The Daughters of the Confederacy Who Turned Their Heritage to Political Ends

By Tony Horwitz


ImageKatharine Du Pre Lumpkin and Grace Lumpkin, in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin and Grace Lumpkin, in the late 1920s or early 1930s.CreditCreditSouthern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A Struggle for the Soul of America
By Jacquelyn Dowd Hall

In 1974 Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, a young oral historian, went to Virginia to interview two elderly writers. One occupied a ramshackle rural house and spoke bitterly about the ruin of her literary career. The other, living comfortably in Charlottesville, was immersed in her final work, a biography of the renegade abolitionists and women’s rights advocates Sarah and Angelina Grimké, despite a publisher having deemed them “minor figures.”

Hall’s interview subjects were likewise sisters and pedigreed white Southerners who broke radically with their caste. Now, four decades after finding Grace and Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin, Hall has delivered an epic, poignant biography of siblings “estranged and yet forever entangled” by the South, each other and their haunted family saga.

Hall’s narrative, “Sisters and Rebels,” encompasses a third sister, though she mainly serves as a marker of how far her rebel siblings traveled. Elizabeth Lumpkin was the eldest and favorite of their father, a resentful ex-Confederate from a once-prominent slaveholding family in Georgia. After the Civil War, he joined the Klan and fervidly embraced the cult of the Lost Cause, also ensuring that his children were “dipped deep” in this white supremacist ideology.

Elizabeth, born in 1881, became a celebrated orator on the Confederate circuit, extolling aging veterans as “grand old men who guarded with your lives the virgin whiteness of our Georgia.” She married a wealthy doctor at a “Confederate wedding” with a Rebel honor guard, and remained an “eternal loyalist,” ending her long life writing nostalgic fiction about a faithful slave and his “saintly” master.

Her sisters imbibed the same creed as Children of the Confederacy, a civic organization dedicated to the Lost Cause. But they were more than a decade younger than Elizabeth and came of age in the early 20th century, amid the Progressive Era and expanded opportunity for white women raised in genteel poverty.

One strength of Hall’s work is her nuanced portrayal of the Jim Crow South, as neither “solid” nor walled off from social currents roiling the nation. At a women’s college in Georgia, the younger Lumpkins absorbed the teachings of John Dewey and the Social Gospel, a liberal Christianity that had particular influence on Katharine. She went to work for the Y.W.C.A. and joined black women in seeking to desegregate youth programs. Their achievements, though modest, are a reminder that the civil rights triumphs of the 1950s and ’60s followed decades of lonely struggle by a dedicated cadre that included Southern women of both races.

The Lumpkins also challenged the South’s plantation and emerging industrial class by championing workers and left-wing agitators. Grace, the more outwardly radical of the sisters, wrote on labor issues for organs like The New Masses, joined picket lines, was arrested at a protest supporting the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and published a piece in a black newspaper titled “Why I as a White Southern Woman Will Vote Communist.” Her novel about a Southern textile mill strike, “To Make My Bread,” overcame the scorn of doctrinaire male Marxists, who viewed “proletarian regionalism” as small-bore and feminine, winning praise from The New York Times and making Grace, as Hall puts it, “a left-wing literary star” of the 1930s.

Katharine confronted crushing condescension as she went North to earn a Ph.D. and become a “social economist” at a time when academic jobs were monopolized by men and many Northerners had, as she put it, “been taught to see us Southerners with horns and forked tails.” She studied displaced workers and child laborers, traveled to the Soviet Union and is best known for “The Making of a Southerner,” a scholarly memoir that draws on her family’s slave inventories, Klan records and her childhood horror at watching her father brutally beat the family’s black cook.

ImageKatharine, Elizabeth and Grace Lumpkin, in 1949.
Katharine, Elizabeth and Grace Lumpkin, in 1949.CreditSouthern Historical Collection, The University of North Carolina

The Lumpkins’ domestic lives were equally unorthodox for well-bred Southern women of their day. Grace took as her lover, and later married, an immigrant Jewish furrier and militant communist, 12 years her junior, sharing quarters in the East Village with Whittaker Chambers and his wife. Katharine settled in Northampton, Mass., with a left-wing Jewish academic, in what appears to have been a closeted lesbian relationship, or what was termed a “Boston marriage.” Neither sister had children.

There’s more — much more — as the sisters cycle through a shifting cast of associates and upheavals, most dramatically the Red scare after World War II. Katharine came under F.B.I. surveillance, while her companion was outed for supporting suspect causes and forced from her job at Smith College, like others branded “Red-ucators.” In an even darker turn, Grace Lumpkin, having renounced her communist ties, became an informer for the F.B.I. She wrote to Joe McCarthy, named names and claimed that Katharine’s partner had been a Communist Party member while her sister was “still a ‘fellow traveler.’”

These are just snapshots of a densely braided biography spanning eight decades, not counting the Lumpkins’ forebears and the rediscovery of the sisters’ work by late-20th-century feminists. The book also draws together the strands of Hall’s own career as a distinguished historian of Southern labor and an activist on behalf of women and civil rights.

Hall is a herculean researcher whose sources include security files she sued the Department of Justice to access. Her interviews with the elderly Lumpkins, and reflections on why and how she tracked the sisters over decades, lend an appealing journalistic and personal touch to what might otherwise be an unleavened diet of detailed scholarship.

She is forthright about what she lacks. In person, Katharine revealed little of herself, and “purged wide swaths of her adult life from her papers,” particularly passages on her partner, McCarthyism and estrangement from her family. Grace’s paper trail is thin, too. Her late-life diary, found by a nephew who ignored Katharine’s instruction to destroy it, represents “one of the very few intimate, revealing sources that either sister left behind.”

To Hall’s great credit, she sticks to the material she’s doggedly uncovered, while giving it context. She vividly documents the same-sex couplings, or “crushings,” common to women’s colleges in Katharine’s youth, and, later, the discreet cohabitation of female scholars at schools like Smith. But she doesn’t imagine her way into Katharine’s bedroom or state, definitively, that her long-term attachments were physical.

It’s hard, however, for Hall to balance this relative dearth of private detail on the Lumpkins with her exhaustive research on their public careers. The narrative brims with plot and theme, but the central characters don’t come fully alive, instead appearing almost Zelig-like in the many great dramas of the 20th century: suffrage, the Scottsboro Boys, the New Deal, the world wars, civil rights. The list goes on, and the sisters are there for all of it, even black power, which Katharine supported, writing to Stokely Carmichael while simultaneously sending monthly checks to the penniless Grace, who railed against integration and “other evils” and could no longer find a publisher apart from the press of the John Birch Society.

“I came to see the sisters as the most intimate of strangers,” Hall writes, referring not only to Katharine and Grace but also to Elizabeth, who never rebelled but was remarkable in her own right. Widowed with four children, she became a lawyer in her 50s, studied creative writing in her 80s and was forever united with her siblings in “mutual obsession with a region they imagined and reclaimed in utterly different ways.”

In the end, the sisters remain intimate strangers to the reader as well, and perhaps that’s fitting. Hemmed in during their youth by racial and sexual taboos, and Confederate and Klan ghosts, the Lumpkins kept their secrets close and turned out to the world. Hall expertly gives these extraordinary sisters the recognition they deserve, just as Katharine sought to do in writing about the Grimkés, so-called “minor figures” of an earlier era she recognized as pioneers of her own.

Tony Horwitz, who died in May, was the author of eight books, including, most recently, “Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide.” He was a frequent contributor to the Book Review.