Race Harmony and Black Progress: Jack Woofter and the Interracial Cooperation Movement

Race Harmony and Black Progress: Jack Woofter and the Interracial Cooperation Movement

by Mark Ellis

View All Available Formats & Editions

Founded by white males, the interracial cooperation movement flourished in the American South in the years before the New Deal. The movement sought local dialogue between the races, improvement of education, and reduction of interracial violence, tending the flame of white liberalism until the emergence of white activists in the 1930s and after. Thomas Jackson


Founded by white males, the interracial cooperation movement flourished in the American South in the years before the New Deal. The movement sought local dialogue between the races, improvement of education, and reduction of interracial violence, tending the flame of white liberalism until the emergence of white activists in the 1930s and after. Thomas Jackson (Jack) Woofter Jr., a Georgia sociologist and an authority on American race relations, migration, rural development, population change, and social security, maintained an unshakable faith in the "effectiveness of cooperation rather than agitation." Race Harmony and Black Progress examines the movement and the tenacity of a man who epitomized its spirit and shortcomings. It probes the movement’s connections with late 19th-century racial thought, Northern philanthropy, black education, state politics, the Du Bois-Washington controversy, the decline of lynching, the growth of the social sciences, and New Deal campaigns for social justice.

Editorial Reviews

Ben Keppel

"Important and well documented. Ellis does a very good job of situating the work in an important debate over how to assess the historical contribution and value of Southern liberalism.... The writing is polished and clear. A book on Thomas Woofter is certainly welcome, indeed, needed." —Ben Keppel, University of Oklahoma

From the Publisher
"Overall, Ellis has produced a solid and useful study. While sympathetic to white southern liberals, he does not give them free pass. Instead he situates them within the context of their time and what remained possible then, not an easy task by any means.... In short, Race Harmony and Black Progress is a valuable addition to our understanding of southern liberalism." —Journal of Southern History

"[E]llis uses Woofter to examine the southern movement for interracial cooperation between the two world wars... Ellis also provides insights into the development of the social scientific study of race relations, particularly in the South... Anyone interested in the anti-lynching movement, southern rural life, and the social sciences should find the study useful. In addition to rescuing Woofter from historical neglect, Ellis may make his most important and controversial contribution with his critical defense of that elusive phenomenon called southern liberalism." —American Historical Review

"This book makes a persuasive case that the interracial cooperation movement played a bridge role between the Social Gospelers and later reformers and made important contributions to improving relations between middle class whites and blacks, creating a flow of Northern financial support to the South, decreasing the practice of lynching, and improving African American education" —History: Reviews of New Books

"Important and well documented. Ellis does a very good job of situating the work in an important debate over how to assess the historical contribution and value of Southern liberalism.... The writing is polished and clear. A book on Thomas Woofter is certainly welcome, indeed, needed." —Ben Keppel, University of Oklahoma

Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Race Harmony and Black Progress

Jack Woofter and the Interracial Cooperation Movement

By Mark Ellis

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Mark Ellis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01066-7


Jack Woofter The Education of a Southern Liberal

Born in Macon, Georgia, in 1893, Thomas Jackson ("Jack") Woofter Jr. was raised in an atmosphere of New South optimism about public education, economic regeneration, good roads, and the resurgence of the white middle class. An only child, with slight connections to the planter aristocracy in Georgia, he was part of the post-Populist generation that assumed responsibility for the modernization of the region and the consignment to history of feudal features of southern life.

His father, T. J. Woofter Sr., one of eight children of a West Virginian farm family distantly related to Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, became a schoolteacher at the age of sixteen and was principal of a normal school at twenty-three. After studying law at the University of West Virginia, he crisscrossed the South as a teacher and superintendent until 1893, when he became a mathematics instructor at Mercer University in Macon. In 1897, he moved to Milledgeville, the old state capital about one hundred miles southeast of Atlanta, to teach psychology and philosophy at Georgia Normal and Industrial College. Having completed a PhD by summer study with the American School in Chicago, he joined the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens in 1903 as a professor of philosophy and education, specializing in rural schools and modern testing methods. He pushed for better funding for black normal schools and the admission of women to UGA, where a colleague described him as "congenial in association and conversation, [but] of rather solemn face"; his students called him "gloomy." He was to play a key role in the academic and physical growth of UGA until the 1920s. An influential president of the Southern Education Council, he sat on the Georgia Board of Education from its creation in 1911 until 1919, a period of extensive reform. He was a Freemason, a Democrat, and a skilled fundraiser, securing money from the Georgia-born Wall Street banker George Foster Peabody and Governor M. Hoke Smith for several new projects. President Theodore Roosevelt commended him for persuading New South universities to undertake social and economic research and train reform-minded public officials. In 1904, he told the chancellor of UGA, "The University must furnish the constructive thinkers and leaders. No greater opportunity for genuine service is now open to the university." And yet, as a Virginian Baptist who owned no land, T. J. Woofter Sr. remained a parvenu in Georgia.

