April 3, 2008

Jim Anderson retrospective, part 2

A few days ago I described the 20th-anniversary Jim Anderson retrospective at AERA. Now it's my turn to address some of the topics raised in that session, in a personal historiography, or my reading of The Education of Blacks in the South, originally published in 1988.

For me, the thesis of the book was not particularly a surprise, for several reasons. First, my undergraduate advisor Paul Jefferson had exposed me to a broad variety of historical arguments from the very first course I took with him, which used Herbert Aptheker's documentary collection, to a seminar course where I wrote an historiographical essay on W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction. Bryn Mawr College sociologist David Karen had exposed me to both structural-functionalists and radical education critics in a course I took with him when I was a junior (or at least I vaguely recall its being spring 1986). Then in grad school I had Michael Katz as an advisor.

But probably the teacher who lay the groundwork the most for Anderson was Bob Engs, for whom I read C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South. Because Engs and Anderson use the same material to arrive at very different interpretations of the role of foundations in Southern education, it says a great deal about Engs as a teacher that he made Anderson make sense for me even while he was telling me that Anderson's book was polemical. I like both men a great deal, so perhaps a broader explanation is in order.

Engs and Anderson were both pioneers as African American historians in elite majority-white universities in the same time (the early 1970s), Engs at Penn and Anderson at Illinois. I wish I could say they were part of a continuous record going back decades, but in an case they've become part of diverse faculties for the past several.

Engs turned his first research project into a book ten years before Anderson's, with Freedom's First Generation about the Hampton, Virginia, community. Anderson took a decade and a half to write his first book (something Vanessa Siddle Walked called "lingering with an idea," but I thought of as "a darned good example of a leader in my field who didn't write 7 articles a year before tenure"). And they are different books: While Anderson writes only of education, Engs writes a local history, focusing on the contingent conditions that allowed Hampton's African American community to thrive after the Civil War and hang on to wealth in the very late 19th century even while the curtain of segregation and disfranchising was closing in from all sides.

Engs saw the Hampton Institute as one of those contingencies, and Samuel Chapman Armstrong (Hampton's first leader) as a friend of the Hampton African American community. Where Anderson saw a conspiracy to undermine equality, Engs saw irony with Armstrong's showing one face to the white community and another to Hampton's African Americans. Where Engs saw opportunity that some grabbed in the midst of oppression, Anderson saw structural limitations that were covered up by a tamed education system. Let me make clear that their views of the Southern political economy and educational structure are similar; the great interpretive differences lie in the role of the foundations.

Despite those deep differences in the interpretation of late 19th century Southern education, Engs laid the groundwork for my "oh, yes, of course" reading of Anderson in several ways. First, he made me and other graduate students read Willie Lee Rose's Rehearsal for Reconstrution and C. Vann Woodward and Jacqueline Jones and Exodusters and several others in a way that raised important questions about the South's history after the Civil War. I was also his teaching assistant one semester for his Southern postwar history class (that's postwar as in post-Civil War), and apart from his tolerance for the awkward naive grad student I was then, I figured out how he could say the most outlandish things in a lecture and get the southern white male students to recommend that all of their friends take his classes. With a light baritone, he stood at the front of class, uttering outrageous interpretations in a quiet, patient manner, as if they wouldn't ruffle anyone's feathers. The students loved him (and I presume students still love him at Penn).

So in many ways, I bought much of Anderson's argument because of Engs. If it's any comfort, Bob, it's because of Anderson's discussion of communities that I bought your argument, too. Ultimately, the best scholarship in each book is about different levels of action. Anderson effectively demonstrates that white philanthropists did conspire to impose a certain type of education on the South. Yet in his work on community efforts, Anderson bolsters Engs's argument that at the local level, there was a lot more going on. I'm not sure we have to establish the moral worth of Samuel Chapman Armstrong to evaluate either book. (Some years ago, Engs wrote a biography of Armstrong, and it's much more sympathetic than I expect Anderson's version would be.)

I have both learned from Anderson's work and also failed to give it credit in one case. It was because of his book that my own dissertation research on graduation in the 20th century involved looking at the extent of high school availability in the 1950s and 1960s. And like John Rury, I am returning to the scope of high school education in the 20th century South. In Schools as Imagined Communities, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Barbara Shircliffe, and I could have enriched the introduction by discussing Anderson's work. Mea culpa.

As those at the AERA panel said, Anderson's book helped open up the history of Southern education after the Civil War, giving the subject the gravitas that it deserves and momentum that has served many other historians well. The rest of us in the field can only hope to leave an intellectual legacy as significant as Jim Anderson's.

Listen to this article
Posted in Notable posts on April 3, 2008 4:54 PM |