Historian examines his past in “Making of a Racist”

In “The Making of a Racist,” historian Charles B. Dew, a descendant of Thomas Roderick Dew, one of the Old South’s most passionate apologists for slavery, provides a candid, courageous and introspective examination of the attitudes and beliefs that made him “a racist, an accidental racist perhaps … but a racist nonetheless” until his final year at Williams College, 1957-1958.

Dew, the author of important books on the antebellum South, has written a fascinating hybrid — part autobiography, part history, part pedagogy, part catharsis. Most importantly, his book provides a bold self-examination of how he inherited his sectional and racial views from his family and how white Southerners defended and perpetuated white supremacy, first under slavery and later under Jim Crow.

Born in 1937, Dew grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., in an upper middle class family. Dew’s parents raised him to be a “Confederate youth.” For his 14th birthday they gave him a .22-caliber rifle and Douglas Southall Freeman’s three-volume history of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, “Lee’s Lieutenants” (1946).

Dew entered Williams (where he continues to teach today) in 1954, fully committed to segregation and insensitive to racial injustice. Several forces – living and engaging as equals with black classmates, following the civil rights struggle in the press, seeing firsthand black poverty in the rural South, and studying the history of the South critically — gradually led to Dew’s “unmaking as a racist.”

By September 1957, when watching TV coverage of whites protesting the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School, events had transformed him. “The people in that mob disgusted me,” Dew recalled. “I did not want to be like them. I did not want anything to do with people like that. I, we, the South, surely we were better than that.”

Dew explains that he focused his research on slavery and race “because I wanted to know how white Southerners — my people — had managed to look evil in the face every day and not see what was right there in front of them, in front of us.”

The key to understanding both 19th century slavery and twentieth century segregation, Dew concludes, was the “unquestioned assumption of white superiority and innate black inferiority” by otherwise decent people like his forebears. These notions remained largely unchallenged because “the system that elevates us and subordinates them seems right and proper and the way things were meant to be.”