by Bradley D. Proctor
In December 1913, the American Historical Association (AHA) held its annual meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. It was celebrated as one of the first “southern” meetings of the AHA. The association’s president that year was William Archibald Dunning, professor at Columbia University and advisor of a wide cohort of graduate students who were in the process of professionalizing the writing of southern history. Dunning was not a southerner, and grew up already in positions of academic privilege; he was born in New Jersey and attended Columbia as both undergraduate and graduate student. Several of his former students organized a private dinner in his honor on the second night of the conference. The men dined on oysters, turtle soup, beef tenderloin, and partridges. They drank champagne and smoked cigars. Undoubtedly they shared stories of an Old South, one that they thought had been threatened by black citizenship during Reconstruction but had been redeemed by its reversal and made solid by Jim Crow.
We now group these men and their ideas in the so-called Dunning School—named after their advisor and mentor. In the early twentieth century, they wrote the most influential histories of the aftermath of the Civil War. They also founded archives, expanded history courses at prestigious universities, and professionalized the writing and teaching of historical methods. And the history they wrote supported the white supremacy of Jim Crow, telling stories that Reconstruction governments were corrupt, that racist violence was necessary to reverse what they claimed was oppressive federal occupation, and that African Americans were undeserving of political rights.
This meeting of the AHA occurred at the height of Lost Cause commemoration and a national reconciliation between North and South. The summer of 1913 had seen a famous Civil War veterans’ reunion for the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, where veterans in blue and grey shook each other’s hands in renewed national brotherhood. This reconciliation came at the expense of the political rights of African Americans. In erasing the role of slavery from the causes and course of the Civil War, the national reconciliation of the Lost Cause served as cultural cover for Jim Crow segregation, disfranchisement, and racist violence.
Recent historians have compiled excellent studies of the Lost Cause in popular culture and public commemoration. David Blight began his monumental work Race and Reunion with the 1913 Gettysburg reunion and the speech of former historian and President Woodrow Wilson. Historians have also dismantled the historical arguments of the Dunning School. Virtually every academic work on Reconstruction still begins its historiographical analysis by recounting the errors of the Dunning School. Still, historians have taken less seriously the fact that the Dunning School existed beyond bad ideas to be discounted in literature reviews. These scholars professionalized methodologies and built academic institutions still essential to the study of history today. They did so not only to place the Lost Cause at the center of American history, but also to defend contemporaneous Jim Crow. This is a history with which we must reckon.
On the first evening of the AHA conference, December 29, 1913, Dunning gave the annual presidential address. His theme was “Truth in History.” The speech avoided talking much about U.S. history, though he did give an almost parenthetical remark to defend the historical reputation of Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of the Dred Scott decision. Dunning declared that “[h]istory, therefore, as an aggregate of facts for investigation, requires subdivision and analysis.” He said historians should achieve “exactness” while studying causality, but he mostly emphasized the importance of primary sources. The historian “must know precisely what happened and he must know it from the original contemporary evidence.”
Many of Dunning’s students indeed had been writing histories of the South grounded in contemporary evidence, suffused with footnotes, and focused on “subdivision and analysis.” They had written dissertations about Reconstruction in specific southern states. These they published, usually with Columbia University Press. They were then hired as historians at prestigious colleges and universities. Some of Dunning’s students or mentees taught at Yale, Dartmouth, Louisiana State University, the Ohio State University, Smith College, Dartmouth, the University of Kansas, the University of Chicago, the University of Wisconsin, Bryn Mawr, Trinity College (before it was Duke), and the University of Texas.
The main organizer of the dinner was Yates Snowden, the principal historian at the University of South Carolina. Snowden published little academic history, but he was a major collector of documents about southern history. He pushed for the establishment of an archive that became the university’s South Carolinian Library—still today one of the most important repositories of documents about South Carolina history.
Another dinner attendee was Ulrich B. Phillips. Phillips thought less of Dunning as an advisor and mentor than others did. He was closer to Frederick Jackson Turner, whose ode to settler colonialism, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” had been the chief attraction of the 1893 AHA meeting in Chicago. Phillips did not publish much on Reconstruction, but he was an early expert on the history of enslavement in the United States. In 1928, Phillips published “The Central Theme of Southern History” as an article in The American Historical Review. That theme, Phillips approvingly wrote, was the repeated effort to ensure that the South “shall be and remain a white man’s country.” White supremacy, for Phillips no less than political contemporaries, was a positive goal.
In the middle of the dinner, between courses of beef and partridges, J.G. de Roulhac Hamilton of the University of North Carolina announced that Columbia University Press was publishing a festschrift: a collection of essays written by former students and colleagues to honor Dunning. The essays defended colonization, secession, and—in Hamilton’s contribution—the “Black Codes” that sought to regulate post-emancipation black behavior before the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. Hamilton was a star Dunning student. His history of Reconstruction in North Carolina was widely read. He became the cornerstone of the teaching of history at U.N.C., and he published widely and used the methods of seemingly dispassionate historical analysis including primary source research documented with lots of footnotes.
He was a dedicated servant of, and major force at, the University of North Carolina. He helped to make U.N.C. Press nationally significant. In 1915 he began seeking out archival materials in earnest, eventually earning the nickname “Ransack Hamilton” for how he plundered plantation documents. In 1930, the university officially founded the Southern Historical Collection to house these records and placed Hamilton as director. He died in 1961. Less than a decade later, the university named a new building that now houses the departments of history, political science, and sociology Hamilton Hall.
