Historian examines his past in "The Making of a Racist"

Historian and author Charles B. Dew.
Historian and author Charles B. Dew. Williams College

In “The Making of a Racist,” historian Charles B. Dew, a descendant of Thomas Roderick Dew, one of the Old South’s most passionate apologists for slavery, provides a candid, courageous and introspective examination of the attitudes and beliefs that made him “a racist, an accidental racist perhaps ... but a racist nonetheless” until his final year at Williams College, 1957-1958.

Dew, the author of important books on the antebellum South, has written a fascinating hybrid – part autobiography, part history, part pedagogy, part catharsis. Most importantly, his book provides a bold self-examination of how he inherited his sectional and racial views from his family and how white Southerners defended and perpetuated white supremacy, first under slavery and later under Jim Crow.

Born in 1937, Dew grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., in an upper middle class family. Among his first childhood memories was that of his mother reading dialect stories about black persons as comical and decidedly inferior to whites. Although today he considers these tales “deeply racist,” Dew recognizes that his mother lived “in a place and time when whites did not consider these portrayals of African Americans either offensive or outlandish.”

Dew’s parents raised him to be a “Confederate youth.” For his 14th birthday they gave him a .22-caliber rifle and Douglas Southall Freeman’s three-volume history of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, “Lee’s Lieutenants” (1946). These gifts, Dew explains, “marked my coming of age as a white son of the South.”

Dew entered Williams (where he continues to teach today) in 1954, fully committed to segregation and insensitive to racial injustice, unaware that during his first three years of college he would experience a process of “consciousness raising and conscience raising.” Several forces – living and engaging as equals with black classmates, following the civil rights struggle in the press, seeing firsthand black poverty in the rural South, and studying the history of the South critically – gradually led to Dew’s “unmaking as a racist.”

By September 1957, when watching TV coverage of whites protesting the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School, events had transformed him. “The people in that mob disgusted me,” Dew recalled. “I did not want to be like them. I did not want anything to do with people like that. I, we, the South, surely we were better than that.” By the time he headed to Johns Hopkins in 1958 to begin graduate work, Dew had tossed his Confederate youth “into the dustbin of history” and “finally, finally, managed to break loose from my racist moorings.”

Reflecting on his long career as a historian of the South, Dew explains that he focused his research on slavery and race “because I wanted to know how white Southerners – my people – had managed to look evil in the face every day and not see what was right there in front of them, in front of us.”

To illustrate this point Dew presents evidence drawn from his research on Richmond, Va.’s, slave market. Unfortunately this documentary material provides somewhat of a detour from his otherwise linear autobiography. But it does underscore the chattel principle – the almost casual commodification of black human beings as property.

The key to understanding both 19th century slavery and twentieth century segregation, Dew concludes, was the “unquestioned assumption of white superiority and innate black inferiority” by otherwise decent people like his forebears. Notions of white supremacy passed across generations acquired “all the certainty and inevitability of a genetic trait.” These remained largely unchallenged because “the system that elevates us and subordinates them seems right and proper and the way things were meant to be.”

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte. He recently published “Interpreting American History: Reconstruction.”


“The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade”

By Charles B. Dew

University of Virginia Press, 185 pages