The Complicity of Silence

Holt 1

By Jack C. Lane, Professor Emeritus, Rollins College

RACE AND THE HAMILTON HOLT/CORRA HARRIS FRIENDSHIP, 1899-1935

“How can blacks get over slavery and discrimination when ghostly visions are etched upon our reality by words like those of Corra Harris which reach out from the grave to remind us of the pain and anguish our ancestors suffered at the hands of whites who refused to give up being slave masters?” – John Burl Smith, Civil Rights Activist, 2009

I. Some years ago, while writing the centennial history of Rollins College, I came across an article written in 1924 by Hamilton Holt, former managing editor of The Independent magazine and soon to be President of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. In a review of Corra Harris’s best selling autobiography, My Book and Heart, Holt had described how he “discovered” this celebrated Southern writer:

      I shall never forget that May [1899] in going through the morning mail in pursuance of my duties as office editor of The Independent, I came upon an envelope whose striking staccato script at once arrested my attention. I opened it and proceeded to read the contents. I had not finished the first sentence when something, figuratively speaking, hit me between the eyes. Before I reached the last page, I was in the room of Dr. William Hayes Ward, the editor-in-chief, excitedly proclaiming the advent of a new and hitherto un-known author.

      The article was a reply to one of Dr. Ward’s especially impassioned and indignant editorials on a Georgia lynching. Scores of such letters came in from Southern readers and as a rule they had to be consigned to the wastebasket. But this one was different. Although I was struck by its sincerity, simplicity, and charm, the three graces of literary art, it evidenced in its form and substance that something we call genius.

     We printed the article. It made a national sensation. That led to a correspondence. We solicited more articles. They were published. More sensation. The literary career of Corra Harris had begun. (1)

The letter sparked my interest. What was this “literary art” that Holt called “genius” and what was “the form and substance” of Harris’s reply to the Georgia lynching? After reading her article, entitled “A Southern Woman’s View,” published in the May 18, 1899 issue of The Independent, I too was impressed with her writing style, but unlike Holt, I was startled and disturbed by the article’s content. Harris had not just “replied” to Ward’s editorial. Employing racially charged language more often associated with the rantings of the KKK, she offered a passionate justification for the criminal Southern practice of lynching. Additionally, I was puzzled by Holt’s response to the letter. As managing editor of the nation’s most progressive magazine with a long reputation for championing African-American rights, how could Holt express such enthusiasm for Harris’s writing style while ignoring the letter’s racist content and damaging language? These questions bothered me, but because this subject was beyond the scope of my research, I set it aside with the thought of returning to it later on.

A recent experience refreshed my memory. While visiting my wife’s home in Cartersville, Georgia, just a few miles from where Corra Harris had lived, I read in a local newspaper that someone had donated Harris’s homestead in Rydal, Georgia to Kennesaw State University. The university administration expressed great excitement over the possibility of using the homestead as a basis for educational research. Not everyone, I found, was so pleased with the decision. On a WordPress blog entitled “Can’t Hold My Tongue,” a writer strongly contested the university’s connection to Corra Harris. Harris “was a white supremacist,” the writer proclaimed. “Read her 1899 letter to the editor of The Independent defending lynching.” In 2009, the blogger continues, “whites don’t think, still don’t think, that white terrorism and the attempted genocide of Black southerners is a big deal.” The implications raised by Harris’s article and Hamilton Holt’s readiness to celebrate her literary qualities while turning a blind eye to her destructive racial epithets, and the subsequent 30-year close friendship, had resurfaced in my memory 20 years later, this time with a new perspective. The moral issue of the complicity of silence suggested by Holt’s indifferent response to Harris’s white supremacist writings and their 30-year friendship seems to me historically linked to the racial divide in this nation today and therefore worth exploring for the light their relationship might shed on that divisive issue. (2)

Harris’s letter had arrived on Holt’s desk at a time when The Independent was at the peak of its popularity and influence. Created by a group of Congregationalists in 1848 (one of the founders was Hamilton Holt’s grandfather, Henry Bowen), the weekly magazine had been a champion of African-Americans since before the Civil War, when it was a leading anti-slavery organ. After the war, the magazine had supported Radical Reconstruction in the South, and in subsequent years, under the editorship of William Hayes Ward, it had consistently opposed the passage of Jim Crow laws in the Southern states. Many Northern journals called for accommodation, arguing that, given the social and economic problems facing the post-Civil War South, the North was pushing too hard. In words reminiscent of abolitionists, Ward responded: “We are learning that it is not well to make concessions to the caste of prejudice. The right way to fight against it is vigorously and persistently and never yield an inch.” (3) The rising number of lynchings in the South brought especially passionate denunciations from Ward. The lynching of African-Americans in Southern states had reached alarming numbers in the decades after the Civil War. By 1900, the practice had attained the status of ritual where a recurring pattern emerged: an African American male would be accused of some crime (often of the rape of a white woman), the white community would express outrage, the victim would be arrested by local authorities, a mob would wrest the victim from the authorities, a large crowd would gather to witness the execution, and then the victim would be publicly humiliated and frequently mutilated before he was hanged or burned. Often, parts of his body were taken as souvenirs. Between 1880 and 1913, over two thousand African Americans were lynched in the former Confederate States. (4)

One of these incidents occurred on April 12, 1899 when an African-American named Sam Hose was accused of killing his white employer in Coweta County, Georgia. In the following days, rumor spread that he had also raped the employer’s wife. On April 23, authorities arrested Hose and returned him to Newnan, Georgia, where the suspected killing had taken place. A mob met the train at Newnan, seized Hose, and announced that he would be summarily executed the following day. Special trains from Atlanta brought a large crowd of over two thousand to witness the spectacle. The mutilation of Hose was one of the most gruesome in lynching history. One newspaper report spared no detail: “The Negro was deprived of his ears, fingers, and genital parts of his body. He pleaded pitifully for his life while the mutilation was going on. [After he was burned to death], before his body cooled, it was cut to pieces and the bones crushed into small bits. The Negro’s heart was cut into small pieces as was his liver and sold for 25 cents.” W.E.B. Du Bois, who was in Atlanta at the time, was sickened by the news that Hose’s knuckles were advertised for sale at a local grocery store. No one was ever accused or arrested for participating in the lynching. (5)

Holt_with_the_Professor_of_Evil
Hamilton Holt and Corra Harris are shown on the steps of the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Rollins College in the February of 1931.

 

“THE NEGRO IS THE MONGREL OF CIVILIZATION. HE HAS MARRIED ITS VICES AND HE IS INCAPABLE OF IMITATING ITS VIRTUES.” – CORRA HARRIS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern response to the lynching of Sam Hose was immediate and scathing. The New York Times denounced the “cowards who wallow in the blackest vice.” Are the people of the South, the paper asked, “degenerating into brutes, that they can calmly and deliberately torture a human being and gloat over it?”(6) The Independent, at the forefront with its criticism of the Hose lynching, published a critical article by T. G. Steward, a prominent African-American minister who was at the time serving as an army chaplain. Steward compared the Newnan mob to the “raw-meat-eating Saxons of the earlier times,” who resembled “the beasts they in a measure emulated.” He noted how the members of the mob were reported to have “vented their feelings in fervent shouts” as Hose’s body burned, “expressing regret that he died too soon.” The same people, he concluded, “who took Hose out of the hands of the lawfully constituted authorities are those who elected the officers to carry out the law. Anarchists are they of the clearest type; pouring contempt on their own courts.” Ward followed Steward’s article with an editorial that asked the question: “Do not those who defend the lynchings in Georgia know that lawless violence breeds violence?” The unspeakable violence against Hose, Ward continued, was “visited not on the wretch alone, but also on a probable innocent old colored preacher. Is it any wonder that now there is terror and hatred, all the result of interference with the beneficent action of the law?” (7)

The Northern press’s unwavering criticism of the lynching, and especially Ward’s editorials and Steward’s article, were the catalysts that prompted Corra Harris to write her impassioned rebuttal let- ter. Little in Harris’s background suggests why this young Southern preacher’s wife would enter into a debate over lynching with one of the nation’s most literate magazines. Born in 1869 in Elbert County, Georgia, until her teenage years Harris lived a typically sheltered rural life. In 1887, at the age of 16, she married Lundy Harris, a Methodist circuit rider who travelled to rural churches throughout northern Georgia. Two years later, Lundy was appointed adjunct professor of Greek at Emory College in Oxford, Georgia. Though deeply religious, he was riven by theological doubts and plagued by depression and alcoholism. In 1898, he lost his position at Emory, forcing the family into economic destitution. At the time Corra Harris wrote the letter to The Independent, they were living in Rockmart, Georgia, where Lundy was teaching at a private school. (8)

Corra Harris’s letter deserves extensive quotation because no summary could do justice to her literary talent, nor could a few passages adequately reveal the depth of her racial prejudice. In the South, Harris declared, The Independent magazine was regarded as “an advocate of extreme Northern views” on the issue of race relations. Southerners read it, she said, “in order to get a perspective of our methods from an alien point of view.” She was writing not to condone “the atrocious conduct” of the lynch mob, but “to explain its savage fury.”

