Comer Vann Woodward (born 1908), American historian, is one of the leading interpreters of southern history and race relations.
Comer Vann Woodward was born in Vanndale, Arkansas in 1908. He graduated from Emory University in 1930, earned his master's degree at Columbia University in 1932, and received his doctorate at the University of North Carolina in 1937. As part of the requirements for the degree, Woodward chose to try the difficult art of historical biography and wrote his dissertation on Thomas Watson, a member of Georgia's liberal Populist movement who later became an editor known for his virulently anti-African American and anti-Semitic views, and who was almost certainly an instigator of mob violence.
Woodward's thesis was published in 1938 as Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel to praise from the critics, who were just as complimentary when the book received further notice in the late 1960s.
In 1940 Woodward was called to testify before a congressional committee in support of an anti-lynching bill. Deeply immersed in his life's work, which is the unravelling of post-reconstructionist southern history, Woodward took this responsibility seriously.
In 1943 Woodward was commissioned into the U.S. Navy, where he was sent to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington. There, his duties included the creation of monographs on battles in the Pacific, which were later collected together under the title The Battle for Leyte Gulf, published in 1947.
Released from active Navy duty in 1946, Woodward accepted a professorship at Johns Hopkins University. Woodward now found his own insistence on desegregation pressed into practical service. He did not hesitate to move academic conventions and meetings from hotels or restaurants unwilling to serve colleagues of all faiths and various heritages, and he also supplied Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP and later a Supreme Court justice, with detailed background research used extensively for the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka court case which ultimately outlawed academic segregation.
In 1951 he published Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction and Origins of the New South 1877-1913. Both books were pioneering efforts in clarifying the complex political situation at the end of the Reconstruction period, when the laws of segregation had first been boldly set forth in the South, and their publication made him one of the most significant historians of the period.
By the early 1950s Woodward's works on Southern history were extensively used and quoted in university history departments all over the country. He was highly respected, but his reputation had not yert acquired the distinction it would shortly receive. In 1954 he was asked to deliver the Richard lectures at the University of Virginia. The contract for the lectures on the subject of desegregation happened to include the stipulation that any profits from publication were to go to the university. Woodward had not been expecting to publish his remarks. Nevertheless, collected for publication in 1955, they were lavishly praised by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result, a paperback edition appeared under the title The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Forty years later, this book was still regarded as the Bible of the civil rights movement.
In 1961 Woodward took an appointment as Sterling Professor of History at Yale University. Here he published some of his most highly-esteemed work, including a collection of essays called The Burden of Southern History. He remained at Yale for 16 years, becoming Professor Emeritus in 1977. But official retirement, while relieving him of responsibility the day-to-day running of the department, did not mean the end of writing and his continual search for the truths of history.
In 1981 his name came to the fore once again when he edited a new edition of The Diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut. Chesnut, whose husband had been first the United States senator from South Carolina and later an aide to the brilliant, doomed Jefferson Davis, had been a perceptive and witty woman, and Woodward felt her diaries, covering the years 1861 and 1865, had much to say about one of America's most important historical periods.
With more time on his hands, Woodward also turned an increasing amount of time to criticism a crucial necessity if students of history are to distinguish between over-interpreted or justified versions of historical events. Many thoughtful essays have appeared in such widely respected publications as The New York Review of Books. In 1994 he also joined 34 other distinguished historians in their fight against the Walt Disney Company's intention to build a huge new theme park close to the Manassas battlefield and many other Civil War sites in Virginia. His advanced age did not prevent him from pointing an acid-tipped pen in the direction of the Disney headquarters. Comparing the advance of the 1990s corporation to the clash of Civil War troops that had once taken place in the area, he wrote, in an article in The New Republic, "the battalions of the Walt Disney Company advance their cause with subtler strategy, more sophisticated weaponry and a long barrage of propaganda."
The best assessment and biographical account of Woodward and his work is David Potter's essay "C. Vann Woodward" in Marcus Cunliff and Robin Winks, eds., Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians (1969). John Higham and others, History (1965), contains references to Woodward's ideas.
American Heritage, April/May, 1981.
The Historian, autumn, 1991.
The New Republic, June 20, 1994. □