The following is the final piece in a two-part guest blog post by James. C. Cobb, author of C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian, available now from your favorite bookstore. In case you missed it, you can find part 1 here.
Though he had managed to get John Hope Franklin on the program at the 1949 meeting in Williamsburg, C. Vann Woodward knew full well that the Southern Historical Association had a long way to go before black members felt truly welcome at its annual gatherings when he assumed the presidency of the organization in 1952. Woodward informed program committee members early on that he asked University of Tennessee historian, J. Wesley Hoffman, the local arrangements chair for the upcoming meeting in Knoxville, “if possible, to make dining and meeting arrangements that would permit unembarrassed attendance of Negro members.” His request had been taken “without blinking,” Woodward added, and I assume but do not know for sure that the arrangements will be made accordingly.” Hoffman may not have blinked at Woodward’s request, but neither did he reply to repeated inquiries about whether such arrangements had in fact been arranged. When Hoffman finally contacted Woodward, it was only to inform him that he was relinquishing his local arrangements post and passing his duties on to his junior colleague, Leroy Graf. In light of Hoffman’s stony silence about black participation, this news surely should have raised a warning flag, but Woodward blithely pressed on, leaving it to local SHA representatives to outwit the devil lurking in the details. This approach seemed to serve him well enough three years earlier in Williamsburg, but that old devil was not about to be outdone a second time. Thus it was that, scarcely a week before the meeting, a panicked Woodward informed his program chair Thomas P. Govan that “Knoxville hotels have struck against Negro diners and things are in a mess at the moment.” He professed complete shock at this development because he had “been positively assured that this had been taken care of.” This unvarnished fabrication was his means of absolving himself of any responsibility for a looming fiasco that he should have seen coming. If it was to be avoided, the task of devising the means fell to Leroy Graf and the association’s newly installed secretary-treasurer, Bennett H. Wall, both of whom knew without asking that Woodward would never deliver his presidential address at a banquet from which Blacks were excluded.
C. Vann Woodward knew full well that the Southern Historical Association had a long way to go before black members felt truly welcome at its annual gatherings
It was Graf who managed, literally at the last minute, to salvage the affair by securing University of Tennessee buses and organizing member carpools to carry 270 historians out to Whittle Springs, a tourist resort north of town that was normally closed in November, where after consuming a hastily prepared dinner, the group would hear Woodward’s presidential address. After appearing in the Journal of Southern History a few months later, “The Irony of Southern History” would ultimately be recognized as a brilliant recasting of the source and meaning of southern identity. Yet if anyone at Whittle Springs grasped the significance of Woodward’s talk at the time, they gave no indication of it. Delivered in the same halting, mumbling, sometimes barely audible monotone that had once led his adviser Howard Beale complain that he talked “as if you had mush in your mouth,” Woodward’s remarks were simply no match for the drama and distraction that surrounded the abrupt change of venue that evening.
The relocation of the presidential address and banquet in 1952 demonstrated the courage and resolve of a group of younger, more liberal members, but the SHA was still no closer to resolving the issue of full black participation in its annual meetings. This became painfully apparent the following year in Jacksonville when the host hotel once again refused to allow an integrated banquet before the presidential address. In response, the group’s Executive Council approved, albeit narrowly, Woodward’s resolution demanding that “every reasonable effort be made to accommodate all members at all formal sessions of the convention.” Although there was no specific reference to meals or lodging, the sad fact of the matter was that when contacted by SHA officials in 1954, the NAACP could not identify a single hotel in the former Confederacy willing to offer lodging to black guests.
John Hope Franklin knew from bitter experience the emotional and logistical hurdle this proscription posed for black SHA members. Although he agreed to serve on the program committee for the 1955 meeting at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Franklin reported to a white friend that he would not be coming to the meeting itself because of the hotel’s refusal to accept blacks as overnight guests. “Memphis is a terrible town with the most rigid patterns of segregation,” he explained. “I would be literally stranded at the hotel all the time since white taxicabs will not ride Negro passengers; and it would be difficult for me to get to the meetings from far across town since Negro taxicabs don’t like to go into the “white part of town” since return fares are practically impossible!” “Even my thick skin,” the future SHA president admitted to another friend, “can be wounded by a repetition of the insults and the indignities I have received [at the Peabody] and numerous places like it.”
The relocation of the presidential address and banquet in 1952 demonstrated the courage and resolve of a group of younger, more liberal members, but the SHA was still no closer to resolving the issue of full black participation in its annual meetings.
Although those places would remain “numerous” for quite some time, by the end of the 1950s, hotels of suitable convention size in three Florida cities, plus Kansas City, Saint Louis, Oklahoma City, and Williamsburg had abandoned their proscriptions against renting rooms to blacks. Yet despite several aggressive attempts to move beyond it, the original Woodward resolution would define the SHA’s official position on the treatment of black members at its annual meeting until 1961, when it was amended to stipulate that blacks must be allowed “to attend all official functions . . . including those at which meals are served.” Although this revision still stopped short of mandating that convention hotels accept black members as overnight guests, beginning with the 1962 meeting in Miami, Secretary-Treasurer Wall and members of the executive council appeared simply to take it on themselves to ensure that black members attending the meetings could both dine and sleep at the host hotel. Only then could it be said that the old Jim Crow taboos that had long kept the Southern Historical Association from being all that it could be were finally yielding to the forces of change that C. Vann Woodward had brought to bear on the Williamsburg proceedings in 1949.
James C. Cobb is B. Phinizy Spalding Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Georgia.