Jack Woofter's sense of his southernness came primarily from his mother's family. He idealized Callender (Callie) Gerdine as "a daughter of slaveholders, whose tender spirit embodied the true soul of the old south, whose sympathy for the weaker race set a high example." The oldest of eight children, she grew up in West Point, Mississippi, where her grandfather had settled with slaves he brought from Oglethorpe County in Georgia. In 1860, the Gerdine family plantation at West Point was valued at $48,000 and held more than eighty slaves. She married T. J. Woofter Sr. when he was the district school superintendent and moved soon afterward to Georgia. Several of her siblings also moved to Georgia, including a sister who married the owner of a large plantation near Milledgeville, where Jack and his cousins played with the children of black tenants. As he later recalled, he also began to discover things about whiteness.

Not far from my uncle Harvie's plantation a "cracker" whom we shall give the alias of Butch Carmody had a small three-tenant farm. I could tell from the tone and expression of my elders whenever the subject of Butch was mentioned that they would have preferred it if he had settled in some other neighborhood. It was not uncommon in passing his place to hear the howls and whacks which floated down the road as the harness strap was applied to bare, black buttocks.

After her husband's appointment at UGA, Callie Woofter joined the charitable work of the Athens Woman's Club, raising funds for the university's hospital, opened in 1915, and helping to create a circulating library for rural schools. She brought her son up in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, through which he encountered liberal ideas, the Social Gospel, and networks of reforming women's organizations. In the 1950s, Jack Woofter claimed, "Neither from her nor from any of my other Southern relatives do I recall ever hearing any remarks indicating prejudice or intolerance toward Negroes." That seems highly improbable, but indicates a consciousness that he was raised differently from most other white men in Georgia. The Woofters, he considered, were "for that place and time, a fairly liberal Southern family.... As I look back at my early contacts and environment, I see that I was fortunate not to be taught prejudice at an early age." At various points in his life, liberal Methodism would prove morally inspirational and personally advantageous. George Foster Peabody, whose vast banking fortune supported several southern welfare and education programs, befriended the Woofter family and took an interest in Jack's career, as did other Methodist friends, including the philanthropic agent Thomas Jesse Jones, the Georgian sociologist Howard W. Odum, and the outstanding interracial cooperationist Will W. Alexander.

Although Jack Woofter glimpsed rural life during his childhood, his racial outlook was heavily influenced by life in college towns, where overt tensions were rare. He claimed that, as a child, his sense of race as a force in daily life was confined to seeing separate lines of black and white pupils as they walked to school. He had scattered recollections of playing with black children before the age of ten, of fights that broke out among white children if one called another "nigger," of stories about miscegenation, and of his black nurse being permitted to ride with him and his friends in the white people's seats on streetcars ("There was no way around it. We were too young to be unattended and for us to have gone into the Negro section with her would have been unthinkable."). Race, itself, may not have been a prominent factor in his life, but he knew he was a southerner. During his childhood, memories of the Confederacy, the Civil War, and Reconstruction were more strongly preserved in Georgia than in any other southern state, and the sense of American history that young Georgians gained from popular culture and their schoolwork was thoroughly imbued with Lost Cause sentiments. It would have been impossible for Woofter to have remained unaffected by the dominant creed regarding racial difference and the South's lasting sensitivity to outside criticism.

