Charles Dew, a professor at Williams College, has written several books about the history of the South, but his new one, “The Making of a Racist,” enters new territory — memoir.
Dew, who was born in St. Petersburg, Fla., recounts his experiences growing up in the South in the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and ’50s, as well as his transformation as a college student at Williams, in an effort to answer a question he said has bothered him for years: How do some Southerners and others now look into the face of white supremacy without seeing how destructive and abominable it is?
Dew’s book also discusses some slave-trade artifacts he has gathered over the years, such as a price circular from 1860 — for prospective buyers of slaves — that illustrated in print his own torment at what he says was his personal blind spot for so many years.
“It was such a graphic representation on a single page,” Dew said, “of the essence of what slavery was — which was turning human beings into commodities and selling them like livestock.”
Dew presents his childhood as a typical one for Southern boys of his era, defined by a reverence for the South and particularly for the Confederacy.
“Like many Southern boys on their 14th birthday, I got a firearm and a significant piece of Confederate history,” Dew said. “I was given a .22 and Douglas Southall Freeman’s three-volume history of the Army of Northern Virginia.”
But Dew says the culture’s biggest gift was racism, which he described as spreading through a kind of social osmosis.
“A lot of this stuff is basically just absorbed,” he said. “You just witnessed what was going on, what the family did.”
At the center of the familial racism was Dew’s father, about whom Dew says, “His politics were somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan maybe.”
Dew said his father was a lawyer, an alcoholic, and a very vocal racist.
“When he was drinking, his temper got worse, his language got more racist, he expanded the group of culprits from African-Americans to include Jews and Catholics,” Dew recalled.
‘From generation to generation’
Growing up in the segregated South, Dew said his only direct experience with African-Americans was, as was the case for many Southern whites, through exposure to domestic help. A particular influence on Dew was the conversations he had with lllinois Browning Culver, the woman to whom his book is dedicated, while driving her home after her day’s work at his parents’ house.
“It sounds like one of these cliches out of something like ‘The Help,’ or one of these novels that sees the well-meaning white folks getting an education from their black domestic servants,” Dew said. “And I acknowledge that there’s a cliche-like quality to this. But this happened, and cliches are not necessarily indicative of something that’s not truthful.”
Dew remembers one time talking with Culver about the peculiarities of Jim Crow customs. For example, she could go into any department store in St. Petersburg and buy a dress, but there was only one store where black women were allowed to try on a dress before buying it. They also were not allowed to return a dress once they’d paid for it.
“I said something to her like, ‘Illinois, I have no idea how these things come into being,’ and she said, ‘Charles, why do the grown-ups put so much hate in the children?’” Dew recalled. “I thought that was a very perceptive question. I thought so then, and I think so now, because the racism was passed down from generation to generation, almost like a genetic trait.”
Dew said he might not have moved completely away from a racist worldview had he not attended Williams College, where everything changed for him. Ironically, he and his brother both went to Williams at the insistence of their father, who had met a number of Williams graduates in his business dealings and was immensely impressed by them.
“I had never been north of the Potomac when I came here as a student,” Dew said. “So it really was a new world for me, and my transformation into something that was really better than what I had been, in terms of race, really began here.”
Dew sees his transformation as a gradual move away from what his father called “the basics” — the principles of white supremacy as practiced in the era of segregation.
“Looking back, it seems painfully slow to me — two steps forward and another step back,” Dew recalled.
One major difference was that as a student at Williams in the 1950s, Dew had black classmates that he got to know — and got to talk with about things that never would have passed the coded etiquette of how blacks and whites interacted in the South.
Over time, Dew said, he started to notice examples of racism on his visits home that he had never noticed before.
Renouncing a heritage
At Williams, one humiliating moment came when a newspaper editor from South Carolina came to campus to present a particularly discombobulated criticism of the Supreme Court’s then-new ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, and one of Dew’s professors publicly called Dew out for using the exact same arguments for white supremacy in a paper about Abraham Lincoln.
“As I entered the hall, my sophomore American history teacher singled me out and said across the room to me, ‘Charles, you should be up on the stage with this editor,’ because of what I had said in his class,” Dew said. “Of course, I was mortified to be called out by my professor that way, but it got me thinking. Then when this guy gave this horrible public speech, I said, ‘Is this what I have been defending in class?’ I remember being not only mortified that I had been singled out that way, but at the end of the evening wondering what in the hell I was doing. It’s an accumulative effect of things like that that happened here.”
Much of this culminated in a big blow-up with his father. His mother begged him to apologize, and it became time for Dew to decide what he was going to do.
“I came to the conclusion that I loved my father, that he had flaws and they weren’t trivial, but he had been a very good father in many ways,” Dew said. “He was in a lot of regards an admirable man, and I just decided it was either to widen the breach and let it fester and probably essentially destroy any sort of relationship, or I could call and say that I was sorry. I decided to call and apologize. I don’t remember the conversation. I remember it didn’t last very long. I remember he accepted my apology. From that point on, we never discussed these things again. He realized a truce was necessary.”
Dew said that from then on, when he and his father talked, they moved on to “that old Southern staple football, and sports and family and how the town’s changed, and what’s going on with this person or that person” — right up until his father’s death in 1975.
Past and present
As a professor of American history at Williams, Dew’s specialty is the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. He completed his doctorate in history at Johns Hopkins University in 1964, and he has written extensively about slavery and the economy of the antebellum South.
Dew’s previous books include “Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War” (2001), in which he examined the speeches and writings of state-appointed commissioners who campaigned for secession across the South in 1860–61. The book debunks the oft-repeated claim that race and slavery weren’t crucial factors in the onset of the Civil War.
In writing his new memoir, Dew said his reasoning for tackling his own history as part of a wider examination of racism has as much to do with current events as with personal demons. Lately, he said, the rhetoric and symbolism of racism seem more visible and accepted than they have been in a long time.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that these white supremacist groups have crawled out from under their rocks and are openly supporting Trump,” he said. “They see him as a legitimization of their views and as a vehicle for getting some of their racist venom injected into the body politic.”
The stakes are high enough, he said, that he felt it was worth going public with personal details from his family life and upbringing. Still, he was concerned about the potential reaction of one family member — his older brother, with whom he had gone to Williams College decades ago.
“I did send him a copy of the book, and I sent it priority mail so I would know when it reached his mailbox in North Carolina,” Dew said. “I knew that the book arrived at his mailbox about noon. About 4 o’clock, the phone rang, and it was my brother, and he really couldn’t speak because he was weeping. He found the book so powerful and so evocative.
“He had no reservations about me saying anything,” Dew continued. “But bringing up all these memories and talking about my mother and father, and him and me to some extent, in that context, really hit him.”
If anything, Dew hopes the book offers the world a chance to examine itself through the microcosm of his own family. It’s a concept he said his brother supports.
“We’ve spoken since then, and he is 100 percent behind my telling the story and agrees that it is timely, unfortunately,” Dew said. “And that it’s something that we need to face, how this white supremacist stuff gets passed down from one generation to the next.”
Originally appeared in the Hill Country Observer.