As always, those attending the upcoming meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Louisville can look forward to a lively and engaging program. It’s fair to say, however, that they are unlikely to witness anything quite so momentous as what transpired exactly seventy years ago, when the SHA convened in Williamsburg, VA.
No apparent thought had been given to the possibility of black membership, let alone attendance at the annual meeting, when the Southern Historical Association was formed in 1934. Bethany L. Johnson notes that SHA president Benjamin Kendrick was unaware that there were any black members in 1941, when he received a letter from one of them asking to what extent he and his colleagues would be allowed to participate in the organization's meeting at Atlanta's Biltmore Hotel. Kendrick had essentially created a defacto policy when he responded that black members enjoyed "all the rights and privileges of any other member, subject only to local city ordinances, state laws, or practices of the hotel in which the meeting is held."
This effective default to prevailing local Jim Crow practices meant that, despite some variations, black members who chose to attend the annual meeting were well-advised to expect treatment little better than that accorded the black hotel employees,with whom they would both share toilets and eat in the kitchen while white members partook of the luncheons or dinners that were a part of the annual meeting. They might be allowed to enter the main dining area in order to hear a speaker once the white diners were finished, but, that done, they were expected to make for the door, for there was surely no place for them to sleep in a whites-only hotel.
Needless to say, such practices hardly suggested much enthusiasm for allowing a black scholar to actually present a paper in a formal program session. Yet when the 1949 program chair, C. Vann Woodward proposed inviting his friend John Franklin to do just that, his carefully selected program committee--composed largely of somewhat younger white scholars who shared his embarrassment 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 & Mary, but with considerable prodding and not a little guile, he eventually got them to sign off on his bold experiment as well.
Thinking that a presentation some less racially fraught topic would make Franklin more comfortable, he suggested a paper drawn from his ongoing research on the martial tradition in the South. To put Franklin further at ease, Woodward 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 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 ground floor room in William and Mary’s Phi Beta Kappa Hall could accommodate gathered to see southern historians actually making history themselves. “You couldn’t get in that place,” Franklin recalled, noting that a number of curious William & Mary faculty as well as townspeople had gathered outside to peer in the windows. Others in attendance offered much the same account and confirmed Franklin’s impression that his paper “got a good reception.” The only potentially awkward moment, Franklin remembered many years later, came during the discussion from the floor when a stately white woman in the audience asked “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 at that point, “everyone broke into laughter.” He may been uncertain at that precise moment whether to make more of the question itself as evidence of the past flexing its muscles or of the less than deferential response to the questioner as a sign it was losing its grip. He would likely have been more inclined to the latter interpretation had he known at the time that the questioner in question was Susan Tyler, the widow of one Lyon G. Tyler, son of President John Tyler and a historian and dedicated apologist for the Old South, not to mention president of William & Mary from 1888 to 1919. Franklin might have even felt the earth tilt ever so slightly had also he realized that, before her marriage, Susan Tyler had been Susan Ruffin.
If the great-granddaughter of Edmund Ruffin was deeply disturbed by what she witnessed that day, it’s hard to imagine her reaction had she lived to see the black interloper she had risen to rebuke more than twenty years earlier step to the podium in 1971 as President of the Southern Historical Association. As Franklin noted, he had been elected to this post “long before the other two predominantly white national historical associations made a similar move.” Yet only in the last ten years had SHA officials been able find enough southern hotels where the old racial protocols had been abandoned to assure that the annual meetings were finally free of Jim Crow’s tenacious clutch. In the interim between becoming the group’s first black program participant and serving as its first black president, Franklin had suffered what he called a largely unbroken repetition of “insults and the indignities” at a variety of southern convention hotels. These memories were still too recent and too painful for him to simply savor the current moment, let alone encourage anyone to make too much of the progress it signified. Instead of concluding his presidential address on a note of satisfaction or accomplishment, he simply reiterated his sustaining hope “that a region whose experience and talents had proved to be so ample in so many ways…might yet be able to confront fundamental changes in its social order.”Tweet