AT OUR ANNUAL MEETING IN MEMPHIS IN NOVEMBER WE CONFRONTED OUR own past as an organization and honored our leadership in a number of ways. From an opening session reliving an earlier, far more contentious SHA meeting in Memphis, to a session commemorating the legacy of our longest-serving secretary-treasurer, to new awards established and bestowed in honor of prominent members, the seventieth annual meeting was one at which we not only recalled our history but also added to it in significant ways.
Our opening session on Wednesday night was held in the Peabody Hotel's Continental Ballroom, the very room in which, forty-nine years earlier, in 1955, the Southern had convened for a dinner and a panel discussion of the Brown v. Board of Education decision issued the year before and its implications for the South and southern history. It was an event that attracted considerable attention at the time and in the collective memory of the Association since for two very different reasons: one of the panelists was William Faulkner, who made this his first public pronouncement on the desegregation decisions; and the Peabody Hotel initially banned the SHA's African American members from attending the dinner session, all too ironic given the focus of that session.
Anne Firor Scott, who moderated our session, referred to it as "three historical artifacts and a scholar to make sense of it all." The "scholar" to whom she referred is Fred A. Bailey, who is currently at work on a book on southern historians and the history they themselves have created, one example of which was the SHA meeting in 1955. He provided a detailed and insightful account of the events leading up to that session and the controversy surrounding it, and he put it in the context of the political dynamics at play within the Association itself during that uncertain era of transition. The "three artifacts" to whom Scott referred are Thomas D. Clark, who had served as toastmaster of that session, and who at age 101 recalled for us in remarkable detail--and without a note in hand--what it had been like to be in the room forty-nine years earlier; John Hope Franklin, who chose not to attend the meeting that year, knowing well beforehand how problematic Memphis was likely to be; and Scott herself, who had not been there either but provided some comparative perspective by discussing SHA meetings she had attended, from Williamsburg in 1949 to Asheville in 1963, at which the Association was forced to confront racial challenges of other sorts. It was a memorable night, to say the least. The session was videotaped, and anyone interested in having a copy of the tape of the event can do so by sending $10 to our office in Athens.
The current management of the Peabody Hotel and the city of Memphis itself were very much interested in this session and the history it relived. The hotel graciously provided Dr. Franklin with a complimentary suite during his stay and a birthday cake at the reception held in its Skyway Room following the opening session and co-hosted by Duke University. (This celebration of his ninetieth birthday, he was quick to remind us, was premature; he would continue to enjoy his mere eighty-nine years for another two months after our party.) Dr. Willie H. Herenton, Memphis's first African American mayor and a longtime admirer of John Hope Franklin, was also enthusiastic about this event and hosted a luncheon in Dr. Franklin's honor at the National Civil Rights Museum, where he paid tribute to Dr. Franklin's life and achievements and presented him with a key to the city.
Bennett H. Wall, who served as SHA secretary-treasurer for thirty-three years (1952-1985) and president in 1989 and who died in August 2003, was also the focus of a well-attended session that was moving, entertaining, and informative. Colleagues and former students from the University of Kentucky, Tulane, and the SHA paid tribute to the tremendous impact Wall had as teacher, as mentor, and most of all, as the driving force behind the Association for so much of its formative era. …