In 1915, Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin was a precocious nineteen-year-old college graduate. She had grown up in Georgia and South Carolina and knew well the racial mores of the American South. Lumpkin found these mores challenged when she attended a leadership conference sponsored by the YWCA late that year. Her YWCA leader encouraged Lumpkin to consider the parable of the Good Samaritan when deciding whether or not to allow an African American woman to address their group. The force of the parable overwhelmed Lumpkin’s segregationist upbringing and launched her on a career in which she championed equal justice for all.1
I have often wondered why more white southerners in the colonial and antebellum periods did not have such conversion experiences. If the command to love one’s neighbor made Lumpkin realize in 1915 that segregation was wrong, why did so few white southerners realize that race-based slavery was wrong? By all accounts, white southerners in the nineteenth century were among the most devoted Christians in the Western world, but their faith seems only to have strengthened their determination to hold another people in bondage. This book represents my attempt to understand this staggering moral failure—to understand why the parable of the Good Samaritan fell on deaf ears for so many generations. Both whites and blacks are the protagonists, for southern whites were the ones who taught themselves not to hear the parable’s lesson, but African Americans were the ones who kept telling it.
While the subject matter of this book has often left me discouraged, the people whom I have met in the course of its creation have provided abundant inspiration and wise counsel. I first entered the world of nineteenthcentury evangelicals at the University of Virginia, amid an extraordinary cohort of young historians that included Brian Schoen, Watson Jennison, Susanna Lee, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, John Riedl, Andrew Witmer, Johann