These men not only feted Dunning, they led important parts of the conference. Yates Snowden had been a major force in bringing the AHA to South Carolina. There was no small symbolism to meeting in Charleston, and northern historians were eager to explore the place that could claim the most significant events at the start of the Civil War. Seventy-five historians, including Dunning, had chartered a train to cross the Mason-Dixon line. They made a layover in Richmond to visit the site of the Battle of the Crater outside of Petersburg. Many took time away from conference proceedings to explore historic Charleston, including Fort Sumter. When the conference shifted to the capital city of Columbia on the third day, several were treated to a ride in an automobile to visit the childhood home of a fellow historian, Woodrow Wilson.
The conference was a clear attempt to further sectional reconciliation. The program committee had prohibited southern topics, in general, and Reconstruction, in particular, to avoid possibly testy sectional disputes—there were still, however, papers about John C. Calhoun, Fort Sumter, and Charleston during the Civil War. But the men associated with Dunning led conversations about institutionalizing and professionalizing history. Hamilton presided over a roundtable discussion on the teaching of history in colleges and universities, and there were discussions about the responsibility of southern universities to help get southern history in schools.
There were also presentations on the importance of archives. A paper about the “Advantages and disadvantages of centralizing local archives at the State capital” was followed with comments from the state archivists of North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Perhaps the most distinguished presenter at the conference was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who “addressed the conference on the unsatisfactory provision now existing for the naval archives of the United States.” Roosevelt had a long history of interest in history, historical documentation, and the development of archives. In 1934, as president, he nominated R. D. W. Connor—close friend to many in the Dunning School—as the first Archivist of the United States and the new National Archives.
I often tell students that oppression is rarely the result of an actual backroom meeting of elite white men smoking cigars and planning how to keep the people down. Oppressive systems are contested, negotiated, and diffuse. But sometimes it happens. Though the purpose of the gathering that night at the New Charleston Hotel was not simply to plan how to celebrate white supremacy, it was an event, led by men dedicated to the Lost Cause, designed to further professionalize American history as academic discipline.
Here we should sit with the lessons of a scholar who occupied a substantially more marginal position in the academy. During the early twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in what he called “a field devastated by passion and belief.” We should continue to heed his call in Black Reconstruction in America that “We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race, and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.”
These men were not simply scholars with flawed ideas about the past. They were institutional racists: active proponents and champions of Jim Crow, as eager to build professional networks that excluded people of color as they were to exclude people of color from the story of who and what mattered to the history of the United States. Other historians with less racist interpretations—especially black historians—were not nearly so celebrated.
The men of the Dunning School might not advise theses any more, and the historical interpretations these men crafted might now be largely discredited and discarded. But their legacies remain. Waves of white college students were taught a story of America that directly rejected the inclusion of African Americans into American democracy. Historians still work in archives founded by them, get degrees in department buildings named for them, hoping to win awards established in their honor. This is a history that should sit uneasily with us.
Bradley D. Proctor is a member of the faculty at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He received his PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research interests include democracy and antidemocratic white supremacist violence in the nineteenth century.
 David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001).
 William A. Dunning, “Truth in History,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (January 1914), 217-229.
 John David Smith, “Ulrich B. Phillips: Dunningite or Phillipsian Sui Generis,” in in John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, eds., The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 133-156.
 Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Oct. 1928), 30-43; quotation on 31. The article was the basis for a conversation at the next year’s American Historical Association Meeting in Indianapolis.
 Studies in Southern History and Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1914).
 “About,” The Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina, https://library.unc.edu/wilson/shc/about/.
 John Herbert Ropert, Sr., “Ransack Roulhac and Racism,” in Smith and Lowery, eds., The Dunning School, 196.
 The conference was covered in several contemporary newspapers. See, for examples, “Arrive Saturday on Special Train,” The Times Dispatch, December 23, 1913; “Historians Spend Day in Richmond, The Times Dispatch, December 28, 1913; “Historians Convene,” The Times Dispatch, December 30, 1913; “Visits President’s Old Home,” University Missourian, January 14, 1914. Dunning also discussed the conference in depth with his friend Frederic Bancroft in private correspondence. See Correspondence of Frederic Bancroft and William A. Dunning, Columbia University Libraries [microfilm].
 Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1913, Vol. I. (Washington: 1915), 50; 40-41.
 Annual Report Vol. I, 46.
 Annual Report Vol. I, 43.
 “Robert D.W. Connor, First Archivist of the United States (Archivist: 1934–1941),” National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/about/history/archivists/connor.html.
 W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York; London; Toronto; Sydney: The Free Press, 1998 ), 725.
*South Caroliniana Library.
Excellent piece, Brad.
You mention his 1935 book, but overlook W. E. B. Du Bois, “Reconstruction and its Benefits,” AHR 15:4 (Jul., 1910), 781-799, based on a paper he had presented at the AHA meeting the year before, refuting the Dunningites. I’m wondering whether the Charleston meeting might have been in part a response to DuBois.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Pingback: 1619 Project vs 1776 Commission - LA Progressive
I’ve never seen a formal, structured, analysis and active opposition to white supremacy in the academy including Dunning and beyond. Is it expected that this deep, intense and extensive academic rot would die of its own putrid odor?