E. Merton Coulter – Encyclopedia of New Georgia

Ellis Merton Coulter, a University of Georgia professor and Southern historian, has helped shape the Southern public’s understanding of its heritage in general and that of Georgia in particular.

He taught at the flagship state university in Athens from 1919 to 1958 (serving as chairman of the history department from 1940 until his retirement), edited the Georgia Historical Quarterly for fifty years, and has produced 26 books, 10 edited volumes, over 100 articles, and numerous book reviews and journal columns. He was also a founding member of the Southern Historical Association, serving as its first president in 1934 and nurturing it throughout its early years.

Writing with determination and teaching with passion, Coulter became a leader of that generation of white Southern historians who viewed the Southern past with pride and defended its racist policies and practices. He framed his literary body to praise the Old South, glorify Confederate heroes, vilify northerners, and disparage southern blacks. Generations of Georgia whites gained their distinctive perspective on their state’s past and current state from its college textbook A brief history of Georgia (1933; revised 1947, 1960) and its high school text History of Georgia (1954). Published the same year as the Supreme Court report Brown v. Board of Education a decision mandating integration into public school, Coulter’s undergraduate text taught children that slavery greatly benefited southern blacks and that emancipation negatively altered their condition. “The people of the South didn’t believe the niggers. . . would know how to vote,” Coulter wrote. Because former slaves “often sold their votes to dishonest people who wanted to win elections,” Coulter assured the Georgian youth that white people in their state had determined that African Americans should not participate in elections and “were working out a special plan” that kept “most Negroes from voting. Similar themes permeated Coulter’s other works. For him the term Georgians applied to whites only; the black inhabitants of the state constituted a subservient, inferior and threatening element.

Coulter’s values ​​originated from his birth into the moderately wealthy family of John Ellis Coulter, a merchant and land speculator in Connelly Springs, North Carolina. Both of the historian’s grandfathers had served in the Confederate army and his maternal grandfather died at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. His paternal grandfather was captured during the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania campaign and incarcerated at Point Lookout Prison in Maryland. As a result of the dispute, Coulter’s surviving grandfather was charged with Ku Klux Klan-related violence. Although acquitted by an all-black jury, he remained convinced that Reconstruction was intended to humiliate Southern whites by establishing black dominance in the South. He bequeathed this view to his son John Ellis and his grandson Ellis Merton.

John Ellis Coulter prayed for his son to enter the Lutheran ministry, but Coulter chose history instead. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, Coulter relished the classes of J.G. Roulhac Hamilton, whose lectures on Reconstruction emphasized the sufferings of Southern whites, the betrayal of the North, and openness of blacks to corruption. In 1914, Coulter entered the University of Wisconsin, enrolling with professors sympathetic to the white Southern vision of Civil War and Reconstruction. Three years later, he completed his doctoral thesis, which was eventually published under the title the Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky . After a brief assignment at Marietta College in Ohio, he began his six decades at the University of Georgia.

A prolific author, Coulter is best known for his two contributions to the History of the South series jointly sponsored by Louisiana State University and the University of Texas Littlefield Fund for Southern History. The South during reconstruction (1947) and confederate states of america (1952) are considered by many scholars to be historical excuses justifying the secession of the South, championing the Confederate cause, and condemning Reconstruction in the style of its mentor Hamilton. These works, along with his other writings, presented a powerful intellectual paradigm useful to those who opposed the mid-century crusade for civil rights reforms.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 significantly changed Coulter South, advancing a social revolution that had been defeated in the Reconstruction era. But he himself remained unreconstructed. Published in 1968, his small volume Black legislators in Georgia during the Reconstruction period portrays black legislators as absolute villains who have travesty in good government. No wonder, he concludes, that “Georgians . . . should have done everything they could to prevent blacks from voting and sending such representatives to the legislature.

By the time of his death in 1981, Coulter had lived well beyond the time when his works had succeeded in reinforcing the white vision of the proper social order of the South. For him, it was the ultimate tragedy, for decades before he fervently proclaimed, “In my teachings, I always try to re-establish the Confederacy of the South.

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