The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

DeLaney Center probes what it means to be a modern university in the historical South

Washington and Lee’s DeLaney Center’s first symposium brought southern studies scholars together to find answers
Catherine McKean

Scholars from universities throughout the American South are renegotiating what “southern-ness” means in an environment of evolving racial inequality.

John Grammer, director of the Center for Southern Studies at Sewanee University, said southern universities must learn to represent “the actual South” by making steps to better understand and document African American experiences.

“We do this not out of some morbid desire to emphasize the most painful parts of southern history, but out of a clear-eyed recognition that no part of southern history makes any sense unless we begin by recognizing the defining presence of black and white people,” Grammer said.

The DeLaney Center hosted Grammer and two other southern studies scholars — Blair LM Kelley from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Derrick Alridge from the University of Virginia — at its inaugural Race and Southern-ness Symposium on Dec. 1.

The guests joined Washington and Lee’s own Professor Michael Hill on stage in Stackhouse Theater for individual presentations, a panel discussion and a question and answer session regarding how the South’s conditions shape race relations and affect American democracy.

All of the guests brought insight from their respective southern studies centers to Washington and Lee’s campus.

Kelley serves as the director of UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, and Alridge leads the Center for Race and Public Education in the South at UVA.

Hill, who is the director of the DeLaney Center, said the symposium served as a way for the scholars to “declare to each other that we’re not pursuing this work alone.” He said each center’s programming is crucial today, as debates about affirmative action, school curricula and more place race relations at the center of current events.

For Kelley, those challenges are exactly what keep her dedicated to leading her campus’ southern studies center.

“To make democracy is to make it again, and again, and again, and again. And the things that we have won, we must win again, and again, and again,” she said. “History keeps me humble when I think about that.”

Hill represented the newest southern studies program on the stage.

The Delaney Center was founded in 2021 in honor of late Washington and Lee alum, professor and Africana Studies program founder Theodore “Ted” DeLaney Jr. The center’s faculty and staff members lead a variety of programs that promote teaching of, and research on, race and southern identity.

Programs like the DeLaney Center represent hope, Alridge said — something he witnessed first-hand on his campus.

UVA’s southern studies center was established in response to the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.

During the rally, hundreds of white nationalists gathered over plans to remove a Confederate statue and were met by counter-protesters. One protester was killed and dozens more were injured when a car drove into the crowd.

The event, Alridge said, “shined a bright light” on “Charlottesville’s enduring history of racial tension.”

Now, the center at UVA seeks to learn about the South as a place of complexity — where both brutal memories of slavery and triumphs of the civil rights movement exist in history together.

Alridge said keeping history at the center of southern studies is key to understanding today’s racial inequities.

“Seeds of racialized policies and practices were planted in the decades past, and they have blossomed into tangible issues,” he said.

Kelley said now is the time to address systemic injustices that have endured for centuries because there is a larger presence of black people in academia.

“We’re here,” she said. “There’s a critical generation of black people who are asking new questions and speaking in new voices.”

Each center is asking those questions in unique ways.

At UVA, Alrdige is researching the historical patterns behind what’s known as “the achievement gap,” or the difference in academic performance between black and white students. Alridge and his team plan to use those discoveries to better understand how to close the gap in the future.

Grammer, a literary scholar, focuses his research on contemporary southern authors who are “re-engaging with the idea that the present can only be understood as a product of the past.”

His center at Sewanee places special emphasis on digital humanities so that archival materials and modern literature alike can be accessible online.

Meanwhile at UNC, Kelley works to uncover the stories that have been hidden or erased over time in order to center the African American experience in historical narratives.

For example, her most recent book, called “Black Folk,” documents voices of the black working class, from domestic maids of the nineteenth century to essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work is important to her, she said, because she can reclaim her education about the South. Kelley said she was rarely taught about African American history in her southern studies classes in college — even the professor of her Civil War history class never mentioned a single black person.

Grammer agreed that southern studies programs have not always represented both black and white voices. That’s why places like the DeLaney Center that “explicitly foreground race in their conception of the region” are so important, he said.

The DeLaney Center will continue its programming next term with events such as the “Screen to Square Film Series,” which showcases films that portray southern self-definition, and “DeLaney Dialogues,” which invite experts to present the newest ideas about southern race relations, culture and politics.

Hill said collaborative events, such as the symposium, will continue too.

“Hopefully, this is the beginning of a friendship and a camaraderie that will propel us,” he said.

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