Review: Willis Duke Weatherford

Robert F. Martin

Robert F. Martin is Professor of History at University of Northern Iowa.

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Robert F. Martin, "Review: Willis Duke Weatherford," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Andrew McNeill Canady. Willis Duke Weatherford: Race, Religion, and Reform in the American South. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2016. 337 pp. 978-0-8131-6815-9.

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Willis Duke Weatherford, born in north Texas in December 1875, came of age as the South and the nation descended into a bleak and often violent age of segregation and degrading inequality that shaped the lives of Americans of all races for generations. Motivated by a profound sense of Christian responsibility to others, as well as belief in the value and dignity of the human personality, Weatherford spent most of his ninety-four years seeking to ameliorate the consequences of racism, poverty, and injustice in his native South.

Weatherford’s work began at a time when his region had not yet begun to prepare for significant change. Consequently, like other early twentieth-century southern liberals, he felt compelled to work within the realm of the possible, a fact that often made him and those with whom he worked reluctant to challenge directly the social and economic institutions that lay at the root of regional problems. As a result, some students of southern history have recognized the efforts of early twentieth-century southerners who labored on behalf of justice and humanity, but these pioneers of change have often been eclipsed, and sometimes criticized, by comparison with the more dramatic and confrontational efforts of later generations of activists.

In this volume, Andrew McNeill Canady reminds us of the tireless and important work of pre-civil rights apostles of change in the South. He provides an illuminating description and analysis of Weatherford’s quietly significant career as a YMCA regional secretary, coordinator of the YMCA Blue Ridge Association for Christian Conferences and Training, president of the YMCA Graduate School in Nashville, professor at Fisk University, and late in his career as a staff member at Berea College. Canady suggests that Weatherford abandoned early thoughts of becoming a Methodist clergyman because of his faith in the power of education. He believed that the YMCA offered a religious and educational medium that could reach a wide audience with his vision of a Christian life that had both a personal and social dimension. Though for many years Weatherford was hesitant to challenge the underpinnings of segregation in his region, for the first half of the twentieth century he struggled tirelessly within the context of institutional racism. He attempted to use education, moral suasion, and personal transformation to improve the conditions of African Americans and to promote interracial harmony. In his seventies, at a time when many men of his era were relinquishing responsibilities and thinking of retirement, Weatherford turned his attention to another regional problem that he had long been interested in, the plight of the disadvantaged residents of the southern highlands. From the late 1940s into the 1960s, through his work with Berea College, and his collaboration with others interested in the region, he labored to popularize the problems inherent in the southern mountains and to instill in the residents a sense of constructive self-worth and hope, which he believed would help resolve their problems.

This study provides a perceptive and balanced portrayal of Weatherford. Canady admires his dedication to improving conditions in the South in the face of many and varied challenges and considers him to have been genuinely committed to reform. However, he also sees Weatherford as a pragmatist who throughout much of his career was convinced that substantial change would come only gradually and, therefore, was careful not to put the institutions through which he worked at risk. Canady believes Weatherford struggled not only against the racial, class, and social norms of his region, but also against his own perceptions and prejudices, which were products of those norms. Weatherford loved and romanticized the South and its people, which sometimes made it difficult for him to take a clear-eyed view of the problems he dealt with and to address them effectively. His efforts to improve race relations were inherently limited by his tendency to focus on personal transformation rather than institutional change. It was not until the latter 1950s that he openly opposed segregation. Although his reform efforts on behalf of African Americans and the people of the southern mountains were undeniably well intentioned, those efforts were often informed by a middle-class paternalistic perspective, characterized by an attitude of uplift more than one of collaboration, a fact that sometimes impeded his work.

Canady believes Weatherford to have been a reformer but not an activist. He considers him a genuine southern religious and social liberal, especially during the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, but readily acknowledges that his liberalism, like that of most southern liberals of the era, had inherent limitations informed by place, time, and personality. That said, Canady also appreciates the fact that, despite some interpretations to the contrary, Weatherford possessed a commendable, albeit deliberate, capacity for growth, which scholars sometimes overlooked because the aging southern reformer’s evolving sensibilities did not stay abreast of the accelerating pace of change in mid-twentieth-century America.

Canady’s portrayal of Weatherford is somewhat one-dimensional and would perhaps have benefitted from more insight into his subject’s personality and the nature of his relationships with both his allies and adversaries. Nevertheless, this is a thoughtful and enlightening contribution to our understanding of a man whose life spanned an extraordinary and dramatic era of social change in the South and nation and whose quietly persistent labors helped to facilitate some of that change.