What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been:
C. Vann Woodward and The Strange Career of Jim Crow
Graduate students studying history are faced with many challenges. Confronted with the Linguistic Turn, the implications of post-modernism, and the changing face of the historical profession, students
are challenged to answer the ‘hard’ questions of history. Should history be created with a purpose in mind? Is it even possible to do otherwise? To what extent does the historian’s past affect their future
writing? In considering these questions, graduates can benefit from a study of how professional historians have struggled with these very issues in the past. Few examples better illustrate this than C.
Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Not only does Strange Career serve as a pointed example of the present encroaching on the past in the work of a historian, but the larger horizon of Vann
Woodward’s life illustrates to what extent good history can incorporate personal influences successfully. For this reason it is important to evaluate the controversy surrounding Strange Career in the
broader context of C. Vann Woodward’s personal and professional journey.
Born in 1908 and raised in rural Arkansas, Vann Woodward experienced firsthand the crystallization of Jim Crow laws in the 1910s and 1920s that he would later describe in Strange Career. The son of a
school superintendent, at an early age he developed a rebellious streak in response to peer assumptions about his father. Throughout high school and a brief college stint at Henderson-Brown (1926-1928),
Vann Woodward was never the most academic student, although he was an avid reader. One gets the sense that young Comer struggled with defining a path for himself as he moved from Henderson-Brown to Emory
on the advice of his uncle. Yet once at Emory many of the forces that shaped his future scholarship began to coalesce. Majoring in philosophy, Vann Woodward was introduced to a broader intellectual world.
Writers and poets became his friends, and after graduating in 1930 he remained in Atlanta to teach English at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Still, up to this point in Vann Woodward’s life his
interest in race relations and activism were largely peripheral.1
While at GIT Vann Woodward met and befriended J. Saunders Redding. Redding, a northern black intellectual, was Vann Woodward’s intellectual superior and made a lasting impression on the young academic.
Interested by the intellectual climate of New York during this time, Vann Woodward left GIT to pursue a Master’s degree at Columbia University. His interest in southern race relations began in earnest.
He met with W.E.B. DuBois, and during the summer of 1932 visited France, Germany, and Russia. Oppression and slavery were powerful themes during this trip, and Vann Woodward has recounted a moment in
the Soviet Union when a worker poignantly asked, “Can’t you see we are enslaved? Can’t you see what’s happening here?”2 With powerful images like these Vann Woodward returned to Atlanta to
again teach at Georgia Tech.
Back in Atlanta racial tension, fueled by the calamities of the Depression, peaked in the trial of Angelo Herndon. Neighboring Alabama had recently experienced a similar occurrence with the trial of the
Scottsboro boys, and this time Vann Woodward became personally involved in supporting Herndon’s defense. At the same time, outspoken members of the Communist party joined in supporting Herndon, and Vann
Woodward, along with many of his fellow academics, became associated with radical politics. Shortly thereafter Vann Woodward was fired, due to budget cuts (although he admits he was reprimanded for his
outspoken actions), and returned to his parents house, now in Oxford, Georgia.3
Interested in writing, Vann Woodward turned his attention to Georgian politicians he disliked. Once he began research, he limited his focus to Tom Watson. After obtaining access to some of Watson’s
personal papers and writing the first four chapters, Vann Woodward decided that his work would be a good dissertation. He chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, (based on their possession
of Watson material), and in 1937 received his Ph.D. from that institution. The result of his work, Vann Woodward’s first book, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, was published in 1938 to excellent reviews.
Finally, it seemed, Vann Woodward had found a calling. He remained a dominant figure in the field of Southern history for the next 60 years.4
In his biography of Vann Woodward, John Herbert Roper discusses the myth, at least partially self-created, of the budding historian as an indifferent student whose sole focus was to finish his
dissertation while at Chapel Hill.5 While there is some credence to Roper’s questioning of this idea, Vann Woodward’s focus on Watson was certainly an important piece of his professional
development. In studying the radical southern politics of the 1890s, Vann Woodward embarked on a field of study that would lead him directly to Strange Career 16 years later. In looking back on that work in
1955, only a year after delivering the lectures that became Strange Career, Woodward commented,
“it was easier in the 1930’s than it is in the 1950’s to understand the 1890’s . . . It did not then seem so absurd as it might later that an habitually conservative agrarian region could have whipped
itself into an insurrectionary temper that combined some of the Southern bellicosity of the 1860’s with some of the Union-Square language of the 1930’s.”6
Woodward wrote these lines before the multi-state explosive response to Brown v. Board of Education. If he had known what lay in store for the South his choice of words might have been very different.
