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Race and Masculinity in Nineteenth-Century Southern Higher Education


Dr. Clay Cooper is a Lecturer in the Department of History at Middle Tennessee State University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2014. His dissertation is titled “The Flower of Southern Manhood: Race and Masculinity in Southern Higher Education, 1820-1900.” Follow him on twitter @tclaycooper.

Could you briefly describe your dissertation?

My dissertation examines the changing and competing gender ideals of black, white, and Native American college students in the South from 1820 to 1900.  Through examining student writings at the University of North Carolina, the University of Virginia, Washington (& Lee) College, and the Virginia Military Institute, my work traces the rise of a more restrained, evangelical masculinity in the white elite by the 1840s.  During the Civil War, however, even restrained manhood became more violent, shaped by the pro-war rhetoric of professors and campus chaplains by spring 1861.  My research traces the continuation of violent honor after the Civil War and the extensive role white college students played in propagating Lost Cause mythology and the postwar white supremacy campaign of violence and intimidation.

I also analyze Native American and African American masculinity in southern higher education after the Civil War. Students’ ideals of manhood illuminate Indian and African American resistance to the regulations and ideologies of accommodationist and assimilationist vocational schools like Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute.  I identify four kinds of Native American student masculinity based on reactions to Anglo-American cultural indoctrination, ranging from massive resistance to acculturation.  Black vocational students believed manhood meant freedom from the type of forced manual labor they were expected to perform in exchange for their education.  Middle-class African Americans at liberal arts colleges like Atlanta University tended to champion a vision of masculinity built on equal citizenship and sought to demonstrate physical and intellectual equality with whites.

What drew your attention to this topic?

My dissertation topic originally grew out of my M.A. research, which attempts to explain causes of unionism in East Tennessee during the U.S. Civil War. In trying to understand why college-educated East Tennessee men tended to support secession more often than those without the experience of higher education, I suspected the answer was more extensive than a simple correlation to higher income and social class. After reading the work of Peter Carmichael, Stephen Berry, Jennifer Green, and Tim Williams, among others, I began to consider the impact of higher education on students’ broader worldviews, specifically in terms of how they viewed themselves as “men.”  Though the starting point was not rooted directly in current events, the question of college’s role in changing (or reaffirming) the way students think about themselves and the larger world seemed an important one amid ongoing funding challenges for colleges and universities, especially within the liberal arts.

What first steps did you take as you began to explore your topic?

I reached out to several of the historians whose work inspired me and solicited their opinions. My advisers at the University of Florida, William Link and Matthew Gallman, were both very helpful in directing me to major source bases and helping me think about narrowing my project and formulating guiding questions. James Broomall, a fellow graduate student at the time at UF, was also very kind to talk to me about primary and secondary sources that I might want to consider.

Can you talk about your research process and your archival sources? 

I found very quickly that almost all sources for white southern college students at major schools (diaries, letter collections, university literary society and fraternity records) had been mined many times over. In order to tell a new story, I realized I was going to have to look at several different schools and examine a longer period of time (eighty years).

The major challenge of the dissertation research was finding comparable student-authored, private or semi-private sources for African American and Native American students.  Most of the readily available archival sources for nineteenth-century southern higher education for people of color were public propaganda to attract investors.  Student diaries at places like Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute were essentially nonexistent.  A small number of historians had turned to school disciplinary reports in lieu of primary student accounts. Though not ideal sources, these at least offered some accounts of student behavior and occasionally included the students’ arguments in defense of their actions. Though many of my findings ended up being more speculative than I initially hoped, it was rewarding to author a dissertation in hopes of shifting the balance of research and writing on nineteenth-century African American and Native American education from traditional top-down, faculty-centered narratives to projects that consider the students more as individuals.

What future directions do you see for this work? What other questions need to be asked about this topic?

I would like to include a few other schools in the final book publication.  Though the dissertation fits nicely into fairly chronological chapters, I need to probe further into the commonalities of the educational experience and gender construction and reification for African Americans, Indians, and whites. It was a more difficult process than I envisioned to intertwine their largely incongruous experiences using very different types of sources.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

Some of the best advice I received was to choose a topic that could keep me interested in it for a decade, from inception to eventual book publication. Since my M.A. research had convinced me I was a cultural historian despite my initial inkling of being a political historian, I was a bit nervous.

Extrapolating from my own experience and others’, I would urge grad students not to remain immovably attached to their initial research designs upon beginning graduate work. Be open to new ways of thinking and find historiographical holes that genuinely need filling to advance the field. I would caution to be wary of hitching one’s research wagon to an especially trendy, bright-burning topic or methodology for which enormous numbers of tenure-track jobs are posted each year. The market can change very quickly and correct and overcorrect, especially as more experienced historians can more facilely rebrand themselves to match job descriptions.

What would someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

Hopefully they would gather that nineteenth-century southern colleges were important cultural centers, far from simply being playgrounds for the elite. Also, I hope they would find that students lived very interesting lives and many engaged in very serious intellectual and moral reflection that still impact society today. James Weldon Johnson, an Atlanta University student who frequently dwelled on race relations in his college assignments, composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was sung so widely throughout the black freedom struggle that many call it the African American national anthem. Daniel Barringer, a geology student at the University of Virginia, pioneered the impact theory of asteroids, ultimately leading scientists to understand the formation and transformation of our planet and solar system.