An Alternative Southern Conservative Tradition

Students at the Oxford College of Emory University can spend their semester living in Haygood Hall. The college website describes the dormitory as the “smallest, most intimate community on campus” and is the closest student residence to the dining hall. It is also named after one of the most emphatic defenders of African American education and civil liberties in Georgia during the years after Reconstruction. Strangely, the website fails to mention this. Haygood deserves better. He was a brave dissenter to segregation and tireless advocate for African American education and economic prosperity. His arguments closely align with the standards for conservatism Russell Kirk famously outlined in The Conservative Mind. Haygood, therefore, warrants closer study among conservatives seeking Southern alternatives to John Randolph and John C. Calhoun. Moreover, contemporary movements calling for holistic racial equality of the Black Lives Matter variety would do well to consider Haygood’s argument for equality premised on freedom, property, and education.

Atticus Greene Haygood was a Methodist bishop and one-time president of Emory College when its campus was in Oxford, Georgia. Born on November 19, 1839 in Watkinsville, Georgia, Haygood entered the ministry after graduating from Emory and rapidly rose in the ranks among the Georgia Methodist clergy. During the Civil War, he spent time as a Confederate chaplain and earnestly believed in Secession. However, he began to experience a change of heart during the war. He came to view slavery as a dreadful sin and hoped for its redemption in defending education and civil liberties to African Americans. The 1880s, however, were the years of “Redemption” among the partisans of the “Lost Cause” who favored segregation by force and fraud. Haygood’s stance would prove extremely controversial.

In 1880, Haygood went public with his defense of African American civil liberties in a thanksgiving sermon named “The New South: Gratitude, Amendment, Hope.” He quickly expanded on his position in his 1881 Our Brother in Black: His Freedom and His Future. In it, Haygood argued that white Southerners should welcome African American men and women as equals and recognize the relative deprivation they continued to suffer as a consequence of slavery. His two-part solution was, first, to provide African Americans access to education, through both church missionary efforts and through state assistance. The other was to make private property available to as many African American families as possible. Throughout his writing, he deployed language that, to a modern reader, seems uncomfortably paternalistic. Even so, the core of Haygood’s mission was to create political and social conditions for African American independence and the education in citizenship necessary to preserve this independence.

Education, Private Property, and Social Equality

Haygood anticipated strong resistance from his fellow white Southerners. He brushed aside white Southern grievances about the excesses of military rule during Reconstruction, but he insisted to his readers that the North must bear much of the financial burden. After all, as a result of the war, the South was devastated and could muster little in the way of public resources. To those who denied African American capacity to learn, he offered ample proof, such as his 1885 Case of the Negro, that freed slaves had within a generation acquired abilities similar to those of their white counterparts. He grudgingly conceded to segregating schools in Our Brother in Black, but he made clear that he did so only to ensure that they were built at all. In his 1889 Pleas for Progress he praised Southern states for (at least formally) committing themselves to funding schools “without distinction of race, so that in the opportunities of elementary education there may be justice to both races.”

Haygood was unhappy with fissures he saw between the races. He worried about the separation of the black Methodist churches from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. While historian David Chappell argued that Haygood conceded, out of necessity, on denying “social equality,” (a nebulous term broadly referring to the integration of public spaces and private organizations) the text of Our Brother in Black illustrated the contrary. When Haygood raised the question, he did so when speaking about the model relationship he hoped would become commonplace between African American and white Southerners—his friendship with Daniel Martin.

Daniel Martin was Haygood’s butler, but Haygood stressed that the relationship was one of equal individuals deserving of equal respect. Martin provided a valuable service, which Haygood was happy and obliged to compensate with regular payments. Martin had a family, owned his own house, and took no interest in spending time with Haygood or his white friends. For this reason, the white supremacist fear of social equality, according to Haygood, was a canard.

However, Haygood somewhat masked the reason Martin took no interest in white Southern company. On the surface, Haygood in Our Brother in Black appeared to endorse a weak version of the “racial instinct” theory favored by segregationists, but throughout the book he described several relationships in which Haygood socialized with African Americans. The common theme was that Haygood invited African Americans to socialize with him, but Haygood’s white companions were not so welcoming. The blame, then, fell on white Southerners. Haygood made this clearer in his 1889 A Reply to Senator Eustis in which he ridiculed Louisiana Senator James Biddle Eustis for believing in white supremacy, “If the white man be so superior as Senator Eustis thinks, he has no reason to be afraid for his position,” yet precisely that fear drove Eustis, Haygood implied, to speak ominously of “racial antagonism.”

Haygood’s efforts earned him a position (1883-1890) as the agent for the John F. Slater Fund, a white Northern philanthropy dedicated to building educational institutions for African Americans. When he was not preaching, writing, or serving as president of Emory College, Haygood surveyed Slater-backed black colleges, collected data on their curriculum and graduation rates, and advised the Slater Fund trustees about how to direct funds. He argued at length about the rapid gains African Americans experienced and believed that African Americans would be able to assume leadership of their own higher educational institutions. He said in Case of the Negro, that the success of African American “principals and professors demonstrates the capacity of colored students to become the efficient leaders of education.”

