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Educating Races and Regions: Don West, the Agrarians, and Higher Education

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Abstract:

The radical regionalism this presentation focuses upon grew out of educational and religious discourses that arose in response to slavery and the post-war free blacks. Delving into central and eastern Tennessee, I will show how radical and reactionary regionalism grew from the same ground. Focusing on the education of Don West (a Georgia-born poet, labor organizer, preacher, and communist), I start with the building of higher education for blacks by the American Missionary Association (AMA), which would influence the shape of Appalachian education and writers. West attended Lincoln Memorial University (LMU), which grew out of Berea College, which in turn was established via support from Oberlin—all of which were AMA colleges. While at LMU, West (and his best friend Jesse Stuart) would study under a fiction writer from middle Tennessee, who directed their attention to writing about their region. When West & Stuart graduated LMU, they went on to study at Vanderbilt: West studied with Alva Taylor, a social gospel theologian, who directed West to Fisk University (also founded by the AMA where Du Bois graduated); Stuart would study with the arch agrarian Donald Davidson, whose writing about agrarian whites took place in the same fields from which Du Bois would draw material to compose THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK. West and Myles Horton would go on to found Highlander just miles away from where Allen Tate (another Agrarian and new Critic) would purchase (using coal money) an old plantation and turn it into an Agrarian retreat.
West would go on to join the Communist Party, organize labor in Kentucky, help run Claude William’s the People’s Institute for Applied Religion, become involved in public education in Georgia, and become a professor at Oglethorpe University (in Atlanta) in the mid-forties. At the close of the war, black troops returned with quite a different sense of their relation to and rights in the United States. Georgia repealed its poll tax in 1945 and banned white-only primaries in 1946, 135,000 newly registered black voters allowed African Americans to emerge as influential political players. Race tensions flared when the social infrastructure began to accommodate this shift of power—and it is into that battle that West, a radical regionalist, entered.
New York publishers, in league with the CIO and Southern Conference for Human Welfare, would bring out West’s 1946 book Clods of Southern Earth which was deployed within the struggle to help blacks in Georgia gain full voting rights. In an era when poll taxes severely restricted the voting rights of the black and white working class, Clods argued for racial equality and commonality, which West demonstrated from his childhood experience of sharecropping and the value of his northern Georgia, Appalachian heritage. The book’s testimony, whose ideal audience was working-class whites, was also designed to speak to working-class blacks who were further restricted from voting by the threat of lynching and Jim Crow laws. In the resulting melee, West would work with the most radical of blacks, for which he was driven from his job.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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MLA Citation:

Green, Chris. "Educating Races and Regions: Don West, the Agrarians, and Higher Education" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245017_index.html>

APA Citation:

Green, C. "Educating Races and Regions: Don West, the Agrarians, and Higher Education" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p245017_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: The radical regionalism this presentation focuses upon grew out of educational and religious discourses that arose in response to slavery and the post-war free blacks. Delving into central and eastern Tennessee, I will show how radical and reactionary regionalism grew from the same ground. Focusing on the education of Don West (a Georgia-born poet, labor organizer, preacher, and communist), I start with the building of higher education for blacks by the American Missionary Association (AMA), which would influence the shape of Appalachian education and writers. West attended Lincoln Memorial University (LMU), which grew out of Berea College, which in turn was established via support from Oberlin—all of which were AMA colleges. While at LMU, West (and his best friend Jesse Stuart) would study under a fiction writer from middle Tennessee, who directed their attention to writing about their region. When West & Stuart graduated LMU, they went on to study at Vanderbilt: West studied with Alva Taylor, a social gospel theologian, who directed West to Fisk University (also founded by the AMA where Du Bois graduated); Stuart would study with the arch agrarian Donald Davidson, whose writing about agrarian whites took place in the same fields from which Du Bois would draw material to compose THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK. West and Myles Horton would go on to found Highlander just miles away from where Allen Tate (another Agrarian and new Critic) would purchase (using coal money) an old plantation and turn it into an Agrarian retreat.
West would go on to join the Communist Party, organize labor in Kentucky, help run Claude William’s the People’s Institute for Applied Religion, become involved in public education in Georgia, and become a professor at Oglethorpe University (in Atlanta) in the mid-forties. At the close of the war, black troops returned with quite a different sense of their relation to and rights in the United States. Georgia repealed its poll tax in 1945 and banned white-only primaries in 1946, 135,000 newly registered black voters allowed African Americans to emerge as influential political players. Race tensions flared when the social infrastructure began to accommodate this shift of power—and it is into that battle that West, a radical regionalist, entered.
New York publishers, in league with the CIO and Southern Conference for Human Welfare, would bring out West’s 1946 book Clods of Southern Earth which was deployed within the struggle to help blacks in Georgia gain full voting rights. In an era when poll taxes severely restricted the voting rights of the black and white working class, Clods argued for racial equality and commonality, which West demonstrated from his childhood experience of sharecropping and the value of his northern Georgia, Appalachian heritage. The book’s testimony, whose ideal audience was working-class whites, was also designed to speak to working-class blacks who were further restricted from voting by the threat of lynching and Jim Crow laws. In the resulting melee, West would work with the most radical of blacks, for which he was driven from his job.


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