In 1908, when at age fifteen he entered the University of Georgia to study for a BA, the university and Athens itself were undergoing rapid change. For the first hundred years after its foundation in 1801, UGA offered courses in agriculture, the arts, science, and law, but in the 1890s, as pressure built for the renewal of southern education at all levels, Georgia led a regional debate about the purposes of the modern university. Extra state government funding, supplemented by donations from philanthropists led by Peabody, and the introduction of students' fees allowed UGA to become a center for professional training and research on regional problems. The energetic chancellorships of Walter Barnard Hill and David Crenshaw Barrow saw the academic programs and campus transformed, so that by the time Jack Woofter enrolled, his father had become the director (later, dean) of the new Peabody School of Education. Schools of pharmacy and forestry were under construction, and in 1910 the graduate school would open, followed by new schools of business and journalism.

As an undergraduate, Jack Woofter excelled at mathematics, but became more interested in southern social problems and the applications of social science research. Only two elements of his degree dealt with race—an independent investigation in his senior year concerning black benevolent associations and a class taught by Robert Preston Brooks on the economic development of Georgia, in which Woofter and two other students were encouraged to trace the origins of current problems. Brooks epitomized New South academia: the son of a Methodist minister from Milledgeville and one of the first Rhodes scholars at Oxford University in 1904, he gained his PhD at the University of Wisconsin, a hotbed of progressive reformism. His treatment of race and agriculture in classes on Georgia's history strongly influenced Woofter's subsequent work on migration and rural economics. The Brooks version of the Old South presented slavery and cotton as mixed blessings with long-term costs that the post-Bourbon generation struggled to address. Under slavery, according to Brooks, "Negroes were lazy, inefficient, and unintelligent," and his low opinion of post-Reconstruction black labor gave rise to remarks about "the present-day negro's shiftlessness and aversion to work." He hoped to see black Georgians thrive, but warned, "Unless closely supervised, the negro will not work steadily." He saw the minority of prosperous African American farmers as "the hope of the race because they are a standing refutation to the belief held by many persons that the negro is incapable of advancement."

Outside the classroom, Woofter recalled, he and his friends in the Chi Phi fraternity "seldom debated subjects that struck too close to home. We would talk about woman suffrage, the tariff, and the regulation of railroad rates in an abstract manner but never anything about local economic or social conditions." The impact of Progressivism on young, white, middleclass men in the South was limited, and race was a subject too sensitive to be debated properly, especially in the aftermath of the Atlanta race riot of 1906. From the surrounding culture, the teenage Woofter easily absorbed what he called the "Southern ideology of race"— the unshakable certainties: black people were deficient and always would be; white supremacy was inevitable and just; segregation and disfranchisement were necessary; and the South should be allowed to deal with the race problem in the way it knew best. This was the rigid Georgian mindset that W. E. B. Du Bois described as "the grim bars and barriers; subjects that must not be touched, opinions that must not be questioned." Later, when Woofter examined those issues closely and saw their effects firsthand, he would abandon much of what his peers firmly believed.

Along with the "race suicide" theories of mainstream sociologists such as Edward A. Ross, southern white students were exposed to a raft of faux-academic literature on race before World War I. Typical were Thomas Nelson Page's The Negro: The Southerner's Problem (1904), William Benjamin Smith's The Color Line (1905), and R. W. Shufeldt's The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization (1907). Page, a Virginian aristocrat, deplored lynching, but charged black people with being too slow to condemn rape, a crime he claimed was "well-nigh wholly confined to the Negro race" and caused by "the talk of social equality that inflames the ignorant Negro." Smith, who taught mathematics at Tulane University, wrote about the horrors of "amalgamation" and "a nation hopelessly sinking in the mire of Mongrelism." Shocked by the unwillingness of the Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas to ascribe higher qualities to one race, Smith called on the South to erect "at all times, and at all hazards, and at all sacrifices, an impassable social chasm between Black and White." In order to defend the "'continuous germ-plasma' of the Caucasian Race," he argued, the South should insist on the "absolute denial of social equality to the Negro, no matter what his virtues or abilities or accomplishments." Shufeldt, an army doctor, referred to a "seething mass of black sensual bestiality" and declared "these savage and semi-simian creatures" were almost impossible to educate, control, or reform. As expressions of visceral extremism, such books were little better than Hinton Rowan Helper's egregious compilation, The Negroes in Negroland (1868), published forty years earlier. The fact that academic racism also thrived outside the South strengthened the position of southern writers: the Pennsylvanian ethnologist David Garrison Brinton claimed in Races and Peoples (1890) that physical differences between Caucasians and Africans proved that the former was at a more advanced stage of development, and the New England-born psychologist G. Stanley Hall claimed in 1905 that the two groups differed more, physically and psychologically, than any two races in history. Less pejorative work, such as that of Boas, was available by 1910, but most American social scientists insisted that white superiority was a fact and that segregation of the races was required for the avoidance of amalgamation and conflict. At the University of Mississippi, the progressive southern teacher Thomas Pearce Bailey welcomed Boas's anthropological investigations as part of further intense study of "the Negro question," but told students including Howard Odum that to suggest blacks were not inferior invited miscegenation. Thus, racist writers stressed the importance of Jim Crow laws, even as they engaged with new social science ideas indicating that race was a worthwhile field of scholarship.

