Monday, July 22, 2013

Summer Research examines Virginia history for professor's book

A Randolph College professor and student dove deep into historical archives to bring to life critical periods of the history of Virginia and America this summer.

John D’Entremont, the Theodor H. Jack Professor of History, has been working on his book Endowed by Their Creator: The Story of Virginia in the Saga of America. He calls it “an American history book disguised as Virginia history” because it uses Virginia to examine important issues and themes that have impacted the nation as a whole, such as religious freedom, slavery, and democracy. “Virginia really is a microcosm of America,” he said.

D’Entremont recruited Will Dede ’14 to work with him during Randolph’s Summer Research Program. They have traveled to the University of Virginia to read letters and newspaper articles that highlight individuals who illustrate racism in America.

One of those individuals is Frederick Holliday, a pro-slavery Virginia governor after the Civil War. When Holliday was succeeded by a governor who did not share his racist views, he traveled the world to find societies that agreed with him that blacks were inferior. “Holliday left Virginia for 15 years to look for Virginia, the way Virginia used to be,” D’Entremont said.

The other individual is James Kilpatrick, a Virginia newspaper editor who promoted massive resistance to the integration of public schools, even after the Supreme Court had ordered integration. “He used the News Leader as his pulpit to preach the evils of integration and the evils of an intrusive federal government,” D’Entremont said. “He was not stunted or tarred by his association with segregation. Actually, that was the springboard to national fame and wealth.”

D’Entremont and Dede read many handwritten letters from each of these individuals describing their views on politics and race. Dede focused more on Kilpatrick’s papers, including letters exchanged with readers and politicians. “It’s kind of moving just to be able to hold these papers that he was sitting there writing himself 50 to 60 years ago,” he said.

Dede is especially interested in the influence Kilpatrick has had on modern politics by removing race from the dialogue about segregation and other issues. “He was able to frame it as not necessarily a race issue, but as overreach by the federal government and by the courts,” he said. “He clearly did a good job of framing the argument.”

Dede has been very surprised by some of the heated rhetoric and boldly racist claims he read in the letters. D’Entremont said this is because for decades, the nation has tried to forget many racist moments from its past. But the country can learn from its mistakes only as Dede and others his age explore the depth of racism and other problems in history. “It’s only with people like him that we have any chance of being a mature and healthy society able to recognize our own flaws,” he said.