Charles B. Dew

American author and historian

Charles B. Dew (born 1937) is an American author and historian, specializing in the history of the Southern United States and the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era. He has published three books, one of which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is the Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College.



Making of a Racist (2016)

The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. Hardcover.
  • Pop's sense of right and wrong was much more of a secular than a religious matter. As a boy, he had been a regular attendee at the Presbyterian Church Sunday school, earning medals for not missing a single class, year after year. But as my mother told the story, his experience as a young teenager selling newspapers at the crack of dawn changed his ideas about organized religion. He had seen church fathers returning from late-night visits to the Negro section of town, and he was old enough to know what they had been up to. Their hypocrisy stuck in his craw and solidified into a hostility toward formal religion that lasted the rest of his life.
    • p. 13
  • Woodberry Forest School is a stunningly beautiful place located in the rolling Virginia Piedmont just outside the small town of Orange. The campus of imposing red brick and white-columned buildings was surrounded by green athletic fields, a working farm, and a nine-hole golf course, with a magnificent visual backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the western distance. While I was a student there, I roamed the nearby Confederate trenches, leaf-filled but still clearly visible, along the south bank of the Rapidan River, where men from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had wintered in 1864-1865. The Confederate battle flag that hung in my dorm room during my three years at Woodberry bore witness to my love for the south and a near reverence for the soldiers in grey who manned those trenches on the Rapidan in defense of my native region.
    • p. 20-21
  • In some ways, I did a lot of growing up during my time at Woodberry. Mandatory evening study halls, supervised by masters (as we referred to our teachers), were a major irritant and were absolutely vital to my emergence as a decent student who could aspire to making it into a decent college. We read constantly, even over the summer (I thought I would never make it through O.E. Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth), we memorized (I can still recite long passages of "Thanatopsis"), we took tests and exams (all the time, it seemed to me), we had math and lab science courses that drove me crazy, and we competed on those green, frequently muddy, athletic fields all three seasons of every year (football and winter and spring track for me).
    • p. 21-22
  • My ancestors did more than coexist with this institution and draw monetary gain from it. They endorsed it, they embraced it, they celebrated it, they destroyed a hallowed political union to protect it, and they launched what turned out to be the most blood-drenched war in American history to defend it. And with racial segregation, my parents' generation, and my generation, did much the same thing- no secession and civil war this time around, but blood was shed over and over again as the terror of lynching gripped the South in the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. And the Jim Crow laws and institutions built by that turn-of-the-century generation, the generation of "Radical racism," were passed down as immutable folkways and endured into my own generation.
    • p. 160
  • It is still not easy for us white southerners to come to grips with our collective blindness to these evils, but it seems to me that we must. So, then, how can we understand our inability, our refusal, to see slavery (and later racial segregation) for what it truly was?
    • p. 160
  • I have an exercise that I ask the students in my History of the Old South course to undertake toward the end of the semester. It comes after we have spent weeks studying the institution of slavery and the impact of slavery on the society, the politics, the culture, the economy, and the mind of the antebellum South. I ask them to read two letters, two of the most powerful manuscripts I have come across in my archival searches. Their assignment is to go over these two documents very carefully, line by line, analyze their contents, and answer the following question: "Would antebellum white southerners experience guilt over slavery after reading what is written here? Or did they find ways to look the consequences of slavery in the face on a daily basis and experience no guilt over the South's 'peculiar institution'?"
    I add that historians have debated this question vigorously for decades and have come down on both sides of the guilt question. Their task- my students' task- is to analyze the two primary documents in light of this question. Again, would antebellum white southerners familiar with the content of these two letters have experienced guilt over what is written here? Or would they have done just the opposite and experienced no guilt over what is described? My final comment to them is that there is no way to answer this question definitively, but we can try to understand white southern attitudes during this era and get some idea of how they saw the world in which they lived.
    • p. 160-161
  • It is a sordid tale, all of this, spanning centuries and generations, but we are not doomed by it. We can do better, we have done better, we have done better. But we must do better still. We have to shuck off the last vestiges of the reptilian skin of racism, even if we do not think we are still carrying it around. Because we are. And our failure to shed that skin will continue to poison our politics and shackle the South, and in many ways the rest of the country, with decades of continuing strife and racial injustice. We should strive to be, and we should become, the generation of "grown-ups" who finally, at long last, refuse to put the "hate in children."
    • p. 167

Quotes about Dew

  • Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College and the author of the Fletcher Pratt Award-winning Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secessionist Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Virginia) and Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge, selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
    • Back flap of the hardcover dustjacket of The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016)
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