After becoming married and serving a brief term in the Navy during World War II, Vann Woodward accepted a teaching position at John Hopkins University in 1946. For the next six years Vann Woodward increased
the activism he had begun at Georgia Tech. He was a member of a group of academics that defended Owen Lattimore from the McCarthy Commission’s attacks, and as a member of the Southern Historical Association
he helped his friend John Hope Franklin, a respected black historian, be placed on the presentation list.7
In 1952, in part due to his growing reputation as a sympathetic Southern historian, Vann Woodward was asked by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to aid in a case preparation.
Among the counsel for this trial was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and after meeting with him both Vann Woodward and his friend John Hope Franklin prepared historical monographs to
assist the NAACP. Two years later this case was resolved in the Supreme Court, and Brown v. Board of Education, as it came to be called, represented an ominous moment in segregationist policy. While
Vann Woodward has played down his impact in subsequent interviews, his involvement with this case, more than any other single event, impacted his future scholarship and professional career.8
The Brown decision was announced in May of 1954 and in the following October of that year Vann Woodward was at the University of Virginia for a series of lectures he had been asked to present. Vann
Woodward’s topic was a salient one for the time, the origins of ‘Jim Crow’ laws that lay at the heart of southern justifications of segregation. On the eve of the approaching storm, still calm before the
backlash of southern opinion to the Brown decision, Vann Woodward, building largely on his prior studies of 1890 southern politics, took to task the idea that segregation had been in place since the
beginning of Reconstruction. The lectures were timely and ‘presentist’ but they were not the first investigation into this murky topic.9 Two of Vann Woodward’s colleagues from Chapel Hill had
already taken steps in this direction.
Both Vernon Lane Wharton and George Brown Tindall wrote monographs on race relations in the South. Wharton studied post-Civil War Mississippi and Tindall studied end-of-Reconstruction South
Carolina, both in attempts to disclaim the idea of an unbroken tradition of segregation. Both men, especially Tindall, found a system much more complex and variegated than the one assumed by current
defenders of segregation. Vann Woodward built on these works, and constructed a broad, generalized argument that encompassed much more than a single state. His argument, laid forth in the lectures presented
at the University of Virginia that fall, became the core of Strange Career.10
In Strange Career Vann Woodward eloquently argued that segregation in the form of Jim Crow laws was not a foregone conclusion following the Civil War. Writing later about its intent, Vann Woodward listed
the thesis of Strange Career as,
“first, that racial segregation in the South in the rigid and universal form it had taken did not appear with the end of slavery, but toward the latter years of the century and later; and second, that
before it appeared in this form there transpired an era of experiment and variety in race relations of the South in which segregation was not the invariable rule.”11
Instead of this continuous form of segregation from antebellum times, the South experienced a period of uncertainty in race relations that exhibited fluidity unrecognizable to later generations. During this
period, roughly from the 1870s to the 1890s, black and white southerners alike faced many alternatives to the system that eventually came to dominate race relations in the South. However, in the 1890s a
variety of forces came together to crystallize race relations into a particular pattern, and the decades of the early 20th century tightened this system until its ‘perfection’ by 1940. Only after World War
II and the budding Civil Rights movement, which Vann Woodward calls the Second Reconstruction, does change begin to occur. In later editions he extended the scope of Strange Career, discussing the hopes
of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the ultimate failure of many efforts to address the root of the system. In the last edition of the book, published in 1974, Vann Woodward appended a scathing chapter
that dealt mercilessly with the separatist movements for black nationalism.12
Initially, Strange Career received little attention. In an early book review from 1955, Jonathan Daniels only hinted at the criticism to come, writing “It may, nevertheless, be that he has put too much
emphasis on segregation by law” and later “If it throws no flashing illumination on the past, it does provide a basis for the clearer seeing of the problem now.”13 Behind both statements lay
future condemnations of Strange Career. First, its limited focus that excluded all other aspects of race relations from consideration save those of law, and second, that presentist concerns may have played
too large a role in its creation. Within a few years of its publication, riding the crest of southern indignation and black criticism at the policies of segregation, Strange Career became a key text for all
manner of speakers justifying their views.
Vann Woodward’s personal life continued to influence his work. He was present at a speech on the steps of the Alabama Capitol when Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted passages from Strange Career. After 1962,
he taught at Yale and the curiosity of his students about the South and the racial tension provided Vann Woodward with new perspectives from which to view the situation. In 1966, following the hopes of
the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and the shock of the northern urban riots, Vann Woodward produced the second revised edition of Strange Career.
