Jason Sokol, Charles Rappleye & Joan Cashin: WaPo Book critic selects their books as three of the best of the year

Historians in the News

Three of the works of nonfiction that make my personal list of the year's best books, and one of the works of fiction, initially came to my attention because of a lifelong interest in race relations in the United States generally and in Southern history more specifically. These are matters about which I make no claims to virtue or moral purity, but they have been foremost in my mind ever since, as a boy of 9, I moved with my family from the Northeast to Southside Virginia. The sight of black convicts working in chain gangs by the roadside unnerved me, and so did the experience of being waited upon by black women who were older than my mother.

That was in the summer of 1948, a time when the South was poised at the threshold of momentous and, for many, traumatic change. The system of segregation and oppression seemed as immutable as the obligatory statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse. Blacks lived in what whites called "their place," and whites assumed they were both happy in it and uninterested in rising above it.

The next quarter-century proved just how wrong those assumptions were. How the white South responded to the civil rights movement is the subject of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, by Jason Sokol, a young scholar who has done exhaustive research in primary sources and who has shown how difficult it is to generalize about white Southerners in that time of astonishing social, political and cultural upheaval. He gives all due attention to those who reacted bitterly, noisily and sometimes violently to black protest, but he also shows how some whites were embarrassed by these troublemakers and sought other ways to deal with change. Without ever losing sight of the indisputable justice and necessity of the civil rights movement, Sokol manages to understand those who were caught on the sidelines yet found their lives irreversibly altered.

The history of complex Southern feelings about the subjugated blacks in their midst is as long as the history of slavery and segregation. New evidence of this is brought to light by Joan E. Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War. Her title is somewhat misleading, as this biography of Jefferson Davis's wife encompasses far more than the four years of the war, but it does underscore the point that Varina Howell Davis was involved in internal as well as external struggles. She doesn't seem to have questioned slavery more than occasionally and half-heartedly, but she believed that secession was foolish and the war unwinnable for the Confederacy. She supported her husband unflinchingly, as was expected of wives in that time, but she disagreed with him frequently and apparently wasn't afraid to tell him so.

To Northerners, Varina Davis was an object of ridicule and contempt, but when it came to race, the North had little about which to be proud. Many of the great New England fortunes were founded in varying degrees on the slave trade. In Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, Charles Rappleye tells the story of Rhode Island's most prominent family. Though he says that relatively little of the Browns' great wealth came from selling slaves, he leaves no doubt that John Brown believed "the true course to wealth came through Africa" and that disagreement over slavery drew him and his brother Moses apart. Newport more than Providence was a slave-trading city, but a basic point of Rappleye's fine book is that New England's claim to moral superiority over the South rested on a shaky foundation....

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