Historian Charles Dew takes on the racism of an infamous ancestor, the slavery apologist Thomas R. Dew

Historians in the News
tags: racism, The Making of a Racist

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.” ...

Read entire article at The News and Observer

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