In the cloistered academic community of Athens, Woofter's acceptance of scientific racism was tempered by his introduction to the ideals of interracial cooperation. His undergraduate studies coincided with a growth in northern philanthropic aid for the investigation of southern problems, particularly regarding African American education, health, and commerce. At the first gathering of the Southern Sociological Congress (SSC) in 1912 at Nashville, delegates resolved to establish a University Commission on Southern Race Questions (UCSRQ). Led by James Hardy Dillard, the director of the Anna T. Jeanes Foundation, the UCSRQ represented a departure from the dogmatism of university presidents such as Charles Dabney of the University of Tennessee, Edwin Alderman of the University of Virginia, and Walter Barnard Hill of the University of Georgia, who believed the race problem would be solved by strict segregation and industrial education. The all-white middle-ranking membership of the UCSRQ would attempt to engage southern college students and faculty in ways that encouraged the spread of southern liberalism.

In 1912, aged nineteen, Woofter graduated in a BA class of thirty-three students and embarked immediately on research on African American life. In doing so, he signed up with the interracial cooperation movement, beginning a connection with the Phelps-Stokes Fund that assisted his career until the 1930s. The fund was a recent addition to the ranks of northern philanthropy, stemming from a bequest in 1909 by New York heiress Caroline Phelps Stokes for housing improvements in the city and the education of African Americans, American Indians, "needy and deserving white students," and native people in colonial Africa. The trustees recognized "cooperation between racial and national groups as a fundamental element in human progress ... [and encouraged] all movements that make for the development of mutual sympathy and cooperation for the general good." Historian Eric S. Yellin suggests this "Christian civilizationism" was intended to help black people overcome the supposed legacy of African cultural and moral backwardness. The Phelps-Stokes Fund was also part of a wider philanthropic effort after 1890 to compensate for the failure of state governments to create opportunity in deprived cities and regions of the United States.

The fund's first major donations were $12,500 apiece to the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia for annual $500 fellowships in the departments of sociology, economics, history, or education, "to enable southern youth of broad sympathies to make a scientific study of the Negro and his adjustment to American civilization." Next, the Phelps-Stokes Fund gave $2,500 to help the Jeanes Foundation deploy black supervising teachers in southern counties, one of the most efficient programs devised by the northern charities. In June 1912, after the UGA board "favorably recommended" the dean of education's son for a research award, Chancellor Barrow invited Jack Woofter to become the first Phelps-Stokes fellow. Barrow assured Anson Phelps Stokes, chairman of the Phelps-Stokes trustees and secretary of Yale University, that the younger Woofter was an "interested student of the negro question" and that his work would "have value." In the long term, Barrow was right, and sociologist John H. Stanfield has commented that sponsoring Woofter as the first Phelps-Stokes fellow was "the program's greatest accomplishment," launching a notable career in interracial cooperation, higher education, and federal government.

Woofter chose to study the black population of Athens, supervised by Brooks, who was an active member of the UCSRQ. As background, Woofter read other social surveys, including W. E. B. Du Bois's microscopic studies of contrasting African American communities in the 7th Ward of Philadelphia in 1896 and Farmville, Virginia, in 1898. (Du Bois, himself, had been influenced by Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London [1889–1903].) Woofter also read several Atlanta University publications initiated by Du Bois on other aspects of black life and would later acknowledge the "pioneer" nature of Du Bois's scholarship.


Excerpted from Race Harmony and Black Progress by Mark Ellis. Copyright © 2013 Mark Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark Ellis is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, and author of Race, War, and Surveillance: African Americans and the United States Government during World War I (IUP, 2001).

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >