The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade by Charles B. Dew (review)
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The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade. By Charles B. Dew. ( Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. Pp. xi, 185. $18.95 cloth; $18.95 paper)

As the subtitle of his new book suggests, Charles Dew has produced what he acknowledges is a "strange hybrid" of autobiography and history (p. xi). Although the connective tissue between the volume's two halves remains tenuous, each stands on its own merits—the first as an engaging memoir of Dew's coming of age in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the 1940s and early 1950s; the second as a historical exposé of the slave trade in antebellum and Civil War Richmond, Virginia.

The first three chapters consist of the familiar autobiographical genre of "racial conversion" narrative. Dew lays out his youthful indoctrination, sometimes subtle, often not, into the tenets of both the Lost Cause and Jim Crow. He devotes particular emphasis to reading materials as crucial components of his training—from the popular 1920 proslavery story, "Eneas Africanus," to Douglas Southall Freeman's Civil War histories and, most intriguing, A Youth's Confederate Primer, published in 1951. These views were buttressed by his father's adherence to the rigidities of segregationist decorum and his mother's more genteel acquiescence in the racial status quo, all blithely absorbed by their son. The undoing of what Dew calls his "Confederate youth" resulted largely from his having attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where African American classmates and intense seminars in very different sorts of southern history challenged many of the assumptions of his Florida upbringing.

In the book's second half, Dew reverts to his well-established role as a historian of the slave South, in this case, triggered by his discovery of a single document that revealed troubling aspects of the inhumane exchange of slave property. An 1860 broadside of price listings for slaves on sale by a Richmond auction house led him to search out the accompanying correspondence regarding this and other such local enterprises. (Incredibly most of that documentation exists only because two Massachusetts sisters, who came south as missionaries [End Page 702] during the war, actively collected these abandoned records when the Confederate capital was burned and took them back north where they were eventually archived.)

Dew professes astonishment and moral indignation regarding what "gives this material its enormous power: the matter-of-fact way in which traders, their agents, and their customers spoke about the buying and selling of men, women, and children, of all ages, of all 'grades of quality'" (p. 156). He hammers the point home through close readings of record books, letters, and price lists, reiterating what they demonstrate of purely profit-driven motives—and of tremendous wealth accrued—by calloused and uncaring parties on all sides of these exchanges, in terms that reinforce the recent outpouring of scholarship on the capitalist context of American slavery by Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and Calvin Schermerhorn.

Curiously, it was Charles Dew's own ancestor, Thomas Roderick Dew, one of the most influential apologists for southern slavery, who wrote of his home state in 1832: "Virginia is in fact a negro raising state for other states" (p. 101). That in itself offers a link between the personal and the historical, and even if those bifurcated segments seem to be more a marriage of convenience than a coherent whole, Dew's insights into his adolescent path to enlightenment may well provide readers with a greater appreciation for the levels of empathy and emotion that drive his meticulous and moving assessment of the grim realities of Richmond's lucrative trafficking in human property nearly a century earlier. [End Page 703]

John C. Inscoe

JOHN C. INSCOE is the Albert B. Saye Professor of History and University Professor at the University of Georgia.

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