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Making Southern History: Guion Griffis Johnson's Ante-Bellum North Carolina

Used by permission of the author.


Few works of history have the staying power of Guion Griffis Johnson's Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History. Published in 1937, the book remains an important starting point for students of southern history. Johnson's gift for story-telling and her detailed study of previously neglected subjects—African Americans, family life, health and welfare, education, religion, and popular culture—account for the book's enduring place in the historiography. While Ante-Bellum North Carolina serves as an invaluable secondary source on the pre-Civil War South, the story of its remarkable author constitutes a rich chapter in twentieth-century southern women's history.

When Frances Guion Griffis (soon known as \"Guion\") was born on April 11, 1900 few would have predicted that she would someday write a foundational social history of North Carolina. First of all, she did not hail from the \"Old North State,\" but rather from the \"Lone Star State.\" Born in Wolfe City, Texas and reared in the nearby town of Greenville, she attended college at Burleson Junior College and later graduated from Baylor College for Women in Belton. What made Guion Griffis' future place in history even less predictable was the relative absence of women among professional historians. As historian Jacqueline Goggin has noted, women earned only 16 percent of the Ph.D.s in history awarded nationally between 1893 and 1935. Furthermore, most of these women never found work at coeducational universities, but at high schools, women's colleges, and archives. Guion Griffis, however, showed an early willingness to venture outside traditional female spheres. As a college student, she dreamed of becoming a chemist, but her love of writing pushed her in the direction of journalism. After college, she taught English at her alma mater, established a journalism program there, participated actively in the Texas Press Association, and began working on a master's degree in journalism at the University of Missouri.

A mixture of personal commitments and professional ambitions eventually propelled the young Texan to North Carolina, where she would begin her career in history. In 1923 Guion Griffis married Guy Benton Johnson, her longtime beau from Belton Junior College. Guion Johnson's husband, who had recently completed a master's degree in sociology at the University of Chicago, was also teaching at Baylor College for Women. But in 1924, Howard Odum, a rising star in sociology at the University of North Carolina, began recruiting Guy Johnson for doctoral studies and an assistantship at his new Institute for Research in Social Science. Guion Johnson agreed to make the move on the condition that she, too, could work for Odum and begin her own doctoral studies. Odum agreed to her request, and the Johnsons loaded up their Model-T Ford in the late summer of 1924 for the long trip to Chapel Hill.

In coming to UNC, Guion Johnson sometimes felt wistful for the supportive environment she had experienced at a small women's college. While many public research universities in the United States began admitting women soon after the Civil War, most southern universities remained exclusively male. UNC, in fact, had not admitted women until 1897, and even then it was only for graduate studies. The school's first female member of the regular faculty was Sallie B. Marks, who joined the education department in 1927. Nonetheless, Johnson hoped to chart her own path, regardless of gender conventions. She quickly decided that she wanted to study history, not follow her husband's footsteps in sociology. As she once commented, the \"theorizing\" involved in sociology held little appeal for her; she wanted to tell stories in a straight-forward fashion. In switching to the department of history, however, Johnson entered a male-dominated world. As a graduate student, Johnson once heard a prominent member of the faculty say that women were not capable of teaching college-level history courses. While the history department had a smattering of female graduate students, it did not hire its first tenure-track female faculty member until 1965.

Despite the uncertain prospects for female historians, Johnson pursued her studies with zeal. After taking a North Carolina history course under R. D. W. Connor, a distinguished scholar who later became the first Archivist of the United States, Johnson set out to \"write a history of the way the people of North Carolina had lived their lives.\" Working under Connor, she later recalled that her search for information was \"insatiable.\" Scouring the available newspapers, archival collections, legal and political records, she wrote a dissertation entitled \"Social Conditions in North Carolina, 1800-1860.\" Noteworthy for its particular attention to class distinctions among the antebellum population, Johnson's dissertation barely scratched the surface of the larger study she hoped to write. Nonetheless, it earned her acclaim, winning UNC's Smith Research Award in Social Science. Despite the recognized merits of her scholarship, however, Johnson did not receive the corresponding professional legitimation. On graduation day in 1927, her adviser congratulated her, but then quipped, \"Now that you have your Ph.D., go home and learn to bake a chocolate cake!\" While the UNC sociology department offered Johnson's husband a professorship, the history department did not extend the same opportunity to her.

From 1927 until 1934, Johnson continued to hold a research assistantship at Odum's IRSS, a position that offered some academic collegiality, as well as the opportunity for her first publication, A Social History of the Sea Islands with Special Reference to St. Helena Island, South Carolina (1930). Yet like most female historians of her generation, Johnson pursued her interests without the full institutional support afforded to her male counterparts. In 1934 the Depression forced the IRSS to scale back its assistantships and decided that with her husband on the payroll it could not also support Johnson. She rallied with characteristic determination, however, and continued to work out of her husband's campus office when she was not attending to their two young sons, born in 1928 and 1933. Quietly working behind the scenes to expand and revise her dissertation, Johnson sent her book to press in 1937.