Formal education was important to Haygood, but so was economic education born from owning private property. He criticized the annual leases white landlords imposed on African American sharecroppers as bringing both sides into ruin. To explain the issue, Haygood observed the behaviors of an African American neighbor as a kind of natural experiment. The neighbor worked his private property out of an interest in improving its yield and appearance. However, he showed much less care on the land he leased because it served only to provide extra revenue rather than as a home for his family. Because the neighbor was on such a short lease, he labored as little as possible while still growing and selling as much yield as possible. The short leases also drove the white landowners to suffer. Their property was in poor condition or left to waste, and their income suffered.

The solution, according to Haygood, was to put sharecroppers on long leases to improve the value of the farms while also selling unused land to the sharecroppers who can afford it. Long leases and outright ownership encouraged independence, thrift, and strong families. As farm yields increased, so would civic virtue. A self-sufficient farmer, black or white, was “not so apt to sell his vote for a dollar or a dram,” while a community of such farmers formed a “grand self-sustaining and efficient moral police” to ensure citizens met their local obligations to each other. Indeed, the broader result Haygood anticipated would be greater prosperity shared across the races. He concluded, “I cannot conceive of a good man who would not rejoice to see the negroes more comfortable, intelligent, moral, useful, than they are. I should despise myself to have any other feeling toward any human creature.”

An Alternative Southern Conservative Tradition

Formal education and republican independence were part of Haygood’s broader vision of a racially reconciled south. He appealed to the biblical narrative of Nehemiah, who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem despite opposition from local leader Sanballat. The South, in Haygood’s view, was like the destroyed capital of Israel, but it could be rebuilt by patriots faithful to God’s law. Haygood saw the education of African Americans as part of the “nehemiad” of rebuilding a ruined South, while he described his opposition thus: “The South has heard this Sanballat voice many times since Appomattox. And Sanballat has had to help him a class of Southern men, as greedy as vultures and as remorseless as death, who have done nothing to rebuild our broken walls…[but] only to hold faster the poor and helpless of their own brethren.”

White Southern dissent to Jim Crow remains an undeservingly obscure area of American political thought. A significant reason is the effort among Southerners themselves to obscure or diminish the role this thought played. For example, a biographer of Haygood, Harold Mann, wrote in 1965 to explain Haygood’s “Negrophilia” was the consequence of the preacher’s epilepsy, heresy, and hypocrisy. More recent scholars have situated him in a broader religious or historical context. Susan Kwilecki has claimed that Haygood might be understood as an early Social Gospel minister, but Ralph Luker rightly observed in The Social Gospel in Black and White that Haygood spoke as a conservative. Indeed, Haygood himself referred to the “conservative and saving influences of the Christian religion” to refute the white supremacy of Senator Eustis.

Haygood’s conservatism coheres with the classic standard held up by Russell Kirk. The Methodist bishop believed, as Kirk put it, in “a divine intent” that “rules society” and forges an “eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.” Haygood showed affection for traditional life and strongly held that property and freedom were “inexorably connected.” He wanted reform but always with prescription. Rather than radically redefine Southern life, he sought to extend to African Americans the same institutions and practices that white Southerners had themselves still imperfectly embraced—with the hope that the two populations would eventually find reconciliation in a common purpose.

On the point of prescription, Haygood was particularly conservative in the Kirkian sense. He looked at his fellow white Southerners and perceived in them a possibility of redeeming them from white supremacy; however, the task would take time, hence why he dedicated nearly two decades of his life to it. In Our Brother in Black, he said, “An opinion about the rights and wrongs of things that is ‘bred in the bone’ can hardly be changed on the instant of hearing new argument. If the new view be truth, its seed must germinate and grow till it displaces the old.” White Southern opinion needed time to adjust to the truth of racial justice: “Opinions that are rooted in race-sentiments cannot be changed to order, under any logic or any pressure whatever. But time and the silent power of the ‘leaven’ of truth does wonders—sometimes works miracles.”

After a stint as a bishop in California, Haygood returned to Georgia in 1893, where he spent his last years of his life in debt and disgrace. A nagging illness had driven him to drink in a fashion most unbecoming of a Methodist bishop, while his friends sought ways to house his family and pay off his accounts. By his death in 1896, Haygood’s reputation had suffered, but African Americans across the state mourned his death. As he did at the end of his life, Haygood’s work, like that of many among white Southern dissenters to Jim Crow, has also languished in obscurity except among academic specialists like Kwilecki, Chappell, and Luker.

Contemporary conservatives who seek an alternative to Randolph and Calhoun should reclaim Haygood and his contemporaries. By no means were they perfect defenders of African American civil liberties. Haygood often retained strongly paternalistic assumptions about their fellow African American citizens and imagined a mission to Africa modern readers likely find strange; however, he nonetheless illustrated at a critical moment in American race relations a conservative case for racial justice that, in light of recent events, demands renewed attention.