Personal History

By Leach, Jim | Humanities, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

Personal History

Leach, Jim, Humanities


Daughter of the South, President of Harvard

PRESIDENT DREW FAUST OF HARVARD University is this year's Jefferson Lecturer, the fortieth recipient of this honor, the highest award in the humanities bestowed by the United States government. An important leader in American higher education and a well-known scholar, Faust is the Lincoln Professor of History in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Before serving as president, she was the founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and for many years was a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her studies have resulted in several books notable for their original thought and thoroughgoing research. Her most recent is This Republic of Suffering, which takes its title from the words of Frederick Law Olmsted and its subject from the vast death toll of the Civil War. She has also written books about the effects of the war on Southern womanhood and about the lives and culture of slavery's apologists in the antebellum South.

JIM LEACH: You were brought up in the Shenandoah Valley. As a child you must have been aware of the Civil War legacy and probably had a sense for the nineteenth-century past.

DREW GILPIN FAUST: Very much so.

LEACH: How did it influence you as you grew up?

FAUST: I felt very much that I lived in history - in a couple of different ways. One was the presence of the Civil War and living on a highway called the LeeJackson Highway. And living surrounded by those gray, black-bordered road signs that the state of Virginia put up to mark historic sites. We had many of those: the old mill in Millwood from the eighteenth century; Carter Hall, up on the hill that we had known had been an important outpost of the Carter family from the Tidewater And Civil War monuments everywhere: Cedar Creek, the many battles of Winchester.

And then in the cemetery where now my parents are buried, but at that time it was my grandfather and others, next to the marked gravestones and my family plot at this beautiful little setting called the Old Chapel, there were many moss-covered stone grave-markers that said, "Unidentified Confederate." They were the dead of skirmishes that had taken place in that much fought-over area.

My older brother became a Civil War aficionado and collected stuff. Which included, ultimately a John Brown pike and a bunch of rifles and all kinds of things. But from the time he was much smaller he had us playing Civil War.

And he was always Lee, so I had to be Grant. But somehow I always lost. And it took a while before I figured out that history had turned out otherwise. So, I had a very special version of the Civil War story told to me when I was little.

LEACH: But the Civil War wasn't quite over for you. When you were nine, you wrote a letter to the president of the United States, Dwight David Eisenhower

FAUST: That was the other part of history that I lived in: The stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement were emerging all around me when I was a young child.

And there was Harry Byrd, who was not just our senator, but really our neighbor He lived in Clarke County, as we did, and he was very much a presence. Byrd was the person who championed the notion of "massive resistance." Rather than integrate in response to Brown v. Board of Ed., he proclaimed that Virginia should close its public schools. The discussion and debate that surrounded that were very much in the air of my childhood. But these were not issues that anybody spoke about out loud when I was growing up. There were just ways of doing things that separated black and white. There wasn't a vivid discourse of race. It was just taken for granted.

And so with the articulation of these principles of separation and inequality as a defensive response to the emerging civil rights revolution, I was struck, even as a young child, by their inconsistency with the values I had learned at church, as I made reference to in my piece about my letter to Eisenhower, and in school as we learned about democracy and America, those political values that had been transmitted to me by the time I was nine years old. …

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