Unconventional by her very presence in the historical profession, it should have surprised no one that Johnson's Ante-Bellum North Carolina was a pioneering work of history. Upon initial observation, the book first astonishes the reader with its size. As she sheepishly warned a colleague who agreed to read an early draft of the manuscript, \"the mere reading of it is a test of physical endurance and a strain upon friendship.\" The final published version came close to one thousand pages and included hundreds of bibliographical references. Despite Guion's self-deprecating warning, the book also surprises the reader with its lively narrative. Johnson eschewed jargon and generously peppered her text with stories. In rejecting a heavy-handed narrative voice, she privileged the voices of ordinary antebellum citizens. But most exceptional was the book's subject matter. Ante-Bellum North Carolina aimed to paint \"a picture of the way the average North Carolinian lived his life between 1800 and 1860.\" That type of social history was still in its infancy, as most historians still favored topics in political history. By employing less traditional source materials (newspapers, popular periodicals, and the personal papers of men and women) and reading standard sources (legal and political records) with fresh questions in mind, Johnson introduced a new cast of historical actors that crossed the boundaries of race, class, and gender.

Johnson took seriously the divisions between men and women, blacks and whites, and rich and poor, but she also recognized that these groups frequently interacted behind-the-scenes, often in mutually dependant and sometimes legally prohibited relationships. In her chapter on \"Social Classes,\" for example, Johnson pointed out that \"a gentleman's daughter seldom danced with a mechanic's son\" at antebellum subscription balls. Yet in discussing \"Rural Life,\" she vividly illustrated the leveling effects of alcohol, showing that rich planters and small farmers could often \"be found rubbing elbows\" at the local tavern. In particularly rich chapters on \"Courtship and Marriage Customs\" and \"Family Life,\" Johnson warned that the legal and political subordination of women should not be read as female passivity or acquiescence. She portrayed southern white women not as ornamental sideline observers of a male-controlled world, but as hard-working wage earners, indispensable household managers, savvy entrepreneurs, practitioners of family medicine, and even vocal participants at political rallies. Johnson's five chapters on slavery and African-American life attested to her desire to re-write southern history in a more racially inclusive fashion. Like other white scholars of her day, she put more stock in white paternalism (and slave contentment) than did the pioneering black historians, such as Carter Woodson and W. E. B. DuBois. Yet Johnson did make important gestures to the idea of black agency, insisting that \"a slave was two persons . . . for no matter how hard he had labored during the day as his master's property, he shed his chattel state as he left the field behind, and he entered his own cabin as a person.\" She also devoted an entire chapter to free blacks and showed how the state gradually stripped them of their rights. Most noteworthy was that Johnson, writing during the period of entrenched racial segregation, boldly pointed out that like other social barriers, antebellum North Carolinians had also traversed those of race. She cited, for example, white planters who took slave mistresses and examples of white women willingly \"cohabitating\" with black men.

In addition to introducing new faces to the historical record, Ante-Bellum North Carolina de-centered a traditional history of governments and brought into focus social institutions—families, schools, churches, voluntary associations—as the formative arenas of daily life. Lest her colleagues in political history dismiss \"family history\" as irrelevant, Johnson insisted that the personal was political, long before that notion became a familiar refrain. \"The Legislature jealously guarded the family relationship,\" she wrote, citing numerous examples of laws designed to use the family as a key institution of social control. Johnson's three chapters on education and four chapters on religion offered rare glimpses into antebellum classrooms and meeting halls and found them to be important sites of social and political discourse. While including two chapters on \"The Court System\" and \"The Criminal Code,\" Johnson was careful not to exaggerate the importance of laws and argued that the \"unwritten rules of social behavior\" also significantly shaped human behavior. Well in advance of major historical interest in these topics, Johnson included several chapters on welfare, health care, and popular print culture. In telling history as \"average\" folks had experienced it, Johnson vividly captured the texture of antebellum daily life.

