In late October 2017, Jonathan D. Wells gave the Eugenia Dorothy Blount Lamar Lectures at Mercer University. For the first time in the series’ sixty-year history, a lecturer turned the gaze away from the American South to examine how the regional divide leading to the American Civil War occurred because of the radicalizing political influence of African Americans—those who escaped to free soil and those born on free soil—on the abolitionist movement. Wells places African Americans at the center of the regional crisis rather than branding them as passive subjects of southern politicians and white northern abolitionists in the slide toward civil war. The Lamar committee is grateful to Wells for redirecting southern studies’ attention in this way.
In the mid-1950s, Eugenia Dorothy Blount Lamar made a bequest to Mercer University, located in her hometown of Macon, Georgia, “to provide lectures of the very highest scholarship which will aid in the permanent preservation of the values of Southern culture, history, and literature.” For sixty years, the Lamar Memorial Lectures committee has brought to Mercer the best minds to examine and explain the peculiar politics, social customs, religious piety, and racial dynamics of the American South. In that sixty-year history, scholars of history and literature have revealed the complexity of the region, perhaps sometimes even in contrast to Lamar’s own understanding of the “permanent preservation of the values of Southern culture.” In the case of Well’s lectures, he treated the committee, Mercer’s undergraduates, and the wider Macon community to a series of lectures that allowed enslaved people and former enslaved people to tell the story of their role in the coming Civil War.
Since the last publication of the Lamar Memorial Lecture Series, Mercer University earned a National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) Challenge Grant, which will over the course of five years establish a $2 million endowment to underwrite the extensive programming around southern studies at the university, including the Lamar Memorial Lecture Series. In 2017, Mercer established the Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies to house both the endowment and southern studies programs. Named after a longtime history department faculty member, the King Center for Southern Studies fosters critical discussions about the many meanings of the South. As the only center for southern studies in the United States dedicated to the education and enrichment solely of undergraduate students, the center’s primary purpose is to examine the region’s complex history and culture through courses, conversations, and events that are open, honest, and accessible.
The committee would like to thank three people in particular who helped pull off both the lectures and the manuscript publication. Longtime program assistant Bobbie Shipley coordinated all of our efforts to bring this lecture series to Macon, as she has for several decades. Mick Gusinde-Duffy and Beth Snead have been wonderful guides as the three lectures turned into an introduction and five-chapter publication. I am particularly grateful to Beth for her patience and keen sense of how these published lectures will help reorient the way we think and write about the American South moving forward.
With this publication, the Lamar Memorial Lectures committee would like to acknowledge six decades of work by dedicated faculty and administrators at Mercer University to sustain this valuable series to the field of southern studies. Their constant attention to bring “the very highest scholarship” to publication is a testament to the importance of critical analysis of the region and the role it plays in the nation. Wells’s lectures extended that conversation as we head toward the next sixty years.