The Georgia Historical Quarterly is one of those heavily footnoted publications devoted to the somber study of what we once were. To be truthful, some might consider it stodgy. Even dusty.
Which is to say that the GHQ – for this is how insiderish historians refer to it — is not the place you would expect to find salacious confessions. But to mark the magazine’s 100th birthday, the magazine editorial staff has offered one up.
To top it off, the magazine’s editor even blows the whistle on an open secret. The latest issue is sure to fly off the shelves.
First, the confession: Over the course of this year, and in the current issue, the magazine has pointedly acknowledged that, throughout much of its lifetime, the GHQ was a trafficker in Lost Cause mythology.
This was the fiction that the states of the Confederacy created for themselves in defeat — that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery or white supremacy. It became the underlying philosophy for Jim Crow and segregation, and for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century.
The Lost Cause is why we’re still torn apart by a carving of three Confederate leaders on the side of Stone Mountain.
In the GHQ’s most recent edition, the lead essay focuses on E. Merton Coulter, who served as the quarterly’s first professional editor for 50 years, until 1973. “He was a romanticizer of the Old South, the Confederacy, and Reconstruction who contributed to the South’s closed intellectual society and who consciously employed his skills as a historian to bolster the white South’s rejection of social justice for blacks,” writes Fred Arthur Bailey, a history professor retired from Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Coulter’s view of Confederate history was incorporated into Southern public school textbooks over decades.
Allow me to explain why this admission matters. In the largest sense, the above paragraphs break no particularly new ground — and would seem obvious to many. But history isn’t just a recitation of facts. Who tells the story matters. As does when the telling occurs.
The Georgia Historical Quarterly began publication in 1917, and its circulation is small. But its parent organization, the Savannah-based Georgia Historical Society, was founded in 1839. It may be the oldest private organization in the state – certainly old enough to look down on Coca-Cola as new money.
Age has its advantages. Politically, the society is plugged in. Deeply. Its current board chairman is Vince Dooley. Yeah, that one. He earned a master’s degree in history during the off-season.
In other words, in the midst of yet another debate over the saintliness of Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson, sure to occur in the Legislature come January, a foundational state organization with deep political roots is publicly, ostentatiously siding with a Southern origin story that isn’t separate but equal — that doesn’t tell black Georgia one thing while throwing a wink to white Georgia.
The effort may have surfaced this year, but has been underway for decades. “The Georgia Historical Society and the GHQ have been at the forefront of changing the way we think about our history,” McNair said. “When Coulter left in the ‘70s, that was pretty much the end of that era. Among historians, he was a holdout.”
And yet those attempting to revise our view of an important revisionist don’t trash the long-time GHQ editor. That would be unSouthern and unhelpful. But they do try to explain him.
McNair refers to him as “a first-rate historian and professor at the University of Georgia.”
Even so, the article that follows describes the weaponization of Southern history by Coulter and others: “He was a latter-day Jeremiah urging southern whites to remain faithful to their heritage.”
When describing the lifestyle of slaves, “he simply noted that ‘they were treated no better or no worse than their economic well-being demanded.’”
Coulter wrote of a threatened white populace: “The white people…called to their assistance the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan, and the best elements in the state entered into its secret confines.”
In 1959, after Coulter gave a fiery historical defense of segregation in the South, U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia had it read into the congressional record.
The acknowledgement of Coulter and his influence is just one of those adjustments that McNair and others at GHQ have pushed to correct the record. Another is the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, and the nation’s pre-1860 economy.
“It wasn’t a side project, it was central to the whole thing,” McNair said.
Then there’s this question: When does an act of rebellion become treason? “Just saying that makes some people cringe,” the GHQ editor said. The publication has made a subtle change in the language it uses. It no longer refers to federal troops as “the Union army.”
“It puts the Union and Confederacy on equal planes. We try, whenever we can, to say ‘the Confederacy versus the United States army,’” the editor said.
Now, I promised you an open secret a few paragraphs ago.
You would like McNair. He started out as a Savannah cop in the 1980s, ultimately graduating with a doctorate from Emory University in 2001.
But it is this line in McNair’s foreword that drew my attention, a reference to the Lost Cause academic who preceded him: “Having me, an African-American, occupy the editor’s chair is something he certainly would never have envisioned.”
McNair is the first African-American editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly, and has been for seven years. It is not a fact that’s been hidden away, but he doesn’t mention it often.
When a history is told matters, as does the who of its telling. But the facts of history ought not depend on the race of person who writes it.