Francis Butler Simkins
Publication Year: 2008
Few men make their mark in their profession as indelibly as historian Francis Butler Simkins (1897-1966). Known as an eccentric, Simkins is almost as famous for falling asleep while performing his ceremonial duties as president-elect of the Southern Historical Association as he is for his wildly influential and radical scholarship.
Simkins was considered one of the most liberal voices in the academic dialogue about Reconstruction and race relations in the South during the first part of his career, but his outlook changed drastically during the 1950s. This man, whose scholarship once challenged racism, became a staunch conservative--arguing in his final book that the Jim Crow South was "everlasting" and would never change.
In this biography, James Humphreys takes a close look at Simkins as a man, to better understand him as a historian. He engages with Simkins's physical and mental eccentricities--his troubled health and career stresses--and explores the extent to which the historian was shaped by the values he learned during his childhood in segregationist South Carolina.
Published by: University Press of Florida
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Researching the life of Francis Simkins allowed me to travel throughout the South, and, along the way, I received research assistance from archivists, librarians, historians, and other scholars, who graciously gave of their time and expertise to help me. Some of them have become close friends; all of them have my appreciation. The most significant influence on my work came from ...
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In 1953, historians who attended the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Jacksonville, Florida, witnessed a bizarre incident. As Kathryn Abbey Hanna gave her presidential address, Francis Butler Simkins, then vice-president and a well-known southern historian, fell asleep on stage behind her. For those members in the audience with a sense of ...
1 Growing Up in History
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ON CHRISTMAS EVE 1922, as New York City pulsated with the excitement of the holiday season, twenty-five-year-old Francis Butler Simkins sat alone in his apartment composing a letter to his hometown newspaper in Edgefield, South Carolina. Writing had always come easy to Simkins, then a graduate student at Columbia University. “The sky is dark, ...
2 “A Radical in the South Carolinian Sense”
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FRANCIS BUTLER SIMKINS entered the University of South Carolina in September 1914, just a month after the outbreak of war in Europe. He was only sixteen years old at the time. Had there been the chance for a better education in Edgefield, he might have finished high school there, but the school he attended lacked academic seriousness and had many undisciplined ...
3 A Provincial Confronts Modernity
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AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Simkins had begun to doubt many of the white South’s romantic and traditional ideals. He felt a growing sense of liberation from the old values of Edgefield, and he expected to become even freer in his thinking as he progressed through his graduate studies. The thought of the academic challenges that lay ahead excited him as he moved ...
4 “A Seeker after the Broadening Truth”
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AFTER THIS ONE YEAR APPOINTMENT at the Citadel ended in June 1921, the frustration that Simkins felt over what he regarded as the impersonal and unchallenging graduate education at Columbia failed to dissuade him from returning to the university in order to begin working toward a doctoral degree. He was particularly encouraged to enroll again because of Benjamin Kendrick’s successful efforts to secure a fellowship ...
5 “Life Is Adamant”
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AT THE PRESENT I AM EARNING MY LIVING AS a teacher-in-exile, so to speak, from my historical interests in New York and South Carolina,” wrote Francis Simkins to James Henry Rice in the fall of 1923.1 Simkins’s place of exile was Lynchburg, Virginia, where for several months he had been teaching at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.2 He described the institution to Rice ...
6 “A Remarkable Interpretive Study”
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IN THE FALL OF 1924, Simkins’s article “Guzman Blanco: An Appreciation” appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly, just as coeditor William Boyd had promised the historian it would before he left for Brazil.1 In this essay, Simkins wrote that in Venezuela, during the 1870s and 1880s, Blanco’s efforts brought about economic and social gains for his countrymen. ...
7 “Return to the Beaten Path”
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WHILE SIMKINS'S PUBLISHING CAREER was flourishing, his teaching job at Emory University was turning into a disappointment. The excitement he felt upon gaining his new appointment quickly dissipated into frustration. For one thing, he recoiled at the appearance of the campus. The uninspiring Georgia Piedmont paled in comparison to the natural ...
8 Challenging the Dunning Orthodoxy
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I AM DELIGHTED TO KNOW that you are working with so much interest and pleasure in a new book,” Gilberto Freyre wrote to Simkins in August 1927. The “new book” was to be a study of the Reconstruction era in South Carolina, a project Simkins had been researching since the previous summer. Officials at Farmville State Teacher’s College then granted him a year’s ...
9 Professional Success, Personal Turmoil
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EXTREMELY HIGH unemployment, low farm prices, and numerous bank failures were among the litany of economic horrors gripping the nation as Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency of the United States in March 1933. Although the Great Depression hit many areas of the American South especially hard, in Virginia, where Simkins lived, many ...
10 The Contrarian
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THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, Simkins reveled in playing the role of the contrarian, an individual who expressed an opinion that flew in the face of prevailing thought. Although his views on race were provocative, the war question provided an even better example of his desire to challenge establishment views. Simkins had opposed the entry of United States forces ...
11 The LSU Years
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FRANCIS SIMKINS ARRIVED on the campus of Louisiana State University in the fall of 1948 to begin a one-year appointment as visiting professor of history, a temporary replacement for Bell I. Wiley, the head of the history department, who was going on leave. Although the thought of replacing Wiley, an esteemed historian, undoubtedly made him nervous, Simkins ...
12 Challenging the Simkins Orthodoxy
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WHEN FRANCIS SIMKINS RETURNED TO Farmville in the late summer of 1951, he returned to a small town beginning to feel the first rumblings of a revolution that would irrevocably alter not only the tiny Virginia village, but also the entire South. That revolution was the civil rights movement. As the agitation for minority rights erupted in Farmville and other southern towns, a more subtle ...
13 “An Exalted Life” Ends
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THE LAST DECADE OF Simkins’s life was a frustrating time for him. He continued researching and writing, but his efforts produced few results. Except for a collection of previously written essays, he did not publish another book. At this time, too, his writing came to reflect the ideological concerns becoming increasingly important to him. The articles Simkins ...
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DURING THE FOUR DECADES SINCE Francis Simkins’s death in the 1960s, the writing of southern history has undergone immense changes. Gender theory and a greater focus on minorities have blossomed in the late twentieth century as the most important approaches to the study of this region. Compared to these perspectives, Simkins’s writing seems ...
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Francis B. Simkins Bibliography
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Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 12 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2008
Series Title: New Perspectives on the History of the South
Series Editor Byline: John David Smith