University Men, Social Science, and White Supremacy in North Carolina

By Downs, Gregory P. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2009 | Go to article overview

University Men, Social Science, and White Supremacy in North Carolina


Downs, Gregory P., The Journal of Southern History


IN NOVEMBER 1898, AS NORTH CAROLINA'S DEMOCRATS COMPLETED their violent campaign against African American Republicans and white Populists, a young Carolinian mischievously asked if white supremacy leaders were happier that the "Democrats won in the election" or that "Chapel Hill beat Virginia" in a football game. In a similarly lighthearted moment, newly elected legislator Henry G. Connor, already at work on the state constitutional amendment that would disenfranchise African Americans, teased his son Robert, a senior at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill, that university president Edwin A. Alderman "had better be good to you" now that the father was on the winning side. Their joking references to the overlap between the campus and the white supremacy campaign touched on a connection that went well beyond social networks and into the world of ideas. Alderman called Henry Connor's white supremacy leadership "an act of citizenship not less heroic than going to war," and the president worked for months to lure the self-educated Henry Connor to Chapel Hill, first to give a commencement address and then, in an effort that failed, to convince him to accept a new professorship in law and political economy. In the spring of 1899, UNC's University Magazine published an essay titled "The Negro in the South" that used history and anthropology to justify the state's movement on the grounds that Anglo-Saxons were a "predominant race wherever they have gone." At the end of the school year, Robert Connor and his classmates on the school yearbook signaled the interaction between campus and state by dedicating the Hellenian to Frank Winston, an alumnus and trustee who in 1898 had directed the state's white supremacy clubs, helped Henry Connor author the disenfranchisement amendment, and "by loyal service to his State and University ... shown himself to be a statesman and alumnus worthy of our esteem." (1)

It was no wonder that a white supremacy legislator claimed, "I owe all that I have in this world to the University and to the Democratic Party." For many white supremacy leaders in North Carolina, their effort to topple the South's strongest biracial political movement was as much a social and intellectual effort as a political one. Despite scholarly portrayals of its roots in crass ambition or personal neuroses, North Carolina's white supremacy was in fact a mandarin moment led by a newly self-conscious group of public intellectuals. These men were participants, if not leading or systematic ones, in a global project, one in which social scientific theories of progress, race, reproduction, and degeneration inspired new waves of statist reform programs across Europe and the United States. Although their ideas were colored by their particular experiences in North Carolina, they were part of a broad current of what sociologist Edward A. Ross called "selectionist" thought. This statist approach to governance celebrated the role of educated leaders in selecting the proper aspects of society to reproduce in order to drive the nation toward progress and away from degeneration. By placing these intellectual networks at the center of the formation and dissemination of North Carolina white supremacy, this article traces the roles of ideas and of the University of North Carolina in the formation of this thinking class. (2)

Viewing white supremacy from the realm of campus debates seems peculiar next to the now-iconic images of the campaign drawn by scholars like Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Eric Anderson, and Helen G. Edmonds: jostling and then bloodshed on the streets of Wilmington, violent attacks at campaign canvasses in the eastern Second Congressional District (the so-called Black Second), and lurid and invented stories of rape in Josephus Daniels's newspaper, the Raleigh News and Observer. From Edmonds's pathbreaking 1951 The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901, through works by H. Leon Prather St.

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