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  • Mary Elizabeth Massey and the Civil War Centennial
  • Judith Giesberg (bio)

The story of the Civil War centennial reads like Greek tragedy. Set to open with delegates from various state commissions meeting in Charleston in April 1961, local arrangements would not guarantee a hotel room to an African American delegate, Madaline Williams, from New Jersey—nor could Williams expect to be welcome at luncheons or banquets. National centennial planners had ignored early warning signs of trouble, and as a result, the matter spilled over into the press, attracting the attention of the NAACP and the Kennedy White House. At the last minute, centennial planners moved the meetings from segregated downtown Charleston to a naval base. The change of venue ensured that delegates had a place to stay, but it failed to confront segregation and did not guarantee the full participation and safety of black delegates. The centennial opened with national delegates meeting on the navy base and Confederate states’ delegates meeting, in protest, in Charleston.1 Mired in controversy, the centennial never recovered.

Two hundred miles north of Charleston, a different segregation drama [End Page 400] was playing out in the small town of Rock Hill, South Carolina. On January 31, ten black college students were arrested for staging a sit-in at a local lunch counter. Instead of posting bail, the students chose to serve time on a work gang. A week later, more local college students and regional Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizers returned to the same counter and encouraged others to follow, calling the growing sit-in campaign “jail, no bail.” By the end of March, Rock Hill had become a “focal point” of “the Southern youth movement,” as reporters followed activists to the sleepy college town and jails began to fill with college students. When the former president of the University of North Carolina, Frank P. Graham, addressed a group of white college students in April, defending the sit-ins and comparing Rock Hill in 1961 to Philadelphia in 1776, white South Carolinians had had enough. Angry state lawmakers demanded to know who was responsible for inviting Graham to speak at a state-sponsored institution. Offering no apology for his talk, Graham assured his critics that no one at Winthrop College, a teachers’ college for women, either anticipated his remarks or endorsed them.2 If anyone knew what message Frank Graham would deliver to white college students who found themselves in the middle of a growing movement, it may have been Mary Elizabeth Massey.

Chair of the history department at Winthrop College, Massey received both her master’s degree and her PhD at the University of North Carolina while Graham was president. Massey was situated in the middle of these two competing dramas—one over Civil War commemoration and the other about civil rights—while she served on the National Civil War Centennial Commission and lived and taught in Rock Hill. Yet she left scant evidence of her own thoughts on such matters, preferring to speak through her work rather than her position.

And that work is considerable. As the centennial was getting under way, Massey became the authority on women’s Civil War experiences, serving on both the National Civil War and the Confederate Centennial Commission and on a committee charged with identifying women to be honored for their [End Page 401] Civil War participation. These offers came to Massey based on her reputation as the author of Ersatz in the Confederacy (1952), a book that detailed widespread shortages suffered on the Confederate home front during the war and that celebrated the extraordinary ingenuity of women who sought to overcome them. Although she denied any intention to “deal with the military scene,” Massey described battlefields and home fronts that were intimately intertwined, when by 1863 “a spirit of war weariness settled over the civilian population.” Mostly, though, Ersatz reflected the can-do spirit of Massey’s generation, and the story was overwhelmingly positive. The book is populated with plucky “housewives” who “went about the solution of the problem with good humor and with generosity. They laughed, borrowed, and exchanged. Necessity, in truth, became the ‘mother of invention.’”3...


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pp. 400-406
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