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Graduate Student Elisabeth Lee Researches Southern Feminist Writers Who Dared to Defy Dixie

 |  Elisabeth Lee

As part of her research for her thesis on women of the Popular Front, History Master’s student, Elisabeth Lee, traveled to South Carolina to research the personal papers of southern feminist, Grace Lumpkin at the University of South Carolina’s Hollings Library. 

What caused a southern woman to pledge her allegiance to the Communist Party during the Harlem Renaissance only to renounce Party involvement during the civil rights movement? This is the question I set out to answer in my research for a Master’s thesis in twentieth century American history at North Carolina State University. During the course of my Master’s coursework in the department of history I became fascinated with the lives of several progressive southern women in the post-World War I era, including noted sociologist and writer, Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin and her sister, Grace Lumpkin. The women were raised in a typical, upper-middle class southern home under the post-Civil War ideology of the Lost Cause. In the aftermath of southern defeat, the Lost Cause valorized “traditional” southern values such as white supremacy, the secondary role of women, and rigid class distinctions. This powerful social conception hindered the efforts of progressively minded southerners, diluting their ability to facilitate change within the South. Several well-educated, middle class southern women however struggled to break free of the Lost Cause mentality and their determination piqued my interest.

Grace Lumpkin’s life, in particular, intrigued me. Lumpkin worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in France during World War I, where she became a pacifist. Returning to New York City in 1925, Lumpkin wrote for the Quaker publication, The World Tomorrow where she became involved with several eloquent Communists, including the notorious Soviet spy, Whitaker Chambers. Their compelling testimonials convinced Lumpkin to embrace the Party line and write for its instruments, The Daily Worker and the New Masses. Lumpkin’s journalistic career reached its zenith with the publication, in 1932, of her first novel, To Make My Bread. Writing in the muckraking style of other proletarian authors, yet from a feminist perspective, the novel exposed the seedy underbelly of southern industrial life by fictionalizing the events surrounding the Loray Mill strike of 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina. Lumpkin depicts southern workers as victims of an industrial machine that, like Jack’s infamous giant, “grinds their bones to make its bread.”

My interest in this lesser known Lumpkin sister was further piqued when I learned that Grace Lumpkin had, later in life, renounced the progressive principals that inspired her commitment to Communism. Moving back to the South in the 1960s, this woman who had immersed herself in the cultural milieu of the Harlem Renaissance and committed herself to the Communist Party line suddenly renounced her progressive ideals and began using her literary skills to craft scathing diatribes against desegregation efforts.

Research funding in the form of a history department travel grant helped me make sense of this remarkable transformation by enabling me to thoroughly research Grace Lumpkin’s papers in the Special Collection of the Hollings Library at the University of South Carolina. I believe that the information I was able to glean from the Lumpkin papers will not only shed light upon these remarkable transformations in Grace Lumpkin’s personal life, but will also contribute historical insight into a brief moment of feminism within the southern Popular Front.

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