Southern Exposure

“Elms and Magnolias: Old Blue in a Coat of Gray” takes a long, proud look at some of Yale’s distinguished sons – and two daughters – of the American South. The exhibit, on view in the main hall of Sterling Memorial Library now through August, was prepared by Yale student Garry Reeder, Jr., with guidance from history professors Robin Winks and Howard Lamar.

Mr. Reeder, a third year history major from North Carolina, feels the Yale-Southern connection strongly and that’s what motivated him to research and carry out his project. Coming to Yale raises questions of identity and perception for the transplanted: “How do I see myself as a Southerner? How do other people see me? New Haven and Yale have caused all Southerners to think about themselves in a new way,” he says.

“Elms and Magnolias” reflects Mr. Reeder’s sense of “the many Souths that exist within the past and the present,” and provides him the means to illustrate parallel changes in the South and at the University. In addition, he makes clear the importance to Yale and to the country of its Southern constituency, and the impact Yale graduates have had on the South.

The exhibition begins in the 1700s, with Thomas Jefferson’s 1793 note to Eli Whitney – Class of 1792 – regarding patenting the cotton gin, and goes right up to profiles of the current University Secretary Linda Koch Lorimer of Virginia – Law, 1977 – and President Bill Clinton – Law, 1973 – of Arkansas.

“Elms and Magnolias” includes photos, letters, newspaper articles, books, and other memorabilia from Yale’s collections. Mr. Reeder’s emphasis is on notable alumni and faculty who came from the South – like John C. Calhoun, Class of 1804, vice president of the United States – or who made a significant contribution to it, like Connecticut-born Abraham Baldwin, Class of 1772, who established the University of Georgia in 1784. “Elms and Magnolias” also exhibits archival materials from the South that have no special Yale connection, like signed visiting cards from the cream of the Confederate’s military and correspondence from Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Among the faculty singled out is Howard R. Lamar – born in Tuskegee, Alabama –, who earned his Ph.D. at Yale in 1951 and went on to become a professor of history, dean of Yale College and president of the University; Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward are all sons of the South who distinguished themselves in scholarship and teaching at Yale.

Some of the most poignant materials in the display relate to the Civil War and its impact on the University. In 1850, Yale had 72 students from the South; in 1860, when tensions were already high, there were only 33. One winter’s day in 1861, Southern students raised the flag of secession on Old Campus. Northern students stormed Alumni Hall where it flew and tore it down. The story made the local papers and the clipping can be seen in the Sterling display. When the war began, more than a quarter of the students at Yale – 240 out of 865 – put down their books to take up arms: 199 for the Union, 41 for the South. Altogether, 836 Yale students and alumni served in the Union Army; 80 in the Confederate. After the war, the number of students from the South dropped precipitously. In 1869, only two enrolled at Yale; in 1870, there were nine, and it took well over a decade for the numbers to climb again.

One of Mr. Reeder’s goals is to dispel the myth of Southern homogeneity. “The South has a variety of voices,” he notes. Yale’s highest ranking Confederate official – attorney general and secretary of war–, Judah P. Benjamin Class of 1828 –, is featured along with outspoken Southern abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay Class of 1832- -. To be sure, only two people cited in the exhibition are women Lorimer and Mary Wright, – historian and first woman tenured in the arts and sciences at Yale in 1959 –, and only two are black John Blassingame, Ph.D. 1971, editor of the Frederick Douglass papers; and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., – Class of 1973, director of Harvard’s African American Studies Program –. Their presence in the final case reflects the long way Yale has come in recent history towards diversity.

“Yale… made me see the South through eyes other than my own,” wrote Edward Ayers Ph.D. 1980–, professor of history at the University of Virginia. “In a very real sense, it gave me the South.” Garry Reeder cites Mr. Ayers in “Elms and Magnolias,” and explains, “Creating this exhibit was a way for me to understand a part of Yale that is not well known, to confront assumptions and stereotypes, and to explore all kinds of concepts about the South and what it means to be a Southerner.”

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