Ante-Bellum North Carolina uniformly received glowing reviews. Before publication, the University of North Carolina Press sent the manuscript to Alfred Ray Newsome, a noted historian of North Carolina who then chaired UNC's history department. Newsome judged the work to be \"the most comprehensive and valuable production based on original sources that has ever been made in the ante-bellum period of North Carolina history.\" After the book's publication, others echoed his praise. Avery Craven, a prominent southern historian, argued that it \"belongs in every library and on the desk of every student of Southern history.\" Reviewers for both the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and the Mississippi Valley Historical Review termed it \"monumental.\" Reflecting the newness of social history, a reviewer for the American Historical Review predicted that Johnson's book would serve \"as a model for social histories of other states.\" Likewise, sociologist Robert E. Park suggested in The American Journal of Sociology that the book was not history \"in the ordinary sense of that term\" since it located larger social patterns in human behavior. Black scholars praised the book's recognition of African American life. Myrtle R. Phillips, a professor at Howard University, wrote in the Journal of Negro Education that Johnson's book represented a refreshing change from books that purported to treat a whole state or region but only gave \"superficial treatment\" to racial minorities. Ante-Bellum North Carolina, she wrote, truly gave the reader a \"close-up\" look at the social lives of slaves. When John Hope Franklin published The Free Negro in North Carolina in 1943, he noted in his bibliography that Johnson's book was \"indispensable to students of the period.\" C. G. O'Kelly, a professor from North Carolina College for Negroes whose extension service had adopted Ante-Bellum North Carolina for course use, wrote Johnson a note \"expressing [his] appreciation for what you have done for North Carolinians in general and for the teachers of my race in particular.\"

More recently, historians have continued to consult Johnson's work, even as they chart new interpretations of the antebellum period. North Carolina historian Harry Watson has noted that Johnson's overall \"whiggish\" approach reflected a contemporary impulse among southern historians to view the antebellum decades as a steady march toward progress that was interrupted by the Civil War. Whereas the state in the late eighteenth century was a \"land-locked agricultural province\" marked by provincialism, sectionalism, conservatism, individualism, and superstition, Johnson argued that by 1860 it had begun to shed the \"simplicities of the frontier\" and to embrace \"the complexities of civilized life.\" Current scholars have complicated such assertions by exploring persistent social, political, and economic inequalities in southern life. Moreover, particularly in the field of black history, new sources and methodologies have yielded fresh interpretations. The Works Progress Administration's slave narratives, for example, have enabled subsequent scholars to create a fuller account of black agency during slavery. Scholars of women's history have likewise built upon Johnson's work, even as they continue to cite her as a pioneer in the field. Anne Firor Scott, for example, wrote in 1993 that Johnson's chapter on family life \"still merits the most careful study by historians of southern women.\"

Despite her work's wide acclaim, Johnson (and most female scholars of her day) remained on the margins of professional life. After her book's publication, she and her husband collaborated on a number of scholarly research projects, including Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma in 1944. And, during the Second World War, she found that even academe had its version of \"Rosie the Riveter,\" as she found work teaching courses in naval history and strategy at a U.S. Navy flight school located at UNC. But when the war ended, so did her fleeting teaching post. In the late 1940s, Guion Johnson unsuccessfully sought work in the UNC history department. Feeling social pressure to abandon her job search and busy herself with more conventional pursuits, she joined the League of Women Voters, the North Carolina Council on World Affairs, the Young Women's Christian Association, and several Methodist organizations. If organizational work had not been Johnson's first career choice, she nevertheless embraced volunteerism, like southern history, with determination. She urged her fellow women not to \"spend their days in puny effort, denying their creativity.\" In 1967, she published Volunteers in Community Service, an ambitious plan for involving volunteer women in anti-poverty programs. Throughout her years as a volunteer, Johnson continued to write articles for academic journals and remained active in historical societies. In 1980 she and her husband collaboratively published Research in Service to Society, a history of Odum's IRSS. Johnson died on June 12, 1989 at the age of eighty-nine.

While her career in volunteerism undoubtedly pushed that sphere of female activity into new arenas of recognition and importance, Johnson's more lasting legacy may well be Ante-Bellum North Carolina. Through her creativity and innovation, Johnson realized a vision for inclusion through the historical narrative, a vision that sometimes eluded her professionally, but one that still inspires readers today. Well-worn library copies of the book remain in active circulation, and book collectors treasure used copies. The fact that Documenting the American South chose to make Ante-Bellum North Carolina available via the web attests to the book's enduring recognition by scholars as a classic work of southern history.

Sarah C. Thuesen
January 2002


For further research:

Crow, Jeffrey J. and Larry E. Tise, eds. Writing North Carolina History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.

Goggin, Jacqueline. \"Challenging Sexual Discrimination in the Historical Profession: Women Historians and the American Historical Association, 1890-1940.\" American Historical Review 97 (June 1992): 769-802.

Guion Griffis Johnson Papers. Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Johnson, Guion Griffis. \"My Exploration of the Southern Experience.\" The North Carolina Historical Review 57 (April 1980): 192-207.

Scott, Anne Firor, ed. Unheard Voices: The First Historians of Southern Women. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Thuesen, Sarah Caroline. \"Taking the Vows of Southern Liberalism: Guion and Guy Johnson and the Evolution of an Intellectual Partnership.\" The North Carolina Historical Review 74 (July 1997): 284-324.

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