A radical southern womanKatharine Du Pre Lumpkin was a scholar who chose an academic career over marriage, and worked to expose society's economic inequities and the effects of racism.
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
By Jamil Zainaldin
A shocking act of violence stirred, or “woke,” a sense of justice in her.
Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, a daughter of the post-Civil War South and member of a prominent Georgia family, chose to challenge her society and its beliefs about women and race.
Born 120 years ago this week, Lumpkin could claim a heritage that extended back to Georgia’s antebellum planter elite, and included a governor, judge, state supreme court justice, and founder of the University of Georgia law school (not to mention a county named in honor of her family). The Lumpkins also contributed sons to the Confederacy’s war effort and, like their planter neighbors, experienced the war’s aftermath as a personal and economic catastrophe.
Katharine’s father, William Lumpkin, served in the Confederate army. After the war, he married, scraping and scrambling for a living as a lawyer and farmer — as did so many other sons and daughters of the old planter elite. The family moved several times during her childhood, as her father pursued work and opportunities.
Lumpkin enjoyed regaling his children with tales of the “old times” on the family plantation. “Tell us another story about the old days, Pa,” the children would ask. And well they might, for the stories he relayed were filled with peace, prosperity, and happy times, even for slaves, who were bound to the master and his family (so the story went) not by chains, but by ties of loyalty and affection.
William Lumpkin’s stories of that bygone era in fact merged perfectly with the day’s rising Lost Cause mythology that swept up many white Georgians. Indeed, William Lumpkin was among its earliest and best-known proponents, and his children, like so many other white children across the South, an enthusiastic audience.
Then one day a crack in this picture showed itself.
In her book The Making of a Southerner (part family history, part autobiography, and part sociological study), Katharine Lumpkin remembers as a young child having “gone aimlessly out into the yard before breakfast” one morning when, “of a sudden in the house there was bedlam — sounds to make my heart pound and my hair prickle at the roots. Calls and screams were interposed with blow upon blow.”
Peeking through the kitchen window, she saw her father with a stick, beating “our little black cook, a woman small in stature.” Her face was “distorted with fear and agony,” and her father’s face was marked by “stern rage.” It was not a face she recognized. “Having seen and heard, I chose the better part of stuffing my fists in my ears and creeping away on trembling legs.”
How searing that experience was for Lumpkin, not only in the shock of the moment, but in the seed it sowed.
Her mother, Annette Caroline Morris Lumpkin, who before marriage was an educator, watered that seed by her teaching. Possessing a keen intellect, Annette Lumpkin was described by Katharine as the “family’s prized possession.” In that relationship came encouragement for the development of Lumpkin’s mind and the freedom to read, think, and converse.
After graduation from Brenau College in Gainesville, Lumpkin worked for the YWCA, where she learned of the Social Gospel movement that applied Christian ethics to social concerns, including also those of African Americans in the South. It was the dawn of another awakening.
Pursuing this area of interest — work and equity — she attended Columbia University in New York, receiving a master’s, and the University of Wisconsin, where she received a PhD in sociology. Her specialty was the new field of “industrial relations,” with a focus on wages, hours, and working conditions for child and adult workers in agriculture, factories, and mills.
In the course of her academic career she wrote and published on that subject — the brunt of which exposed society’s economic inequities and the effects of racism. She also wrote a biography of the great 19th-century reformer and feminist Angelina Grimke.
The writer James Baldwin, a southerner by heritage and the grandson of a slave, believed that “people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” How formative is place in our journey to adulthood? How significant are the subtle (and not so subtle) influences of parents and community, not to mention traumatic events of the kind Lumpkin herself witnessed at a tender age? And what of our educational experiences? Lumpkin’s experience at Brenau and later, Columbia University, widened her exposure.
What can we learn from this story? Perhaps that each of us have choices to make about the time we live in — to embrace its values or to challenge them.
What will future generations say about our choices as individuals? What lens will they use to judge our behavior, our priorities?
An earlier version of this column appeared previously under “Jamil’s Georgia.”
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.