideas with David Brion Davis, the late John Blassingame, Peter Gay, and his former student Robin Winks, and he formed close friendships with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia historian who mostly disagreed with Woodward’s positive views of populism, became a close friend. One of my most vivid and pleasurable memories was of a weekly gathering of history professors at the home of Law School professor Alexander Bickel for freewheeling and often brilliant discussions of current Supreme Court decisions and civil rights issues.

It was typical of Woodward that in explaining the South both to itself and to the nation that he felt the explanation should have a larger purpose—indeed, a moral purpose. During the 1950s he became so concerned that America’s boastfulness about its victories in war and as a world power, combined with a continuing belief in its innocence and virtue as a nation, did not square with the Southern heritage of slavery and defeat in the Civil War, nor with the historical experiences of other nations. The result was his 1960 book The Burden of Southern History. In it, Woodward sought to warn the nation that its age of innocence was over and that the public should look at the South’s sometimes tragic past as a sobering lesson. In a few years’ time the urban riots and the defeat in Vietnam seemed to prove his point.

What is most revealing is that Woodward was inspired, in part, by Reinhold Niebuhr’s powerful treatise, The Irony of American History, in which the theologian urged Americans to put aside their illusions of innocence along with self-righteousness, complacency, and humorless idealism and face up to the ironic implications of our history. Simultaneously Woodward’s candid approach to the South’s past was inspired by Southern novelists, poets, and playwrights, and especially by Robert Penn Warren, who he felt had “accepted the Southern past and its burden without evasion or defensiveness or 'special' pleading,” and had succeeded, as had Faulkner and Walker Percy in bringing the world to their works on the South. Why, Woodward asked, should Southern historians not profit from this example?

Over the years, Woodward especially praised Robert Penn Warren for his complex attitudes towards history. The depth of their mutual respect and affection, and a common devotion to explaining the South, is epitomized by the story that Warren died while listening to a reading of one of Woodward’s Jefferson lectures.

That Woodward—like Faulkner and Warren—had succeeded in his goal of explaining the South to the world was obvious in virtually every obituary or printed tribute published after his death. Calling him “the voice of reason,” the Montgomery Advertiser wrote that “with an insight few historians could begin to match, C. Vann Woodward chronicled the past of his native South and forced his Southern readers to confront it honestly. At the same time he illuminated our region for other Americans.”

After his retirement from Yale in 1977, Woodward lectured in the United States and abroad while keeping up with a host of friends and colleagues with whom he delighted in discussions of history, new novels, world affairs, and how a political figure from his native Arkansas was doing in the White House. When I visited Woodward in his Hamden home, I found him sitting in a chair surrounded by copies of books to be reviewed, and tapes of Mozart, Vivaldi, and Jessye Norman next to his stereo.

If one of Woodward’s greatest accomplishments was to give Americans, both North and South, a more realistic sense of their own identity, he also provided something else equally valuable: his “telling it like it was” was actually an expression of free speech and academic freedom, two ultimate civil rights that promised to guarantee justice by exercising everyone’s right to question and challenge. One might even say that Woodward practiced the Socratic method not only in the classroom but also in his scholarship—and in everything he said or did.  the end


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