Now a nationwide problem, Vann Woodward has noted that the new edition was sought out by many looking for answers. With little background in Southern history, and much less educated and much more diverse
than his original intended audience at the University of Virginia, this new readership brought not only widespread attention but also widespread criticism of the work. Academics, too, joined this broadening
reader base and from them began a long period of critical attacks. To a casual observer at the time, it might seem Vann Woodward’s Strange Career had taken a turn for the worse.14
With the exception of Wharton and Tindall, historians of the South faced a lack of detailed studies concerning race relations prior to Strange Career. Many of Vann Woodward’s critics were forced to
reevaluate assumptions about the period following the Civil War. Almost from the beginning, critics questioned Strange Career’s assertion that segregation was formally present in the Reconstruction South.
Leon Litwack carried this criticism even further, devoting his 1961 work North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 to a study of segregation practices in the pre-war states of the North.
His research emphasized that the Reconstruction South inherited segregationist practices from an already entrenched Northern system.15
Other works dedicated to investigating the issue quickly followed, and by the time of publication of the second revised edition of Strange Career, the debate over what had come to be called the Woodward
thesis had grown enough to warrant its own volume. Created as part of the Problems in American Civilization series, The Origins of Segregation explored the historical and psychological roots of
segregation. Comprised of essays by leading Southern historians, Origins contained advocates of the Woodward thesis like Vann Woodward and Tindall but also contained competing accounts. Joel Williamson,
who also served as editor of the volume, argued that as early as 1868 segregation had crystallized in the South. Richard C. Wade argued that segregationist policies had evolved out of a need for control
during the rise of slavery. From its wide-ranging perspectives Origins clearly illustrated the vitality of the argument as it grew alongside the Civil Rights movement.16
As Strange Career continued its remarkable journey through academic circles Vann Woodward too continued his political activism. In 1974, the same year that the third and final revised edition of Strange
Career was completed, Vann Woodward served as the editor and director of a study entitled Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct. Once again, contemporary political events shaped Vann
Woodward’s professional decisions. Amid the confusion of the Watergate scandal his use of history to address present concerns had pulled Vann Woodward into the center of another controversy. But critics
of Strange Career were not diverted, and they continued to consider past race relations in Southern history.17
Published in 1974, too late to be accommodated by the final edition of Strange Career, Ira Berlin’s Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South continued the attack on the Woodward
thesis. In this work Berlin demonstrated how antebellum relations between free blacks and whites was a proving ground for segregationist policy. The various systems created to deal with this anomaly to a
slave society based on race would be applied after the war to all blacks. Berlin’s work further weakened the argument found in Strange Career that the period between the Civil War and the turn of the
century was one of relative fluidity and openness in race relations devoid of formal segregation.18
While much of the initial impact of the Woodward thesis had been deflated by the late 1970s, a few critics still targeted its generalizations. Howard Rabinowitz, in his 1978 work Race Relations in the
Urban South, 1865-1890, showed how as early as 1865 urban leaders turned to first exclusion, and later segregation, as a means to answer the growing demands placed on the cities by the influx of a black
population. He illustrated the growth of segregation in the private lives of individuals as a result of the public segregation being enforced throughout Southern urban areas. Over time this produced two
separate societies that existed together in the same physical space. Rabinowitz’s work served as a final statement on a by then old question.19
However, Strange Career continued to resurface in academic circles. In 1988, a full decade after the publication of Race Relations in the Urban South, Rabinowitz and Vann Woodward contributed to an issue of
the Journal of American History in which they looked back on the healthy life of Strange Career. Rabinowitz, in his article “More Than the Woodward Thesis: Assessing The Strange Career of Jim Crow”,
detailed the evolution of Strange Career from a relatively small set of lectures to a bestselling book of contention. He carefully moved from edition to edition, noting how the topography of the book
changed with the times. However, the meat of Rabinowitz article lay not in his genealogy of the many editions of Strange Career, but in his assessment of the three main contributions it had on Southern
First, Rabinowitz discussed the vitality of the Woodward Thesis and briefly described the arguments set forth by critics, including Litwack, Williamson, and even his own work, but also detailed how, at
least until the publication of the final edition, Vann Woodward managed to incorporate much of the criticism into Strange Career or avoid its implications by referring back to the circumspect nature of the
Woodward Thesis. But Rabinowitz finished his consideration of the Woodward Thesis by writing,
“The weight of the evidence seems to be on the side of those who find segregation deeply ingrained in southern life in the immediate postwar years, if not before. More importantly, it is not clear that the
system of segregation became so rigid after the turn of the century as Woodward suggests, or that it did so when he averred.”21
