Southern Liberalism and Its Limits: Religion, Race, and Appalachian Reform in the Life of Willis Duke Weatherford, 1875-1970
Boles, John B.
Doctor of Philosophy
My dissertation is a contextual biography of a white southern liberal. W. D. Weatherford lived from 1875 to 1970 and played a key role in many of the significant social and political issues of the day, namely race relations, education, religion, and Appalachian reform. He was a pioneer in interracial work in the U. S. South who became involved in 1908 and stayed active in the field through the 1960s. Weatherford also was one of the central figures in the YMCA from 1900 to 1945, a time when this institution wielded strong influence on communities and college campuses in this region and across the country. In the last twenty-five years of his life he primarily addressed Appalachian poverty and this region's religious life. In the field of southern religious history my study complements other scholarship that contends that a social gospel tradition did not exist in the South. This religious movement appeared in the northern United States in the late nineteenth century, providing a theological critique of social structures in light of new conditions brought on by the urban-industrial revolution. Recently, scholars have questioned to what extent this phenomenon penetrated the South. I argue that Weatherford's activities, while representing a form of socially engaged Christianity, were not a manifestation of that particular movement. For the greater part of his life he never challenged Jim Crow segregation, the structure underlying racism in the United States, nor did he seriously question the capitalist economy that contributed to the poverty of African Americans and those of Appalachia. In general, he steered clear of politics, concentrating his efforts on the power of education to change the perceptions of people and bring gradual improvement in society. Weatherford's limitations were also shared with most other white southern progressives of his era, making an analysis of his life an excellent way of illuminating the limits of southern liberalism in general. In particular, I argue Weatherford's southern background, the financial constraints he faced as director of several institutions, the climate of white supremacy in the South, and his religious focus limited how far he pushed for social justice.