          Today in the South every white woman lives next door to a savage brute who grows more intelligent and more insolent in his outrage every year, against whom the dilletante [sic] laws of Georgia and other Southern states offer no protection. In this section of Georgia, which is not far from Palmetto, no white girl, however young, or woman, however old, would be safe alone on the public highway. The farmers do not dare leave their wives and daughters at home while they are in the fields. The country schools are failures because parents will not risk their girls along lonely settlement roads. Even in small towns the husband cannot venture to leave his wife alone for an hour. At no time, in no place, is the white woman safe from the insults and assaults of these creatures. The negro brute is a product. The circumstances which bring him into existence are worth considering. He is nearly always a mulatto, or having enough white blood in him to replace native humility and cowardice with Caucasian audacity. He is sure to be a bastard, and probably the offspring of a bastard mother. Can such a creature be morally responsible? His lust is a legacy multiplied by generations of brutal ancestors. This is the genesis of the brute. You cannot judge these people sitting on a divan in New York, looking at them through stained-glass windows of poetic sentimentality. You must live among them long enough to learn they can in quaintest dialect imitate the highest ideals with the humdrum of their actual existence. 

           The negro is the mongrel of civilization. He has married its vices and he is incapable of imitating its virtues. He is its abortion and at the same time its victim. He is a horrid demonstration of the fact that civilization by force of merely human laws is the cheapest veneering. He has exchanged comparative chastity for brutal lust. His religion is merely an emotional impulse. He is a spiritual hypocrite.

           Out of this cesspool of vice rises that hideous monster, a possible menace to every home in the South. He has the savage nature and the murderous instincts of a wild beast, plus the cunning and lust of the fiend. For years the South has been a smoldering volcano, the dark of its quivering nights lighted here and there with the incendiary torch or pierced through by the cry of some outraged woman. It is no longer a question to sitting down to meat [sic] with publicans and sinners, as our Lord set us an example to follow, but it is the fact of the lambs and wolves in one sheepfold. These negro men can or never could, have been received at the same fireside with white women. Will you men of the North who mold the sentiment of your people place your sympathies wholly on the side of these brutes, passing with a word over their crimes to bit- ter denunciation of our avengers? When you men of the North condemn your brethren here in the usual wholesale manner the negro takes it for granted you are on his side. This cannot be true.

            I have never opened my lips on this subject. I do so now on account real anxiety. Do my views appear entirely too partisan for publication in your paper? I fear this is the case.

 

Corra1
A photo of Corra Harris.

 

 

 “WHEN SUCH RACIAL PREJUDICE IS SO EMBEDDED IN THE AMERICAN PSYCHE, WE SHOULD NOT BE SURPRISED TO SEE IT RESURFACING, EVEN THOUGH LANGUAGE MAY OBSCURE IT.”

 

 

 

Holt may have been “struck” by the “sincerity, simplicity and charm,” of Harris’s style, but the actual substance of the letter would not fit that description. If the content showed “sincerity,” it was that of a woman sincerely consumed with the crudest level of racial prejudice. The “simplicity” of the message was an elementary and primitive form of Southern thinking more associated with uneducated poor whites. It is difficult to discern any “charm” in a discourse that employed the language of extreme dehumanization: the “negro is a brute,” a “bastard,” a “mongrel of civilization,” a “spiritual hypocrite,” a “hideous monster,” with a “savage nature and the murderous instinct of a wild beast.” Rather than a discussion that embodied what Holt called “the three graces of literary art,” Harris’s argument relied on intemperate language and the repetition of a visceral myth that had permeated Southern society for two centuriesthat is, that African-American males had the “savage nature and the murderous instinct of the wild beast, plus the cunning and lust of a fiend,” with a consuming desire to rape white women at any opportunity. According to this aged myth, “no white girl, however young, or woman, however old, was safe from the insults and assaults of these creatures.” Harris concludes this diatribe, this bitter verbal attack, by revealing the ominously dark cloud that hovered over Southern whites ever since they enslaved African-Americans:

        For years the South has been a smoldering volcano, the dark of its quivering nights lighted here and there with the incendiary’s torch or pierced through by the cry of some outraged woman. The days are feverish with suppressed excitement and concealed animosities. (9)

Corra3
Corra Harris outside the Kappa Alpha fraternity house in the February of 1931 with Rollins students.