Yet Rabinowitz, while pointing out the errors in the work, did acknowledge the impact of Strange Career by noting how it almost single-handedly created a sub-field of segregation studies in Southern
Rabinowitz also described what he considered two other contributions of Strange Career. First, he thought it noteworthy that Vann Woodward used the idea of a ‘Second’ or ‘New’ Reconstruction to compare and
contrast the gains made by the First Reconstruction. However, Rabinowitz, while favoring a comparative study, warned that using the term ‘Second Reconstruction’ could ultimately muddy the idea of the First
Reconstruction. Finally, Rabinowitz focused on the final chapters of the third (and last) revised edition as Strange Career’s third contribution. In this chapter Vann Woodward described the emergence of the
Black Nationalist parties and identified the origins of separatism among a minority of black Americans. In doing so Vann Woodward revealed not only national, but also personal, disgust at the outcome (and
what he described as failure) of the Civil Rights movement. What began as a quest for equality and integration ended in a call for separatism. Rabinowitz viewed this concluding chapter as a skillful
synopsis of race relations in the last half of the 1960s and first half of the 1970s.23
In that same issue of the Journal of American History, Vann Woodward contributed an article humorously title “Strange Career Critics: Long May They Persevere.” In it he noted how the work of critics had
kept Strange Career continuously in contention for over three decades. Briefly surveying the authors who had most shaped and reshaped his work through their criticism, including Litwack, Berlin, and
Rabinowitz, Vann Woodward discussed how his work was sabotaged from the beginning. For him, emphasizing when segregation appeared and not where it appeared automatically created problems in his thesis. He
went on to note how Berlin and Rabinowitz had successfully demonstrated the existence of segregation in urban areas well before the period accounted for in Strange Career. Yet in accepting some of the
criticism leveled at Strange Career over the years, Vann Woodward also defended other aspects of it. For instance, he emphasized that his use of the idea of a First and Second Reconstruction was meant as an
analogy, a tool of the historian, writing, “History without analogies, however, would be a meaner thing, no more than a social science, perhaps one that speaks of analogies as “models” and misconceives
their uses.”24 Vann Woodward went on to defend his ‘presentism’, asserting that “No one could remain entirely insensitive to the moral issue.”25 Throughout the essay Vann Woodward
treated his critics with respect and admiration, but in the end sticks to his guns, so to speak, over allowing contemporary events to shape his research into the past during those troubling times.
Looking back on Vann Woodward’s life, a picture of a concerned academic in a personally disturbing world emerges. With a professional career that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil
Rights movement, Watergate, and the entirety of the Cold War, Vann Woodward repeatedly involved himself in the political realm. From his early support of the black community in Atlanta in the 1930s, to
his work on the seminal Brown v. Board of Education, and beyond, to the steps of the Alabama Capitol and the considerations of Watergate, Vann Woodward played a personal role in the unfolding of his world.
At the same time, The Strange Career of Jim Crow experienced a similar path. Born in the wake of the Brown decision, its infancy was one of demagogues and politicians. Rising to adulthood on the crest of
Civil Rights victories in the 1960s, Strange Career met maturity in the bitter aftermath of Black Nationalism. At each step critics shaped the contours of the book by constant questioning, research, and
illumination. Now a classic in Southern historiography, Strange Career created a sub-field within the profession and served as the implement with which generations of Southern historians cut their teeth.
In the words of Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”
1 Roger Adelson, “Interview with C. Vann Woodward,” The Historian 54 (1991), 1-5.
2 Ibid., 6-7.
3 Ibid., 7-8.
4 Ibid., 9.
5 John Hervert Roper, C. Vann Woodward: Southerner (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 80-81.
6 C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), preface to the 1955 reissue.
7 Adelson, 9-12.
8 C. Vann Woodward, “Between Little Rock and a hard place: the strange career of ‘The Strange Career of Jim Crow’,” The New Republic 194 (February 1986), 29-34. See also Adelson, 12-13.
9 Ibid., 29., Adelson, 13., C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), xvi-xvii.
10 Roper, 179-183.
11 C. Vann Woodward, American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), 237.
12 Vann Woodward, Strange Career, 1974 ed.
13 Jonathan Daniels, Book Review, Yale Review 45 (Autumn 1955), 140.
14 Vann Woodward, “Between Little Rock and a hard place,” 29-34.
15 Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).
16 Joel Williamson, ed., The Origins of Segregation (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1968).
17 C. Vann Woodward, ed., Responses of the Presidents to Charges of Misconduct (New York: Dell Publishing, 1974).
18 Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974).
19 Howard N. Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
20 Ibid., “More Than the Woodward Thesis: Assessing The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” Journal of American History 75 (December 1988), 842-856.
21 Ibid., 848.
23 Ibid., 855.
24 C. Vann Woodward, “Strange Career Critics: Long May They Persevere,” Journal of American History 75 (December 1988), 862.
25 Ibid., 868.
A note from Monkeylover: This was originally a paper written for school many years ago. At one time, it lived happily here before I nuked all of my nodes. I'm slowly replacing things.
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