In the 1920’s North Carolina, the Rip van Winkle state of the pre-Civil War era, began to acquire its reputation as the South’s most progressive state. Few things were more important in producing that metamorphosis than developments in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The oldest state university in the nation then began to emerge as both a genuine university—in fact, one of the leading ones—and a prime mover in the state’s renascence. In the vanguard of the individuals responsible for these changes was Howard W. Odum, sociologist and academic entrepreneur extraordinaire. A primary vehicle for Odum’s achievements, the Institute for Research in Social Science is the subject of an informative study by two scholars who were associated with the Institute from its beginning in 1924, Guy Benton Johnson and Guion Griffis Johnson. Although their pages are sprinkled with many names, more than a few of whom loom large in the academic and political worlds, none rival in significance that of Odum.
Born into a modest farm family in north central Georgia in 1884, Odum had to scramble diligently for his education but succeeded in obtaining an A.B. degree from Emory College, an M.A. from the University of Mississippi, a Ph.D. in psychology from Clark University, and, a year later—in 1910, a second Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia University. After teaching stints at the University of Georgia and Emory, Odum accepted a position at the University of North Carolina in 1920 and remained there until his retirement and death in 1954. Neither the university nor the state was ever quite the same after Odum became a voluntary but ardent Tar Heel.
Organizing both the Department of Sociology and a School of Public Welfare (later to become the School of Social Work) in the year of his arrival in Chapel Hill, Odum two years later founded the Journal of Social Forces, which he edited until his death. Then in 1924 he founded the Institute for Research in Social Science and served as its director for the following two decades. Unlike so many of his fellow Southerners who blamed the South’s multifarious problems on outside forces and alleged enemies, especially Yankees, Odum recognized and decried “the prevailing ignorance in high places” within the region. “What we need more than anything else,” he asserted in 1924, “is the ability and willingness to face the truth, through social study and interpretation with the corresponding ability and willingness to make the necessary adjustments.”
One of Odum’s principal hopes for ascertaining truths, however painful, about North Carolina and the South was the Institute for Research in Social Science, the first of a number of such organizations launched in the nation during the 1920’s. An interdisciplinary undertaking that involved scholars from a wide range of departments, the Institute was made possible initially by a three-year grant of $97,500—a princely sum in the 1920’s—from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. (In addition to many scholarly strengths, Odum proved to be a veritable genius at obtaining support from private foundations, so much so that it was many years before the state government played any significant role in bearing the cost of the Institute.) A major part of the Institute’s money was to be spent for stipends of $1500 each; these went to support nine research assistants who would double as graduate students pursuing their advanced degrees while simultaneously assisting the faculty members connected with the Institute in carrying out their own researches. Enlarged many times in subsequent years, this was to be the simple but most productive pattern of the Institute.
Odum himself set a high standard for scholarly achievement. During the first decade of the Institute’s existence, he wrote seven books, co-authored four more, and edited two others. His first attempt to portray the “folk-mind and feeling” of the South was An American Epoch, published in 1930. Even before that volume, however, Odum collaborated with one of the first young research assistants in the Institute, Guy B. Johnson, to publish in 1925 The Negro and His Songs. Seeking a noncontroversial, popular subject that would help the Institute gain national attention at the outset, Odum had, in fact, long been interested in the folk music of Southern blacks and had collected hundreds of their songs. In 1926 Odum and Johnson published a second volume of folk music, Negro Workaday Songs, and a few years later Johnson alone produced John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, which helped to popularize the now famous story of the heroic black laborer who successfully challenged the steam drill but then he “laid down his hammer and he died.” Refusing to be bound by scholarly inhibitions, Odum unleashed his imagination in writing a trilogy, published between 1928 and 1931, about a protagonist whom he called Black Ulysses. According to the Johnsons, Odum projected much of himself into the writing of these volumes and enjoyed doing it more than any other of his books.
Illustrative of other aspects of the Institute’s pioneering undertakings in the study of Afro-American life and history was the work done on St. Helena, one of South Carolina’s fabled sea islands. In 1930 appeared Thomas J. Woofter’s Black Yeomanry, Guion Johnson’s Social History of the Sea Islands, and Guy Johnson’s Folk Culture on St. Helena Island. One of the most significant and well-known books about the socioeconomic aspects of Negro life to emerge from the Institute in its early years was Arthur Raper’s Preface to Peasantry: A Tale of Two Black Belt Counties, which appeared in 1941 but was an elaboration and revision of a dissertation in sociology done a decade earlier at Chapel Hill in connection with the Institute.
