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It would be a tragic decision to make intransigence and desperate adherence to a discredited code the test of Southern loyalty.

- C. Vann Woodward, 1964


C. Vann Wooward (1908-1999), eminent American historian

C. Vann Woodward, one of the bright lights among 20th century scholars of American history, was the first to move beyond racial myths to bring the history of the South into a clearer perspective. When he published his first major works in the early 1950s, Woodward was well ahead of his time not only in his immaculate research, but in his gently ironic prose and his compassionate liberal views against white supremacy. Along the way, Woodward helped tear down the myths that supported the South's Jim Crow institutions.

A southerner himself, Woodward was born Comer Vann Woodward in 1908 in Vanndale, Arkansas, a town that had been founded by own his ancestors, who were antebellum slave owners. Woodward inherited liberal values from his father who was first a school superintendent, and later the president of a small college. Graduating from Atlanta's Emory University in 1930 with a degree in philosophy, Woodward hoped to become a writer. Woodward briefly taught English at Georgia Tech, and later dabbled in journalism and traveled in Europe. In 1932, he first became interested in civil rights while organizing a campaign to raise money in support of a young black communist named Angelo Herndon, who had been arrested in Atlanta for leading a demonstration against welfare cuts and was charged with sedition.

Still unsure what he wanted to do with his career, Wooward was getting a Master's degree in Political Science from Columbia University when he decided he wanted to write a biography of 19th century southern agrarian reformer Tom Watson. Wooward realized that the best way to support himself during his research would be to get a graduate fellowship, so he enrolled as a history Ph.D. candidate at UNC Chapell Hill, publishing his findings in his book Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel in 1938.

Wooward then embarked on a teaching career at the Universities of Florida and Virginia until his career was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Navy as a historian, and wrote the official history of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which he observed in person from the deck of a ship. After the war, Woodward moved to Johns Hopkins where in 1951 he published two highly influential books, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 and Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Origins of the New South won the prestigious Bancroft Prize in 1952, and amazingly is still considered the definitive work on the "New South" to this day, more than a half a century later. In 1955, Woodward found further acclaim with The Strange Career of Jim Crow, his best-selling, groundbreaking history of the rise of racial segregation in the South.

Over the next five decades Woodward was the most influential authority on the history of the South. As a southerner himself, he was deeply passionate about the South and its history, while as a liberal, he had the values to see beyond the segregated landscape of his youth to a better world, and the vision to become a voice for social change. In 1961, Woodward moved to Yale University - then the most prestigious history department in the nation - where he remained until his retirement in 1977, and thereafter as an emeritus professor. In 1982, he published the definitive edition of Mary Chestnut's Civil War diaries, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.

Woodward died in 1999, at the age of 91.

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