 

With the encouragement of Hamilton Holt, Harris submitted two more articles, one entitled “Negro Womanhood,” the other “The Negro Child,” where she continued her vilification of the Southern blacks. Speaking with the same dogmatic certitude and intemperate language that characterized her first letter, she made Southern black women the cause of the race’s bestiality: “The negro lacks honor and noble ambitions, and is lustful and profligate because of his mother. This pit of dishonor is the womb from which from he comes, talented with all its vices, having in him only a murdered capacity for virtue.” In her third article, she argued that there was little hope for the negro child born in this “pit of dishonor.” He/she is “the little ragged, sunshine bastard of the South.” These essays have a common theme: that is, Southern whites were forced to segregate themselves from their savage neighbors because all African-Americans, driven by dangerous primitive emotions and ignoble intentions, were hopelessly void of any virtues. (10)

These articles raise serious moral and ethical questions that still reverberate over a century later. How should we judge Harris’s description of African-Americans and her perpetuation of the Southern myth of innocent white women threatened by bestial black men? One explanation proposes that her attitude may be excused or even dismissed because she was simply presenting “a perspective that was typical for the time.” In a similar vein, The Independent wrote that the magazine was printing her letter, not because the editors thought her views had any “intrinsic value,” but because they believed she reflected “the feelings of the white men and women” of the South. (11) These explanations, however, underestimate Harris’s complicity in the violence and humiliation visited upon African-Americans in the South. She depicts African-Americans as beasts who, when threat- ening white people, could be killed as wild, dangerous animals. “The pioneer in colonial days,” she wrote in her initial article, “protected his wife and child from wild beasts with gun and knife; but today in the South every white woman lives next door to a savage brute who grows more…insolent in his outrages every year…” No one could miss the implication that lynching was simply an acceptable substitute for the pioneer’s gun and knife in protecting white people from these dangerous creatures. Her use of reckless, incendiary language in the letter, moreover, was itself an act of violence, because, as the ancient admonition advises: “Be careful of your words, because your words become action.” Later, she wrote sensitively about white rural mountain folk in Georgia and critically about the Southern obsession with the myth of the Lost Cause, but she was unable to find any redeeming qualities in African-American culture.

In the years after her first submissions to The Independent, Harris gave little indication that she had moderated her original view of African-Americans and race relations in the South. A letter to Hamilton Holt in 1908 revealed the rigidity and persistence of her racial prejudices. Holt had given a speech at the Cosmopolitan Club in New York where, the newspapers reported, a large number of African- Americans were present.

 

Corra2Professor_Corra_Harris_Teaches_a_Course_on_Evil

From left to right: 1. Corra Harris teaching a course on evil to students at Rollins College. 2. A portrait of Corra Harris. It is signed with the following message: “For my dear friends The Hamilton Holts, Corra Harris, December 25th, 1925.”

My Dear Mr. Holt,

        Your letter arrived yesterday enclosing the clipping from The New York Times about your speech. The trouble with you New Englanders is that [you think] that you are rational idealists, and there is not a more irrational brand of folly on earth. You messed up things here in the South because you cannot understand that some things will not happen before the Millenium [sic]. You go in and sit down at your Cosmopolitan Club with Negroes with the noblest of motives. You want to keep them from feeling so bad and socially neglected. O Lord! You lay the Christians in the shade with the perfect spirit of your good will which is the best charity in the world. And what was the result? You walked too near the edge….

        Observe the Negro at your dining. That was one company where the niggers showed the most logical sense of the situation. They believe in intermarriage and they regarded the opportunity to dine with you distinguished whites as a step forward in that direction. And if you represent the sentiments of this country by your presence then they would have been right.

        I recall very distinctly the fate of a mild-mannered Republican gentleman who entertained the same Christian spirit you have so recently illustrated toward the Negroes in our town when I was a young girl. He was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town in the usual manner – all because he ate with Negroes. I have no idea if he would have been willing to marry one, but you see the fool negroes didn’t make this dis- tinction and they never will. You do not see the creeping Negro covering his advance to the coveted goal of inter-marriage under your beautiful simplicity.

