“Stories of the South”: An Interview with Dr. K. Stephen Prince

By Logan Tapscott ’14

This summer’s Annual Civil War Institute Conference will focus on the War in 1864. Dr. K. Stephen Prince, an Assistant Professor at University of South Florida in Tampa, is conducting a concurrent session during the conference on southern ruins and their influence on Reconstruction. He is also conducting a dine-in session on Frederick Douglass’ “Mission of the War” speech. Dr. Prince’s book entitled Stories of the South: Race and Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1919, will be released right around the time of the conference.

K. Stephen Prince

How did you approach the subject matter of your book?

My project began as an exploration of northern views of the South in the post-Civil War period. It was to be, in effect, a book about stereotypes–a study of “the southern image in the northern mind,” to paraphrase historian George Fredrickson. As I began researching, however, I quickly realized two things. First, to focus solely on northern views of the South was to fundamentally misinterpret the nature of the sectional relationship. Northerners certainly gazed Southward in the aftermath of the Civil War, but southerners stared right back. The correct model, therefore, was not a monologue, in which northerners did all the talking, but a dialogue. White southerners proved expert at shaping the manner in which Yankees viewed their region, finding a surprising power in what William Faulkner would later describe as the North’s ‘gullibility,’ its ‘volitionless, almost helpless capacity to believe anything about the South.’

Which brings me to my second realization: what I had originally understood to be mere stereotypes of the South—explanations and imaginings that effectively existed in a vacuum—possessed deep political significance. The manner in which the nation understood and discussed the South was not a peripheral concern, but a central animating question of the post-war period.

In my work, the shifting answers pointed to a single question—‘what is the South?’—and marked out a new path for understanding the racial history of the postbellum United States. Between 1865 and 1915, Americans from both sides of the Mason Dixon line recognized that with the power to tell the story of the South–to imagine, explain, and define it for the nation–came the right to control the political, social, and economic shape of the region. A wide variety of northerners and southerners—intellectuals, authors, politicians, activists, and regular citizens—took part in this conversation in an attempt to put their stamp on the popular understanding of Dixie. These stories of the South were deeply tied to considerations of power. They reflected social and political realities, but they also helped to create them. Out of the ashes of the Civil War, a new South would be born. Defining the character of that South would prove to be a central concern of the postwar era.

In Stories of the South, will there be a regional survey of Southern culture? Will the book also include how blacks shaped Southern identity?

My goal is not to discover the “true” nature of the South (if there is such a thing). Rather, I seek to connect conversations over the nature of the South to a more familiar historical narrative—the retreat from Reconstruction and the nation’s acceptance of Jim Crow.

African Americans are absolutely central to my story. They were co-fabricators of postwar southern identity, offering some of the most powerful and creative renderings of the South produced in the period. National acceptance of segregation and disfranchisement was never a foregone conclusion. The words and deeds of black activists help us to remember this all-important truth.

How do Civil War Sesquicentennial celebrations affect your teachings and scholarly works? What are your future projects?

As a scholar of Reconstruction, I wonder how and whether the interest in the Civil War Sesquicentennial will carry over to the Sesquicentennial of Reconstruction. I have piece on this question coming out on the UNC Press Blog in the next month or so.

My second book project, titled The Ballad of Robert Charles: Race, Violence, and Memory in the Jim Crow South, analyzes the New Orleans race riot of July 1900. When a black man named Robert Charles killed several white police officers, white residents of New Orleans sought revenge. Over several days of rioting, they killed and injured dozens of African Americans. The riot quickly became a national story, as commentators attempted to shape popular understandings of events in New Orleans. At once a study of the riot and the cultural work that it spawned, my book will be the first scholarly monograph on the 1900 riot to be published in almost four decades.

Thank you to Dr. K. Stephen Prince for answering student questions in anticipation of the 2014 Civil War Institute Summer Conference. We look forward to his participation in this year’s Summer CWI Conference, “The War in 1864.”

This year’s Institute will take place from June 20-25, 2014. Registration can be done by following this link: http://www.gettysburg.edu/cwi/conference/ See you there!

Leave a Reply