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  • “A Mind-Opening Influence of Great Importance”Arthur Raper at Agnes Scott College
  • Clifford M. Kuhn (bio)

Born in 1917, Winifred H. “Winnie” Kellersberger was raised in the Belgian Congo, where her parents were prominent medical missionaries. Following in the path of her stepmother, in 1934 she matriculated at Agnes Scott College, an all-women’s institution in Decatur, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. There she excelled in the classroom and played an active role in campus life. In particular, she was a leader in the campus ywca, serving as president her senior year. She belonged to the Mortar Board honor society and was one of seven members of the Class of 1938 named to Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.1

In 1940 Kellersberger married Lachlan C. Vass, a recently ordained Presbyterian minister, and the couple moved to the Belgian Congo, where they did missionary work for the next thirty years. Among other activities, Kellersberger edited the mission’s monthly publication and authored five books in the Tshiluba language. Upon returning to the States, in 1971 she received a master’s degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida.

In 1980, a revised version of her thesis was published as The Bantu Speaking Heritage of the United States. In its dedication she wrote:

To Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, the inspiration of my student days to intellectual fortitude;

To Dr. James Weldon Johnson, the inspiration of my student days to spiritual fortitude;

And to Dr. Arthur F. Raper, my esteemed professor of sociology at Agnes Scott College, who introduced me to Dr. Du Bois and Dr. Johnson, I dedicate this book.2

That a graduate of a southern white women’s college from this period would dedicate a book to two famous African American civil rights leaders was highly unusual, to put it mildly. And Winifred Kellersberger Vass’s trajectory was extraordinary in many ways. Yet she was hardly alone among her Agnes Scott classmates in her admiration for her professor Arthur Raper, one of the South’s leading [End Page 71] liberals who also taught part-time at the college from 1932 to 1939. Eliza King Paschall, whom the Class of 1938 selected to be its “life president,” later recalled that Raper “was one of those persons who leaves his mark on the lives of every person he touches.” Similarly, Elsie West Duval, the class “testator,” remembered that Raper “taught me for the first time to THINK for myself.” Indeed, as a measure of the high regard in which he was held, the Class of 1938 dedicated the college yearbook to Raper, an unusual tribute to a part-time instructor, let alone an outspoken liberal.3

Raper’s work as research secretary for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and as a founding member of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, his classic works on lynching and the plantation South, and his involvement with the New Deal have all been amply chronicled in the historical literature. However, in their exploration of southern liberalism, the Depression and New Deal, and the origins of the modern Civil Rights Movement, scholars have all but neglected Raper’s time at Agnes Scott. Yet on fully a third of his hundreds of speaking appearances across the region, Raper was identified as being from Agnes Scott rather than the Interracial Commission. An examination of Raper’s sometimes-controversial tenure at Agnes Scott reveals an important though neglected dimension of his life, an experience he himself later referred to as perhaps his “finest hour.” It expands our treatment of southern liberals beyond their organizational activities to their experiences as teachers and students. It also complicates and challenges much of what we know about southern white women’s colleges during the ferment of the 1930s.4

Originating as the Decatur Female Seminary in 1889, the Presbyterian-affiliated school was chartered as Agnes Scott College in 1906, the first accredited women’s college in the state. By the early 1920s, the school offered a full academic curriculum, the professional credentials of the faculty had been upgraded, and alumnae were attending some of the nation’s most prestigious graduate programs. Campus life...


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