        I saw the accounts of the white women present at your particular dinner. [How could you] countenance that revolting sight? I cannot imagine any scene more degenerative as that where a white woman sits with a Negro man in social contact with him. I could never believe such a white woman was not morbid and revolting, as if she had been guilty of one of the most indecent crimes. I should like to have every white woman who degraded all white women when she sat so near to her black man companion at your dinner fined and imprisioned. (12)

Twenty-five years after The Independent printed her articles, when she had an opportunity in her autobiography to reconsider her views on race, she made no concession. She still placed the responsibility for the Hose lynching on the perceived bestiality of black males, and on northern “idealists” who led them to believe they were equal to whites. The lynching, she wrote,

        …was one of those crimes we have been driven to commit from time to time by way of counteracting the teachings of Northern sentimentalist which have had regrettable influence upon the Negro race…It is now be- ing settled by a strange retribution. Those apostles of purely emotional idealism are reaping what they have sowed.

       The preachers and press of the North were horrified as usual [over the Hose lynching]. William Hayes Ward wrote a masterful editorial about this lynching…a sort of noble perversion, not of facts, but of the cause behind the facts. [My] letter was an explanation of the lynching, placing the responsibility where it belonged so clearly that it amounted to an indictment. Judging by the furor it created, I must have hit the nail on the head with considerable force. (13)

Throughout these years Harris had never considered that the segregation laws and the white obsession with white supremacy had in any way contributed to the violent race relations in the South. In her perspective, the sole cause of the race problem was African-American behavior and Northern interference, a litany that went on to reverberate throughout the twentieth century. This attitude allowed her (and white southerners) to deny any responsibility for that violence.

Holt’s enthusiastic response to Harris’s illiberal, not to say bigoted, racial attitudes seems puzzling, because it was completely at odds with his background and the progressive policies of The Independent. Holt’s father was a man of tolerant, liberal democratic views who had great influence on his son. At Yale and Columbia Law School, Holt’s professors reinforced his evolving liberalism. William Hayes Ward, who served as a mentor, further shaped Holt’s progressive beliefs. Although he deferred to Ward as The Independent’s chief advocate on race relations, he fully supported the magazine’s championing of African-American rights. In 1900, he helped organized and was an active participant in the Cosmopolitan Club, a racially mixed effort to improve race relations in New York City. Holt often attended the famous annual conferences called by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, and in 1909, when he was chief editor of The Independent, the magazine enthusiastically supported the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After Ward retired, Holt continued the former editor’s condemnation of lynching. In 1919, he wrote an editorial entitled “America’s Shame,” where he denounced the thousands of lynchings in the United States during the past 30 years. No place in the world, he wrote, could “equal the depravity and barbarity of America’s record for lynching.” (14)

Given these views then, why was Holt so enthralled by Harris’s style of writing and by her later literary success that he was willing to ignore the racist content of her articles and letters? Why was he so obsessed with the belief that he was the “discoverer” of a budding genius that he seemed oblivious to what Harris was saying? Holt left no record of an answer to these questions, but his behavior toward Harris allows us to infer an answer. When The Independent’s literary editor retired in December, 1900, Holt asked Harris to review a popular novel that was “enjoying a sensational run.” The article, Holt later wrote, received “more comments than any review we ever published.” During the next decade, Harris reviewed scores of books and wrote several articles and a short story for The Independent. In the meantime, Harris had achieved national fame as a best-selling novelist and essayist, Holt had become owner and chief editor of The Independent, and they had developed a close professional relationship. When Holt became President of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida in 1925, one of his first acts was to invite Harris to his home. Holt wrote her: “What a good woman and what a great woman you have become since the days so long ago when you first began to write and I first began to edit.” In response, she wrote: “ I send you my grateful love for having produced me and my admiration for being one of the greatest, kindest men I have ever known.” At his presidential inauguration, he awarded her an honorary degree. In the presentation, Holt stated that Harris was a “noble-minded author of noble-minded books” who had brought “courage and consolation to thousands of unknown friends.” Over the next decade, she developed a close personal relationship with Holt and his family, including Holt’s wife, Zenie, who apparently shared Harris’s racial views. Harris often visited the President’s home in Winter Park, spoke at Rollins several times, and in 1930 offered a short course at the college. After Harris’s death, when her family built a memorial chapel over her grave at In the Valley homestead, Holt delivered the dedication speech, praising Harris’s literary career and their long friendship. In all this time, Holt never expressed, neither in private correspondence nor in public communication, a concern about Harris’s racial attitudes. (15)

