SECOND ACTS (excerpt)
Bringing early research full circle
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall published her latest book in May, five years after she retired from the history department. But in a sense, the seeds for Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America (W.W. Norton and Company) were planted at the beginning of her career. The book was reviewed in June by The New York Times.
The story of the three Lumpkin sisters has remained with Hall, the Julia Cherry Spruill Professor Emerita, ever since she interviewed the two younger sisters, Katharine and Grace, in 1974 — just a year after she came to Carolina as the founding director of the Southern Oral History Program.
Hall discovered the Lumpkin women while working on her dissertation. The sisters were born into a 19th-century slave-holding family and socialized into a staunch belief in white supremacy and the Confederacy. While the eldest, Elizabeth, held onto those beliefs, the younger sisters went on to become ardent supporters of Southern workers, black activists and women in post-suffrage America.
A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1970s enabled the SOHP to undertake a project on “Southern Women after Suffrage.” “It focused on women who walked through the door that suffrage opened in the 1920s and became activists, professionals and intellectuals,” Hall said.
As part of that project, Hall interviewed Katharine and Grace Lumpkin; Elizabeth had died some 10 years before. Hall stayed in close touch with Katharine, who ended up moving to Chapel Hill and, with Hall’s encouragement, left her papers to Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection.
Because the women were such private people, Hall waited to write the Lumpkin sisters’ still-timely story until they died.
“The dilemmas they faced are things that women and progressive Southerners are still dealing with,” Hall said. “History always has a bearing on the present.”
She couldn’t predict, however, that the overarching theme of Confederate memorialization — and the controversies surrounding race now gripping the country —would be so salient.
An award-winning teacher and scholar, Hall is a National Humanities Medal recipient and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Her immediate agenda includes giving talks and readings focused on her latest publications, among them a piece about her mother for a book published earlier this year by UNC Press, Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South.