As important as were the Institute’s studies in Southern white and black folk culture and in the area of race relations— and only a bare, early sampling has been offered above—labor and industrial relations became an early concern also. Why was the South at the bottom of the nation’s economic ladder? Unlike many protestors of the 1930’s who angrily attacked a host of alleged villains outside the South, the Institute staff tackled a long list of at-home problems, including farm tenancy, one-crop agriculture, exploitation of black workers, domination of low-wage industries, and the lack of vocational training and business education. Such boldness did not go unchallenged, however. A leading spokesman for the Southern textile industry charged in the late 1920’s that the University of North Carolina was becoming a “refuge of radicals and socialists” financed by Northern philanthropists and that the greatest menance to the nation was “the new fashioned professor who, while drawing a salary for teaching, feels that part of his duties is to cure all the ills of the State and to regulate the conduct and the affairs of the public.” The new-fangled academics were, he declared, nothing less than radicals, Communists, and atheists who were using their classrooms to breed “a multitude of other radicals, Communists, and atheists.”
Such pressure inspired President Harry Woodburn Chase to issue a confidential warning to Odum. But historian Frank P. Graham, who shortly succeeded to the presidency, brooked no interference with academic freedom, and the flow of significant and often provocative studies from those connected with the Institute did not stop. One of the earliest and best-known studies that spotlighted reasons for the South’s being on bottom economically was Rupert Vance’s Human Geography of the South (1932), which was preceded by his Human Factors in Cotton Culture (1929). Literally hundreds of unpublished doctoral dissertations and masters’ theses by graduate students associated with the Institute furnished grist for the academic mills that ground so productively in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s. When the National Emergency Council published its Report on Economic Conditions of the South in 1938 and President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it to be his conviction that “the South presents right now, in 1938, the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem,” Odum, Vance, and their associates at Chapel Hill became key figures in a growing national debate. Unfortunately, it was soon to be overshadowed and cut short by the outbreak of World War II in Europe.
Even before Roosevelt’s famous statement, which many Southern conservatives eyed as the bull sees the proverbial red flag, Odum had been at the center of a more academic and intellectual controversy which, nevertheless, had important implications for national policies as well as for history, literature, and other disciplines. He published his monumental Southern Regions of the United States in 1936. A massive volume of nearly seven hundred pages, it presented a “social inventory” of the South—a portrait of its geographic areas, cultural diversities, and behavior patterns—and an elaborate blueprint for state, regional, and national social planning aimed at a balance between new and old, rural and urban, agrarian and industrial, folkways and technicways. Shunning the older concept of sectionalism with its politically stormy past and its association with “the idea of separatism and isolation,” Odum insisted that the “very definition of regionalism implies a unifying function.” Continuing, he maintained that
the distinctions are clear between the divisive power of self-seeking sections and the integrating power of co-ordinate regions fabricated into a united whole. The premise of the new regionalism goes further and assumes that the United States must not, either because of its bigness and complexity or because of conflicting interests, become a federation of conflicting sections but a homogeneity of varying regions.
The conservative Nashville Agrarians centered at Vanderbilt University, who had issued in 1930 their own impassioned defense of the South and its agricultural economy in I’ll Take My Stand, were quick to do battle with Odum and his “Regionalist” allies. The ensuing debate that continued well into the 1950’s filled many pages in the nation’s more serious journals and enriched its intellectual life.
Odum stepped down as director of the Institute in 1944 to be succeeded by another able academic leader, Gordon W. Blackwell, who served in the post for nearly fourteen years. Other outstanding persons have followed him as the Institute expanded and moved into new and more far-ranging areas after World War II. While this review has emphasized some of the more well-known academics associated with the Institute, the Johnsons suggest that a “complete listing of alumni and their achievements would go a long way toward validating the statement that no academic unit in any Southern university has helped to launch more people in distinguished careers of public service than the Institute. . . .” All in all, the history of Odum’s Institute is an academic success story of the first order.