Since he never criticized the racist views Harris expressed in her early articles and in those letters written to him, Holt left the impression that style mitigated objectionable content. However, mali- cious, hurtful views argued by “geniuses” with sincere and charming writing styles are far more dangerous than those who use simplistic, coarse language. Holt said he committed the latter to the trash basket; then why, as in the case of Harris, did he publish the former? Although William Hayes Ward made every effort in his editorials to refute Harris’s arguments, Holt seemed unfazed by these damning criticisms.(16) He never questioned, for instance, how a white woman, who had made it a point of avoiding all contact with these male “vile creatures,” could have such an insight into their behavior. Why, for example, did not Holt consider the question that one of Harris’s readers posed to her: How could a white woman have such an intimate knowledge of the black male’s sexual habits? The letter shocked Harris’s Victorian sensibilities. Concerned that Holt and Ward may have had similar thoughts, Harris asked a pastor friend to write Holt attesting to her upstanding character. Holt replied that he had received nothing reflecting on her character, and he would “put no weight upon anything of the sort if it were received. There is an air of sincerity about what you write [and] we were glad to publish the articles…What you have written has been done with an intellectual vigor and a crispness of style that were admirable and precisely what we wanted.” (17) Thus, rather than questioning the racist content of Harris’s letters and the qualifications of woman who could write with uncommon certitude such damaging statements about a people whom she despised and avoided, Holt seemed more interested in furthering the career of a budding artist.

Holt’s reluctance to challenge Harris’s racial prejudices may be the equivalent to white Southern leaders’ silence concerning mob lynching. These “respectable, law-abiding” citizens often claimed, as Harris did, that they looked on “with shame and horror” at the “atrocious conduct of the [lynch] mob,” but they took no concrete steps to stop such vicious conduct. Businessmen, newspaper editors, storeowners, the small farmers, and preachers, who might never participate in lynchings, either justified lynchings as did Corra Harris or accepted them “as what you might expect.” In this sense, the “sensible, conservative, good white people” of the South by their silence could not avoid complicity in the lynchings. Hamilton Holt’s unwillingness to challenge Harris’s racial prejudice left him open to a similar charge. Perhaps more seriously, by having her speak and teach at Rollins College, he implicated that institution as well. May we not see a similar involvement when, in the twenty-first century, a public university celebrates the literary accomplishments of Corra Harris, while ignoring her darker racist side? The university argues it is preserving history, but the question is: Which history?

That Corra Harris’s 1899 letter reflected the views of her generation reminds us that the more subtle racial prejudice we observe today has deep-seated, unconcealed, roots in our past. She made no effort to use code words such as “welfare mothers” or to disguise her dehumanizing language or to hide her (and the white Southern) contempt for African-American culture. When such racial prejudice is so embedded in the American psyche, we should not be surprised to see it resurfacing, even though language may obscure it. Given the historical racial context suggested by this essay, where even progressives such as Hamilton Holt reacted so tepidly to the racism of his generation, we also should not be surprised when African-Americans respond sensitively to the subtext of coded language that has racial overtones. We can see that an insidious racial thread has been running seamlessly through the American fabric from the lynching of Sam Hose (and before) to the killing of Trayvon Martin. When we remain silent about this fact, we, too, become complicit.

In the same issue of The Independent where Harris justified lynching and segregation with passionate, intemperate language, the bril- liant African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, in an article printed alongside Harris’s, presented a measured discourse and a rational, historically grounded explanation for the deterioration of race relations in the South, suggesting a way out of this racial impasse:

       A drawing of the color line…which leaves no common ground of meeting, no medium of communication, no sympathy between the races who live together and whose interests are at bottom one—such a discrimination is more than silly, it is dangerous. It makes it possible for the mass of whites to misinterpret the aims and aspirations of negroes, to mistake self-reliance for insolence, and condemnation of lynch-law for sympathy with crime. It makes it possible for the negroes to believe that the best people of the South hate and despise them….The sooner some way is made by which the best elements of both races can sympathize with each other’s struggles, and in a calm Christian spirit discuss them together—the sooner such conferences can take place all over the South, the sooner lynch-law will disappear and crime be abated. (18)

Substitute “nation” for the “South” and “racism” for “lynch-law” and we can see that Du Bois could be speaking to our present condition. We would do well to resist the polemics of the Corra Harrises of our generation, with their coded language and blindness to past injustices, and pay more attention to the W.E.B Du Boises, with their plea for “sympathy between the races whose interests are at bottom one,” so that “the best elements of both races can sympathize with each other’s struggles.” Amen.

Special thanks to the Rollins Department of Archives and Special Collections for their provision of photographs of Hamilton Holt and Corra Harris.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *