Separate and Unequal: Public School Campaigns and Racism in the Southern Seaboard States, 1901-1915

By Louis R. Harlan | Go to book overview

Preface to the Atheneum Edition

byHugh Hawkins

IT IS BOTH a strength and a weakness of written American history that it is so often inspired by contemporary social problems. In a period of similar concerns, the historian can better grasp the thoughts of an earlier generation, but he may remold the past to exaggerate its similarity to the present. One thinks, for example, of the recently renewed interest in American abolitionists and in American imperialists. Louis Harlan's book was a creation of the 1950s, when racial segregation in Southern schools seemed to many the major anomaly in a society professing democratic values But though his attention was drawn to a period that promoted such segregation, he did not write a polemic. His book is a happy combination of presently relevant social concern and recognition of an earlier generation's otherness.

Improvement of public school systems was a central achievement of Southern Progressivism in the opening years of the twentieth century. It was only then that some of the reforms associated with the name of Horace Mann occurred in the South. Although Mann had had admirers and imitators in the antebellum South, the debilitations of a slave-holding society, a disastrous war, and a depressed agricultural economy had long frustrated the aspirations of Southern school reformers.

Harlan's story describes a central failure of this Southern school reform after it finally gained momentum. For all the democratic merits of free, accessible public education, the Southern pub

-vii-

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