The writings of historian C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) challenged the widely-held misconceptions regarding Southern civil rights issues that developed after the American Civil War Reconstruction period. During the 1930s through the 1960s, Woodward reexamined the assumption that Southern history was free of class and racial conflict between the Reconstruction and World War I (1877-1913). The intent of the customary rendition of Southern history was to overcome racism in contemporary society. As a white Southerner and an ardent supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., Woodward argued that segregation did not develop as result of slavery but was driven by white supremacy political and social agendas. King referred to Woodward's book The Strange Career of Jim Crow, as the "historical bible of the Civil Rights Movement." This paper will demonstrate that Woodward's revolutionary historical interpretations significantly influenced Southern history ideology with respect to racial relations. Not only did Woodward illuminate misconceptions, misunderstandings and misinterpretations, he habitually highlighted possible logical solutions to the social issues that may have eased future racial maladies. To begin, this paper will outline the academic life of Woodward. It will then offer a comparison of his analysis of the South since Reconstruction as compared to more traditionalist Southern historians. To conclude, the article will offer a brief overview of other historians' opinions of Woodward's works, demonstrating his importance to Southern historiography.
C. Vann Woodward was born in Vanndale, Arkansas on November 13, 1908 to Hugh and Bess Woodward. His father was an educator and school superintendent in Morrilton, Arkansas, where Woodward spent his childhood and initiated his lifelong love of academics. Woodward, like many white Southerners (including the author of this paper) was a descendant of Southern slave owners. His uncle, Comer Woodward, was a Methodist minister and a sociologist who was an adamant anti-racist, who passionately opposed segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, despite being a descendant of Southern slave owners. Comer introduced Woodward the younger to Southern social scientists Rupert B. Vance and Howard W. Odum, both of whom became role models for young Woodward. (1) During this time, Vance and Odum headed the most influential academic empires in the South, which included Henderson Brown College, Emory University and Chapel Hill, the "intellectual crossroads of the South." (2)
In 1926 Woodward began at Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia, Arkansas then transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, where he received a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1930. While at Emory he found a circle of like-minded Southern liberals, including fellow future Pulitzer Prize winner in history David Morris Potter, and a group of young African Americans who were also strong proponents of racial equality and civil rights. Woodward became a professor of English Composition at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1933 he completed his Master's degree in political science at Columbia University, where he befriended Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, both of whom had a great influence on his future Southern historical endeavors. (2)
Coming of age in the 1930s Southern Progressive arena, Woodward decided to follow the career path of the historian rather than a social scientist like his Uncle Comer. In 1934 he received a grant for graduate studies at the University of North Carolina in American history. There he met Southern Progressives Robert Penn Warren and Howard K. Beale, who nurtured his views on racial and social issues, which prompted him to write his Ph.D. dissertation in 1937 titled Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel. Southern Progressives argued that racism was a manifestation of legislated segregation and not a result of race relations during slavery. Woodward's dissertation was published as a book and launched his career as a prominent Southern historian. During his time at Georgia Tech, he met African-American scholar J. Saunders Redding, who was influential in the defense of black communist Angelo Herndon when he was arrested for protesting against governmental cuts in welfare. (3) While in Chapel Hill, Woodward gravitated toward intellectual civil rights activists such as Frank Graham, president of the University of North Carolina. (4) C. Vann Woodward's personal experience growing up during the Great Depression afforded him intimate parallel experiences that greatly influenced his arguments about African American struggles during the period after the Civil War.
Upon receiving his Ph.D., Woodward taught at a number of schools, becoming a professor at the University of Florida (1937-1939), the University of Virginia (1939-1940), followed by a tenured position at Scripps College (1940-1943), after which he became a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the Naval Office of Public Information in Washington, D.C. While there he wrote The Battle of Leyte Gulf, detailing this decisive battle in the Pacific campaign. He then joined the history faculty at John Hopkins University, where he was able to continue his pursuit for the "truths" of Southern history, and shortly thereafter published one of his greatest works, Origins of the New South: 1877-1913 (1951), which earned him Columbia University's Bancroft Prize. (5) Origins demonstrated his commitment to his principles and his courage to reevaluate interpretations of Southern history, especially in the area of politics, addressing the question of who was in control and what were they after, which showed a Charles A. Beard-type influence of seeking underlying political motivations. (6) He continued his reinterpretation of Southern political history with his next publication, Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction, based upon the argument that white Southern leaders put President Rutherford B. Hayes in office for economic gains. (7)
In 1954 Woodward was invited to the University of Virginia, where he delivered the yearly James W. Richard Lectures. This provided the venue for his famous Jim Crow lectures that were published in 1955 as The Strange Career of Jim Crow. This provocative dialogue is where he first espoused that Southern racial segregation was a post-Civil War occurrence and not a traditional Southern viewpoint, which expectedly drew much criticism. (8) He next wrote The Age of Reinterpretation (1960), which was published in The American Historical Review. In this article he argued that the traditional view of America's geographical isolation, which initially afforded free security and independence, was no longer applicable alongside current attitudes of optimism, superiority, and invincibility. (9)
Woodward continued his quest for analyzing present realities against past elucidations, prompting him to reexamine and reinterpret Reconstruction. He concluded that the underlying foundations of Southern racism could be found in plans for Reconstruction. This is the exact opposite of the traditional non-racial analysis that had been interjected into the American history books that argue the motives for reconstruction were altruistic and nonracist. Passionate to correct the misaligned history of the South, he continued to write essays such as The Burden of Southern History (1960). (10) He then joined the faculty as Sterling Professor of History at Yale University in 1961, and was named Professor Emeritus. He remained at Yale until his retirement in 1977. During his time at Yale he demonstrated his commitment to the Civil Rights movement by marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Alongside Richard Hofstadter, Woodward co-edited the multi-volume narrative history Oxford History of the United States, a project he worked upon until his death in December 1999. (11)
After his retirement Woodward set upon the task of editing a diary kept by Mary Chesnut, a white, well-to-do Southerner from South Carolina, who questioned traditional values concerning slavery during the Civil War. The resulting effort was the Pulitzer Prize winning Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1981). This book provided an invaluable...