The Southern Historical Association: Seventy-Five Years of History "In the South" and "Of the South"

By Johnson, Bethany L. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2010 | Go to article overview

The Southern Historical Association: Seventy-Five Years of History "In the South" and "Of the South"


Johnson, Bethany L., The Journal of Southern History


ON OCTOBER 22, 1935, ALABAMA JOURNALIST JOHN TEMPLE GRAVES II greeted his Birmingham radio audience with news about a "historic event" taking place that week in their own city: the first annual meeting of the newly formed Southern Historical Association (SHA). "Who writes the history for the history writers when the history writers are out making history to be written?" he joked. Volunteering himself for the job, Graves sought to impress on his listeners the vital importance of the historians' gathering. "There's more history in the Southern States than in all the rest of the country put together," he said. "Some of it has been fairly written, some of it hasn't, and a great deal hasn't been written at all." The Southern Historical Association, he believed, was an important step in remedying these problems: "It ought to be able to do much towards making unfair history fair, towards making incomplete history complete, and towards making uninformed Southerners better informed." (1)

When I first ran across this broadcast transcript in the archives, I stifled a little laugh, because it seemed so improbable that any media personality today would call one of our meetings a "historic event." But at the same time, the piece indicated that the story of the origins of the Southern Historical Association would in fact offer a way toward a better understanding of issues at the heart of southern regionalism and identity. Graves's evident relief that such an organization, dedicated specifically to the history of the South, had finally come into existence belies one of the most axiomatic assumptions of American cultural history--the idea that white southerners define their very "southernhess" by a unique and popular preoccupation with their region's past. Historians frequently quote William Faulkner's supposed truism that in the South "[t]he past is never dead. It's not even past." (2) The historical literature on the South's regional distinctiveness is permeated by the claim that white southerners are distinctive because they are steeped in their own past and that the southern past in its uniqueness produced a separate regional and cultural identity. Southerners are marked by their determined promise to remember, by a sense of continuity between present and past, by a historical experience at once burdensome and instructive, and by a near-obsession with explaining the South and themselves as southerners? In his otherwise considerable study of the American historical profession, Peter Novick fails to historicize white southern historians, claiming that even though "[s]outhern regional consciousness did not find institutional expression until 1934" when the Southern Historical Association was founded, "it was no less strong for that." "[I]ndeed," he continues, "it could be said that it was so strong, so taken for granted, that it didn't need institutional expression." (4)

And so we find ourselves, as we mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Southern Historical Association, with the opportunity to take stock of those origins and to consider the path the organization has taken. (5) If history is to have any function in a region so seemingly dominated by heritage--that deep-seated if often incorrect understanding of the South's past that infiltrates its literature, its public landscape, its symbols, and its politics--then historians must continue to work out the knotty relationship between the past, regional identity, history, and tradition. (6) A central component of this project is coming to terms with past historians of the South and their role in the inheritance, promotion, and changing definitions of southern identity. Historians have generally been left out of cultural and intellectual studies of the South because they have been seen as somehow less interesting than other regional authors, writing, as Fred Hobson points out, "not in passion but ... with something approaching calm and deliberate reflection.

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