Janette Thomas Greenwood

Janette Thomas Greenwood supplies a missing chapter of the South's history

"It was what historians dream of--a source no one else knew about or had seen in a hundred years."

Janette Thomas Greenwood '77 knew she had stumbled upon a lost treasure when she first held the crumbling leather-bound volumes of the Charlotte Messenger, an all-but-forgotten newspaper written by and for African-Americans in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the 1880s. No one had ever thought muchabout the newspaper (believing that only a single day's copy still existed) until the daughter of the paper's publisher told Greenwood about the dusty papers in her attic.

More than simply a long-lost relic, the Charlotte Messenger presented the perspective of a new generation, the black middle class, as it emerged and defined itself from the chaos of Emancipation and Reconstruction. The young black man who published the paper articulated his high ambitions for himself and his class--and his vision of their leadership role in the New South.

The find inspired Greenwood's book Bittersweet Legacy: The Black and White "Better Classes" in Charlotte, 1850-1910 (University of North Carolina Press, 1994; reviewed in the Winter 1995 issue of the Bulletin). In it, Greenwood tells how the upper-middle classes of both black and white communities forged biracial economic and social bonds based on their common values of hard work and economic advancement. The landmark study challenges the fundamental premises of earlier work on the New South, which tends to separate the histories of whites from those of African-Americans. Greenwood says the separate-spheres model is a common, but false, assumption about post-Reconstruction race relations.

"The two groups not only interacted, but the upper middle classes of both actively cooperated," she explains. "At times, class ties overcame racial barriers."

Members of the black middle class based their identity in part on their relationship to whites, cementing their status by showing their connections to "better" whites. Sources such as the Charlotte Messenger encouraged middle-class blacks to work hard and be ambitious not only in order to provide a good example to lower-class blacks but also to prove their respectability to whites. Economically more powerful, whites often shared this philosophy of race progress and encouraged it--by funding black schools, for example.

Disturbing to some, the story of the "better classes" sometimes presents black pandering and white paternalism. However, one reviewer praised Greenwood for examining the black and white middle classes "without romanticizing their achievements or lamenting their limitations."

"As I researched the Messenger, I found that no one had written about this alliance, let alone acknowledged that a black 'better' class even existed," Greenwood says. "Histories of the New South always came from a white perspective."

Finding this missing chapter of southern history inspired Greenwood to leave her successful career as a public historian to return to graduate school. The choice was surprising because, only as few years earlier, she had left the University of Wisconsin following completion of her master's degree, "turned off by academic historians who were only talking to each other and weren't interested in a larger audience."

Greenwood's return to academic history has been anything but a retreat into the ivory tower. After completing her doctorate at the University of Virginia, Greenwood began teaching at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

"Clark didn't want just a specialist to teach nineteenth-century American history or courses on ethnicity (though I do both); it also wanted someone who did public history as well," Greenwood says. "This kind of community involvement through history, though unusual for a university, is something that has been very important in my career."

"Community studies is my defining theme," she goes on. "I completed my honors thesis at Kenyon on the Mennonite community in my hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Then it was Charlotte. Now, my latest project is on the small but significant black migration from the South to New England, focusing on Worcester County. What interests me is how the migration affected this community's self-identity. Descendants still describe themselves a 'southern family.'"

Perhaps she is drawn to the subject because Greenwood often defines herself in terms of her relationships to communities, whether as a member or an outsider.

"I never imagined I'd be a southern historian. I'd had no contact with the South before I moved to Charlotte with all of the terrible stereotypes, but ended up being fascinated, like an anthropologist in a strange new culture."

Greenwood first made contact with an alien culture as a student at Kenyon. She recalls, "I often felt out of place among all of these people with better academic backgrounds.

"Yet, it sounds corny, but Kenyon changed my life."

"It was such a vital intellectual community where everyone always seemed to be talking about great cultural ideas on the way out of the classroom doors, at lunch . . . I would never have considered the academic life without the confidence Kenyon inspired in me."

"The entire history faculty were my mentors--Will Scott, Roy Wortman, Peter Rutkoff, Reed Browning. As a professor myself now, I still see them as models of what teachers and scholars should be."

Greenwood remains connected to the once-foreign community that embraced her. She delivered a lecture on campus this past fall, and she has served as an outside examiner for history and American studies honors candidates.

"It's been very satisfying and joyful to return to Kenyon," Greenwood smiles. "Nearly twenty years after being a nervous honors student myself, when I talk to today's students I feel as if I have come full circle."

--Rebecca R. Miller '93

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