How W. E. B. DuBois Won the United Daughters of the Confederacy Essay Contest
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How W. E. B. DuBois Won the United Daughters of the Confederacy Essay Contest
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Nearly a century ago W. E. B. DuBois (here) won an essay contest sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Columbia, South Carolina—or at least, DuBois's writing won the contest. Photograph by Cornelius M. Battey, 1918, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

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Nearly a century ago W. E. B. DuBois won an essay contest sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Columbia, South Carolina—or at least, DuBois's writing won the contest. When someone sent DuBois a clipping of the winning essay, published in January 1912 along with a photograph of its "author"—University of South Carolina student Colin W. Covington—DuBois made it the basis of an editorial in The Crisis, the NAAC P's magazine he had edited since November 1910. Recalling that in 1901 he had written an article on the Freedmen's Bureau for the Atlantic Monthly, DuBois noted, "It caused no stir in the world, but the editor kept it carefully in his archives to gloat over now and then in the fastness of his study when the family had retired. Imagine, now," DuBois continued, "the editor's gratification on reading this work of genius [Covington's prize-winning essay] to discover that nearly one-half of the essay, and that the important and concluding half, was the editor's own work." After quoting several hundred words of Covington's essay with his own essay in parallel columns, DuBois concluded, "Were the editor a grasping man he might (either for himself or for his race) ask to have a large share of that medal clipped from the proud young Southern breast that bears it and pinned on his own." (DuBois never got a piece of the medal Covington had to return.) By comparing Covington's plagiarized essay with its sources—DuBois was not the only one who deserved credit for Covington's award—we can get a remarkable view on public attitudes in the early-twentieth-century South toward one of the most vilified institutions of Reconstruction.1

The United Daughters of the Confederacy was established in 1894, and it quickly became the predominant voice of what historian Karen L. Cox calls "Confederate culture"—"those ideas and symbols that Lost Cause devotees associated with the former Confederacy . . . based on a hierarchy of race and class." Among the UDC's special interests was the education of the next generation of white southerners. For years, they fought to get textbooks in southern schools that told the "truth" about the War Between the States. They recruited the young through yet another organization, the Children of the Confederacy, and promoted Confederate culture with essay contests.2 The Wade Hampton Chapter of the UDC (UDC-WHC) was formed in 1895, holding its first meeting on December 20, the date South Carolina seceded in 1860. The chapter's early activities focused on gathering items to be displayed in the Confederate Relic Room located in the state capitol, but within its first few months, the UDC-WHC also initiated an annual contest for the best essay on Confederate history by a student of the University of South Carolina. The presentation of the medal took place in the legislative chamber of the capitol on Robert E. Lee's birthday. The topics ranged from the technical and constitutional ("What were the rights reserved in the compact with the U.S. under the Constitution?") to the biographical ("The place of Jefferson Davis in history") to the social ("Woman as a factor in the War"). Medal winners might reasonably aspire [End Page 70] to further greatness: the first winner, John J. McSwain, served in Congress in the 1920s and 1930s.3

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The United Daughters of the Confederacy was established in 1894, and it quickly became the predominant voice of what historian Karen L. Cox calls "Confederate culture"—"those ideas and symbols that Lost Cause devotees associated with the former Confederacy . . . based on a hierarchy of race and class." An unidentified UDC...


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