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58 Julia Mood Peterkin and Wil Lou Gray The Art and Science of Race Progress Mary Mac Ogden • • • Though using two very different mediums—literature and social science—two white South Carolina women, Julia Mood Peterkin (1880–1961) and Wil Lou Gray (1883–1984), challenged regional conceptions of race through nationally recognized projects.1 In 1929 Peterkin received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Scarlet Sister Mary (1928). Though written partly in the Gullah dialect, the novel departed from the racial stereotypes commonly found in southern literature and presented a humane portrait of southern African American life.2 Two years later, in 1931, Gray conducted an experiment to test the ability of adult illiterates to learn to read and write at two coeducational summer camps, one for whites at Clemson College and the other for blacks at nearby Seneca Institute. Gray’s report on the experiment, referred to herein as the Seneca study, found little variance in the learning abilities of black and white adults and challenged the widespread idea of innate differences in the mental capacities of the two groups. These two women offered positive portrayals of African Americans that had the potential to change white perceptions of race during an important transitional period in American history. They produced these influential works despite having come of age during the height of the Jim Crow era in the South, a time when eugenics, scientific racism, segregation, and racial violence were widely accepted and when a global economic crisis sorely tested democratic institutions and values in the United States. Fascist governments abroad promoted racial discrimination backed by some of the same scientific theories that bolstered Jim Crow laws and involuntary sterilization at home, practices Peterkin and Gray 59 that reified the void between America’s actions and democratic creed.3 Against this backdrop, Peterkin with her pen and Gray with her tests and measurements promoted democracy and social justice by casting aside stigmas assigned collectively to black people and revealing the individual black person’s experience and humanity.4 Peterkin stated it clearly: “It is absurd to place all Negroes in one great social class, mark it ‘colored’ and make generalizations about its poverty, ignorance, immorality. . . . Negro individuals differ in character and mentality as widely as do people with lighter skin.”5 Gray agreed, declaring that “illiteracy in South Carolina is today chiefly a negro problem. . . . If the state is to prosper it must do so on the progress of the masses rather than the aristocratic few. . . . It is the duty of the State to provide all its people with an elementary education which makes for better living.”6 Brought up in white, upper-class households in South Carolina, the two women—who were friends—had been reared to accept prevailing gender, class, and racial mores of their region. Yet Peterkin, with an artist’s eye, and Gray, with the analytical approach of a social scientist, each proffered a perspective on black life that defied the dominant regional narrative of black racial inferiority. Regional progress on race relations depended on whites envisioning black people as fully human with similar potential, and Peterkin and Gray were instrumental in this process. Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary and Gray’s Seneca study offered audiences outside of the South virtual encounters with southern black culture as proxies for the actual. As cultural texts, Scarlet Sister Mary and the Seneca study conceptually linked a broad-based, literate audience with an image of black life that was positive and fostered a progressive view of South Carolina and its people.7 When these projects are examined together, they demonstrate that the printed word is more than just a reflection of what a culture believes or thinks it knows: it generates perceptions as well. Studying these two South Carolina women and their work demonstrates how change came to the South piecemeal and from different sources, always in the shadow of tradition and often by indirect means. Furthermore, Peterkin and Gray demonstrate the range of the long civil rights movement. Historians have recently begun to uncover significant civil rights activism in the decades before the 1950s, particularly among labor unions, the naacp, and the Communist Party. Peterkin and Gray reveal the significant role that a handful of white women also played in these early decades as they deviated from the racism that stifled the vast majority of white southerners.8 Little in Peterkin’s and Gray’s background and early professional work suggested the humanitarian and progressive turn that their...


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