During the 1950s and 1960s, a generation of academics rose to prominence in the United States with books and essays that breached the wall separating the university and the broader public. Many of them were historians, including Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Invocations of history punctuated debates over the Cold War, civil rights and Vietnam. But none of these ‘public intellectuals’ reached a larger audience or had a greater social and political impact than C. Vann Woodward, whose books and essays concerned the nation’s most enduring problem, racial inequality. Historians are often warned about the dangers of ‘presentism’. But Woodward demonstrated that history can illuminate the world in which the scholar lives. Readers who sought to understand the civil rights revolution that dismantled the Southern racial system of Jim Crow turned to Woodward’s writings. By the time he died in 1999, many of his historical findings had been challenged by younger historians and Woodward himself had become disaffected with trends in both the writing of history and the struggle for racial justice. Yet he was widely considered, to borrow the subtitle of James Cobb’s new biography, America’s historian.
Most historians are not very introspective and lead uneventful lives, making things difficult for their biographers. So it’s understandable that Cobb, a historian at the University of Georgia, focuses almost entirely on Woodward’s intellectual and political career. Drawing on his subject’s writings and his voluminous papers at Yale, where Woodward taught from 1961 to 1977, Cobb portrays a scholar impatient with the mythologies, distortions and misguided hero worship that for most of the 20th century inhibited discussion of the South’s many problems.
Born in 1908 in Vanndale, a small town in Arkansas that serviced the area’s cotton economy, Comer Vann Woodward was a member of a prominent local family (Vanndale had been named after his mother’s family). Woodward understood early that the Jim Crow system, built on the disenfranchisement of Black voters, lynching, racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system, made a travesty of the country’s supposed commitment to equality and opportunity. Where did his rebellious outlook originate? Cobb credits the influence of his uncle and namesake, Comer, who wasn’t afraid to denounce the local Ku Klux Klan. There were other influences, too. While working on a master’s degree at Columbia in 1931-32, Woodward met Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and other African American writers and activists. In the summer of 1932, he travelled to Europe; his itinerary included a visit to the Soviet Union. On his return, he became involved in the defence of Angelo Herndon, a Black communist convicted of violating Georgia’s 19th-century ‘insurrection’ law, originally intended to discourage slave rebellions, by organising Black and white factory workers. The Herndon case became an international cause célèbre and led to a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the statute as a violation of freedom of speech. (Woodward’s experience working with communists did not escape the notice of the FBI. In 1951, he was denied security clearance for an appointment as historical adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) In the summer of 1935, Woodward came face to face with the dire poverty of tenant farmers while working for a New Deal agency surveying social conditions in rural Georgia.
Like any complex social system, Jim Crow required ideological legitimation. As Woodward later wrote, historians who were united in their ‘dedication to the present order’ helped to provide it. By the 1930s, a distinctive account of history had become an orthodoxy among white Southerners, endlessly reiterated in classrooms and on public monuments. It rested on a number of axioms: slavery had been a benign institution; the Confederacy was a glorious Lost Cause; Reconstruction – the experiment in biracial democracy that followed the Civil War – was a time of misgovernment and corruption; the self-styled Redeemers, who rescued the South from the supposed horrors of ‘Negro rule’ by overthrowing Reconstruction, were the inheritors of the values of the Old South; a New South was emerging and with it the promise of widespread prosperity. This dogma held sway even at the University of North Carolina, a centre of Southern liberalism, where Woodward earned his doctorate. In 1935, he wrote to a friend that he had ‘not gleaned a single scholarly idea from any professor’. Things changed later that year, however, with the arrival of Howard K. Beale.
Beale was a disciple of the historian Charles Beard, who taught that political ideology was a mask for economic self-interest. Beale had recently published The Critical Year, in which he followed Beard in viewing the Civil War not as a struggle over slavery but as a second American Revolution, which transferred political power from Southern planters to Northern industrialists. The Radical Republicans of the era were less interested in the rights of the former slaves than in using Black votes to help fasten Northern economic control on the defeated South. For the rest of his career, Woodward remained something of a Beardian. In the acknowledgments to one of his books, he paid tribute to Beard as the ‘dean of historians’.
Woodward received his doctorate in 1937. Over the next two decades he produced four books that established him as one of the most influential historical voices of his generation: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), a slightly revised version of his dissertation; Reunion and Reaction (1951), in which he argued in good Beardian fashion that railroad magnates were the key architects of the ‘bargain’ that resolved the disputed election of 1876 and ended Reconstruction; Origins of the New South (1951), an all-out critique of the political and social order created by the Redeemers; and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), an examination of the origins of segregation. These books demolished every important feature of the orthodox historical credo. The revered Redeemers were not the direct descendants of Old South planters but a new class of business-oriented merchants and industrialists, closely linked to the North. The state regimes they headed were as guilty of corruption as they claimed Southern governments had been during Reconstruction. Contrary to received wisdom, the New South was a ‘stunted neocolonial economy’, whose sharecropping and credit systems consigned Black and white tenant farmers alike to peonage. Even though some of Woodward’s arguments inspired spirited rebuttal, these books established the agenda for generations of historians of the 19th-century South.
This was presentism in the service of radical social change. Woodward hoped to discredit the existing Southern ruling class by exposing the ‘ethical bankruptcy’ of the Redeemers, from whom they claimed descent. Moreover, history, he insisted, offered home-grown alternatives to Jim Crow. In his biography of Tom Watson, Woodward traced the transformation of a leader of the People’s Party, or Populists, from an advocate of political and economic co-operation among Black and white small farmers into a vicious racist, the only possible route to electoral success once the region’s elite had eliminated Black voting. In the early 1890s, Watson had brought to mixed-race audiences the message that small farmers of both races shared the same economic interests and should unite in common cause. For decades, Woodward would defend the historical reputation of the People’s Party, especially against the criticism of his friend Richard Hofstadter, who argued that the insurgent farmers exemplified the way Americans suffering from economic decline turned to conspiracy theories and cultural hatreds to understand their plight. Woodward would later yield to critics who insisted that he had exaggerated the extent and sincerity of white populists’ appeal for Black support. ‘It was a book for the 1930s and of the 1930s,’ he explained. Today, when ‘populist’ is commonly used as a term of abuse, promiscuously applied to figures who share nothing in common, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it remains striking how long Woodward insisted that far from representing what Hofstadter called the ‘paranoid style’ of American politics, the People’s Party had advanced ‘one of the most thoroughgoing critiques of corporate America and its culture we have had’.
A different road not taken was central to Woodward’s argument in The Strange Career of Jim Crow. The timing could not have been better for this brief, lucid book, which appeared not long after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Brown is now widely viewed as the court’s most important ruling of the 20th century, and it is easy to forget how quickly the South’s white leadership launched a campaign of ‘massive resistance’ in order to preserve Jim Crow, and that many national leaders, including Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, and President Eisenhower himself, bought into Southern arguments that segregation had existed from time immemorial and would prove impossible to uproot. Woodward presented a counter-history, a usable past for the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Segregation, Woodward insisted, was a recent invention, not a timeless feature of Southern life. It had not existed in the Old South (it would make little sense to try to separate the races under slavery) and was not immediately implemented after the Civil War. In fact, it wasn’t enshrined in law until the 1890s. Before then, indeterminacy defined Southern race relations. Black and white people mingled in railroad cars and sat next to one another in restaurants, theatres and other places of public accommodation. Why could they not do so again? The book’s influence, wrote the Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, stemmed from its contemporary significance: ‘The race problem was made and ... men can unmake it.’ This optimistic historical lesson persisted even after other historians called into question important parts of Woodward’s account. In revised editions of the book that appeared in 1965 and 1974, he acknowledged that segregation had a longer history than he had allowed. It was already present in the pre-Civil War North and Woodward kept pushing the date of its emergence in the South back in time, admitting that segregation had existed as a social reality well before being codified in law.
Woodward did not rely solely on scholarship to ‘unmake’ the racism so deeply embedded in the academy and society at large. He also worked to eradicate it within the Southern Historical Association (SHA). Cobb’s account of Woodward’s campaign to desegregate the group’s annual meetings would be funny if it didn’t offer a reminder of the daily humiliations Blacks experienced under Jim Crow. State law and local custom forbade venues from allowing Black participants to eat with white attendees or lodge in the same hotel. The 1949 meeting was held at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Woodward arranged for John Hope Franklin, a Black historian who had just published From Slavery to Freedom, a pioneering survey of African American history, to deliver a paper. But where would Franklin sleep and eat? Woodward facetiously suggested that Franklin bring along a ‘pup tent and K-rations’. What if he needed the bathroom? Franklin could hardly be expected to use the primitive toilet facilities set aside for the college’s waiters, gardeners and other Black employees. In the end, the distinguished historian Carl Bridenbaugh offered to give Franklin a key to his own house for use when he needed to relieve himself. Franklin’s participation went off without incident. The SHA, however, quickly reverted to meeting in places where Blacks could not attend alongside whites. It comes as a shock to read that not until 1962 did the SHA’s executive committee resolve that the organisation would meet only in venues where Black and white participants were treated the same.
Woodward’s book on Jim Crow marked the end of his career as a research historian. His subsequent books consisted largely of previously published essays and book reviews. Some of his best-known pieces tackled the fraught question of Southern identity. He pointed to the irony that even as the Cold War intensified claims about American exceptionalism, the South in fact shared key historical experiences – military defeat, widespread poverty, colonial exploitation – with many other countries. The rest of the nation, he suggested, might learn something from historians of the South, not least humility.
In this later phase of his career, Woodward acted as a kind of gatekeeper, using his connections and reputation to promote the advancement, via jobs, fellowships and book reviews, of his former graduate students. Many of them, including Barbara Fields, James McPherson, Louis Harlan and Steven Hahn, would go on to celebrated careers of their own. Most studied the 19th-century South; as a result, the Festschrift they produced for Woodward in 1982 has a coherence such books usually lack. Like many other ‘star’ professors, Woodward was often on leave, seeking, Cobb writes, to minimise ‘time spent in the classroom’. But he devoted time to reading and evaluating manuscripts not only for friends and students but also for historians with whom he had no personal connection. He sometimes bent the rules, writing reviews of books that originated in dissertations he himself had supervised, and suggesting to editors the names of writers, including his students, to review his own works. Cobb’s account reminds us of the small size and homogeneity of the interconnected worlds of publishing, reviewing and teaching before the expansion of colleges and universities in the 1960s and the advent of significant numbers of women and members of minority groups. A few prestigious journals published the same writers over and over again. Cobb counts more than 250 book reviews written by Woodward himself during the course of his career, including fifty in the New York Review of Books and 21 in the New York Times.
All this extracurricular activity helps explain why Woodward never wrote his long-planned and eagerly awaited general history of Reconstruction. Judging from evidence in his papers, he seemed genuinely uncertain how such a book should be organised, whether he should directly engage with what he called ‘the century-old debate’ on the era, and if he should include comparison with other societies that experienced the end of slavery (an approach he pioneered). As Woodward mulled over such questions, the history of Reconstruction was being rewritten, in part by his students. The old image of the period, trotted out whenever the argument was made that Black people shouldn’t have the right to vote, was superseded. While hardly unaware of the era’s failings, younger scholars were broadly sympathetic to the impulse to remake the South after the Civil War. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans, whose professions of concern for the rights of freed people Woodward had long viewed sceptically, were now being lionised as principled crusaders for justice, forerunners of the civil rights movement. Woodward was put off by Northerners who, wielding ‘legends of emancipation’, lectured the South about its failings. In a letter to the historian William J. Carleton in 1945, he wrote that Charles Sumner, among the most principled of the Radical egalitarians, ‘nauseates me’. Woodward believed the post-Civil War Northern commitment to racial equality had been weak and short-lived and that Reconstruction failed as much because of persistent Northern racism as rampant Southern violence.
Beginning in the 1960s, new scholarship was placing the former slaves – their aspirations, activism and understanding of freedom – at the centre of the Reconstruction story. In previous works, Woodward had primarily portrayed Blacks as victims, not active historical agents, and he did not explore deeply the grassroots Black leadership, which would now be a necessary part of any general history of the era. He understood why Reconstruction appealed to a new generation, but cautioned against viewing it as ‘in some ways a sort of Golden Age’. He felt uncomfortable with the directions in which the field was moving. One suspects that he was not interested in engaging in a debate with the authors of the new historiography, many of whom he had taught.
