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Willis Duke Weatherford: Race, Religion, and Reform in the American South

by Andrew McNeill Canady

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New Directions in Southern History
348 pages  Pubdate: 11/25/2016  6 x 9  24 b/w photos

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At the turn of the twentieth century, few white, southern leaders would speak out in favor of racial equality for fear of being dismissed as too progressive. Willis Duke Weatherford (1875–1970), however, defied convention as one of the first prominent white southern liberals to dedicate his life to reforming the South’s social system, eliminating violence and injustice through education, and opening a dialogue among the affected groups. His energetic efforts led to a rise in progressive action in the region, though at times his own beliefs prevented him from advocating for absolute racial equality. As a result, historians debate Weatherford’s legacy: Was he a forward-thinking supporter of human rights or merely a moderate paternalist?

In this comprehensive biography, Andrew McNeill Canady offers a reassessment of the influential educator’s life and work. Canady surveys Weatherford’s work with institutions such as the YMCA, Berea College, and Fisk University and illuminates his many efforts to foster dialogue among southerners of all races about religion, race relations, and Appalachia. He also examines Weatherford’s reluctance to challenge Jim Crow laws and the capitalist economy that contributed to the poverty of African Americans and the people of Appalachia, revealing the limitations that southern reformers faced and the often-difficult compromises they were forced to make.

During a career that spanned from the Progressive Era to the civil rights movement, Weatherford was involved in virtually every significant southern liberal effort of his time. Past research has focused primarily on Weatherford’s early work, but Canady’s study is the first to investigate the full trajectory of his life and career. This overdue biography makes a significant contribution to literature on the long civil rights movement and the development of southern liberalism.

Andrew McNeill Canady is assistant professor of history and the director of the Honors Program at Averett University.

Andrew McNeill Canady has prepared a proper biography, giving us Weatherford’s own thinking and his reflections across his remarkable life of service. -- John T. Kneebone, author of Southern Liberal Journalists and the Issue of Race, 1920–1944

Giving special attention to Weatherford’s belief in Personalism, Canady’s manuscript brings to light the important efforts and significant achievements in Weatherford’s work with white southern college students at Blue Ridge and through the YMCA, as well as black southern college students at Fisk University. -- Charles J. Holden, author of The New Southern University: Academic Freedom and Liberalism

This book is a triumph of meticulous scholarship and good writing. -- Loyal Jones, founder and retired director of the Berea College Appalachian Center

This is a well-researched, smoothly written, welcome study of an important southern figure. -- Choice

This study provides a perceptive and balanced portrayal of Weatherford. 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. -- Journal of Southern Religion

Canady is largely successful in telling the story of southern liberalism through the lens of one man’s remarkable career. -- Ohio Valley History