A scholar’s realization that learning never stops

10 06 2008

The year was 1933. Bell Irvin Wiley was a newly-minted Ph.D. from Yale University. Like many people living in the midst of the Great Depression, Wiley had a common problem.

He couldn’t find a job.

With no prospects for employment, Wiley got along with what he termed a “subsistence fellowship” of $700 which he used not only for living expenses, but as a grubstake for the research he would need to turn his doctoral dissertation into a publishable book.

While some might have become bitter at this turn of events, Wiley thrived.

“…[I]t was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Wiley recalled, although he admitted to some consternation that with a Yale degree, doors weren’t opening up as quickly as he would have liked. He put the time he was spending out of work on what would become his first book, Southern Negroes, 1861-1865. In its own way, it was a profitable venture, both financially and, maybe more importantly, psychologically.

“Writing is something of a disease,” Wiley recalled in an oral history interview he granted to the Mississippi Oral History Program at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1976 (and which appears in The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader). “The greatest thrill I’ve had in my life, outside of marrying Mary Frances and fondling my two boys shortly after they arrived, was caressing the first book.”

Wiley argued in that first book that slaves were not as loyal to their masters during the war years as had been previously believed, especially in areas where Union troops invaded. The black man’s status in Federal hands, however, was, Wiley argued, often no better than he had faced on the plantation, arguing that “those who entered military pursuits were dealt with in a manner more becoming to slaves than to freedman. In the light of all these unhappy experiences, it must have been apparent to Southern Negroes when the triumph of the North in 1865 assured the final end of slavery that that fight for real freedom had just begun.”

While reviewers generally praised Wiley’s work as sorely needed, the book was looked upon only as an introductory effort, and nowhere near the “final word” on the subject.

One area which reviewers blasted was Wiley’s use of the terms “darkey” and other racial epithets commonly used at that time.

Carter G. Woodson, in the Journal of Negro History, pointed to Wiley’s Southern background as the culprit. “Readers may find it distasteful that the author indulged in the use of such expressions…which reflect his background. But all things considered, the book must take rank as being far in advance of historical literature from that same source intended not to present the truth but to support preconceived ideas and maintain long established traditions.”

In the American Historical Review, Charles H. Wesley also castigated Wiley’s use of racial slurs. Wesley also found it disturbing that Wiley didn’t use quotation marks around the words, while he did use them around the word “Yankee”. Finally, Wiley didn’t use terms detrimental to Southerners. “The author’s purpose was probably to make use of familiar, homely phrases which belong to the vernacular with which he is familiar,” Wesley said.

In his lifetime, Wiley acknowledged that as a young man he was much more a creature of his surroundings than he liked. In his oral history interview, Wiley admitted that when he entered the Army during World War II he held the opinion that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, although he argued that his opinion was slowly evolving into a more liberal point of view.

After attending Yale, where “for the first time in my life I met and talked with educated blacks, then from reading I was becoming what I might call emancipated racially” Wiley realized it was possible to overcome that belief of his youth, and that it was an important step to do so. After watching the performance of black soldiers during World War II, Wiley realized that segregation in the Army was a mistake, and he equated segregation in civilian life as just as wrong.

Later in his life, Wiley was recognized as a strong supporter of civil rights although he did fight efforts to lower standards to allow black students to enter colleges and universities.

Next: Meeting Johnny Reb




One response

26 06 2008
| LincolnStudies.com

[…] historians from James G. Randall (Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, ) and Bell Irwin Wiley (Part 2 ), to Otto […]

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