As he approached retirement, Woodward entered what one former student called his ‘Tory period’. He took positions that surprised, even shocked, many of his admirers. While admitting that he was ‘embarrassed’ to say so, he opposed a plan to admit women as fellows to one of Yale’s colleges. ‘Tory’, however, may be an exaggeration. He did nothing to hide his distaste for the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and – more in keeping with his earlier sentiments – lent his name to public statements protesting against the Vietnam War, and organised a group of historians who prepared a report for the House impeachment committee on abuses of presidential power in US history. Turning down an invitation to contribute to a book of essays celebrating the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, he replied, ‘I am, in fact, beginning to wonder what there is to celebrate.’
Perhaps the most controversial moment in this phase of his career came in the mid-1970s, when Woodward orchestrated a campaign to prevent Herbert Aptheker from teaching a seminar on the life of W.E.B. Du Bois at a Yale college. The university allowed colleges, with the approval of an academic department, to offer classes taught by persons without an academic position but with other kinds of expertise. Aptheker’s Documentary History of the Negro People was an indispensable work used in courses throughout the country. His American Negro Slave Revolts was the only scholarly book on that subject. He had written important journal articles on Black abolitionism and on Reconstruction and was editing a projected collection of Du Bois’s correspondence. He was also a leading member of the American Communist Party. As such he had been blacklisted for decades by the academy. Woodward was an ardent foe of McCarthyism. In 1966, he had taken part in a panel at the Socialist Scholars Conference along with Aptheker and the Marxist historian of slavery Eugene D. Genovese. At that time, when the shadow of McCarthyism still hung over the academic world, for an intellectual of Woodward’s standing to appear alongside Aptheker had been a powerful statement that the latter was part of the guild of historians. It wasn’t unlike when movie studios a few years earlier had given screen credit to Dalton Trumbo for writing the films Exodus and Spartacus, marking the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist. But at Yale the Aptheker affair did not work out that way.
Woodward mobilised opposition to the proposed seminar. Aptheker’s work, he insisted, was not up to Yale’s standards. At his behest, the history department declined to sponsor the course. But the political science department agreed to do so. Woodward brought his case to the faculty committee that approved such classes (normally a formality), which at first rejected the course then subsequently approved it. The dispute dragged on for years; in the end Aptheker did teach his seminar on Du Bois, twice. The students suffered no known adverse consequences. But Woodward’s reputation for open-mindedness received a serious blow, especially among the rising generation of historians.
Aptheker was white, but Woodward’s crusade against the proposed course dovetailed with his growing distaste for the shift in focus of the civil rights struggle from integration to calls for Black Power and its corollary on campus, demands for the establishment of Black studies programmes. He spoke out against multiculturalism, as well as militant students’ insistence that Black professors teach the new courses on Black history. Often, as the Black historian Sterling Stuckey pointed out, Woodward seemed to conflate students’ rhetoric with the scholarship, often outstanding, being produced for these courses. Elected president of the Organisation of American Historians in 1969, Woodward devoted his presidential address to criticism of Black studies. Coming a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the title of his lecture, ‘Clio with Soul’, seemed condescending to Black historians. He warned white scholars against aligning with this ‘fashionable cause’ and advised the ‘brother in black’ not to embrace ‘a mystique of skin colour’ or to elevate ‘deservedly neglected figures’ such as African kings and ghetto hustlers to the status of heroes. His insinuation that universities were employing Black academics solely on the basis of their race cost him his long friendship with John Hope Franklin (who had been hired a few years earlier by the University of Chicago).
Woodward died in 1999, hailed inside and outside the academy for his pioneering scholarship and ‘moral leadership’ in a profession that for most of the 20th century sorely needed it. Historical interests, of course, change over time. Woodward’s books, even The Strange Career of Jim Crow, are no longer widely assigned in college classes. This is unfortunate not only because of the enduring quality of his writing, but because they offer an inspiring example of engaged scholarship. At its best, Woodward’s work demonstrated that history enables us to pass judgment on the world around us. He employed his historical imagination to help bring down the towering edifice of Jim Crow. That is an accomplishment of which any historian would be proud.