The following is part one of a two-part guest blog post by James. C. Cobb, author of C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian, available now from your favorite bookstore.
When C. Vann Woodward agreed to chair the program committee for the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in 1949, he was already known not only for his scholarship, but for his active commitment to ending racial segregation. At that point, as a disgusted W. E. B. du Bois observed, black members of the SHA were “cordially invited to be absent” from these gatherings. Should they insist on showing up, they could count on using the same toilets as the host hotel’s black custodial and kitchen staff, with whom they would also be dining while white members chowed down at the banquet preceding the presidential address. Only when the white participants had polished off their desserts would their black counterparts be permitted to congregate at the rear of the banquet room to hear the president’s remarks, after which they were expected to move with dispatch in exiting the whites-only hotel where they had not the remotest possibility of spending the night.
Only when the white participants had polished off their desserts would their black counterparts be permitted to congregate at the rear of the banquet room to hear the president’s remarks
Needless to say, such policies hardly suggested that an invitation to a black scholar to present a paper in a formal SHA program session might be in the offing. Yet, with the 1949 meeting set for Williamsburg, Virginia, seemingly one of the South’s more racially tolerant cities, Woodward proposed to do precisely that. When he suggested asking his friend John Franklin to give a paper at the meeting, his carefully selected program committee of white historians, who shared his chagrin at how black members were treated, seemed not only amenable, but downright enthusiastic. The sledding proved a little bumpier in dealing with representatives of the host institution, William and Mary, one of whom also happened to be the SHA’s sitting president, Lester J. Cappon. When Woodward floated the idea with Cappon and his W&M colleague Carl Bridenbaugh, neither foresaw a problem, but when they decided it might be prudent to run the idea by the school’s president, William. G. Pomfret, he demurred, citing rising tensions “over racial discrimination in education” in Virginia. An apologetic Cappon passed along Pomfret’s decision with assurances that Franklin was certainly welcome to attend the meeting, even offering to find him lodging with a “nice colored family,” but Woodward was not giving up that easily. Though he had yet to formally invite Franklin to give a paper in Williamsburg, he led Cappon to believe otherwise in a telegram informing him that “assuming your earlier letter on tentative program was a green light I spoke to Franklin/Retraction embarrassing to Association should think [stop] Would not Association instead of college have responsibility and blame?”
A few days later, Woodward got a letter from Cappon, letting him know that, quite coincidentally, of course, his telegram had arrived just as he was preparing to write with the good news that President Pomfret had a change of heart over the previous weekend, reasoning that in the off chance of an “unpleasant and embarrassing” incident, he need only explain that it had happened at “a private meeting of a learned society.” Thinking that a presentation on some less racially fraught topic would make Franklin more comfortable, Woodward suggested a paper drawn from his ongoing research on the martial tradition in the South. To put Franklin further at ease, he had bolstered the session’s creds by asking Columbia’s Henry Steele Commager, one of the most distinguished American historians of his day, to chair it, and Emory University historian Bell Irvin Wiley, a white Southerner and, like Woodward, a rising star in the profession, to read the paper accompanying Franklin’s.
Thus, it came to pass that, at 3 p.m. on Thursday, November 10, 1949, a crowd well in excess of what the assigned room could accommodate gathered to see historians making some history of their own. Those in attendance confirmed Franklin’s impression that his paper “got a good reception.” The only potentially awkward moment, Franklin recalled, came during the discussion from the floor when a stately white woman in the audience demanded to know, “How we can sit here and hear him use the term ‘Civil War’ when he should call it the ‘War Between the States’?” Doubtless to Franklin’s great relief—and perhaps, surprise—at that point, “everyone broke into laughter.” He might have taken even greater note of this not exactly deferential reaction to the questioner had he known at the time that she was Susan Ruffin Tyler, who was not only the widow of historian Lyon G. Tyler, the son of President John Tyler and a fervent Old South apologist, but the great-granddaughter of the unrepentant Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin. If Ms. Tyler was deeply disturbed by what she witnessed that day, it’s hard to imagine her reaction had she known that the black interloper she had risen to rebuke that day would be chosen to serve as president of the SHA in 1971, which Franklin noted, was still “long before the other two predominantly white national historical associations made a similar move.”
At 3 p.m. on Thursday, November 10, 1949, a crowd well in excess of what the assigned room could accommodate gathered to see historians making some history of their own.
In the shorter term, though, it was soon clear that Woodward’s precedent-shattering feat of boldness and deception in Williamsburg left other more formidable barriers to full black participation in the Southern Historical Association fully intact. Jim Crow was still calling the shots at the 1951 meeting in Montgomery, where black members attending a special session on Jefferson Davis held in the state house of representatives were forced to sit in the balcony, and after being duly installed as the organization’s president, Woodward would be compelled to take him on yet again when the SHA convened in Knoxville in 1952.
James C. Cobb is B. Phinizy Spalding Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Georgia.