katharine du pre lumpkin
author. Volunteer. social activist.
2020 Inductee, Georgia Women of Achievement
"Race was “nonexistent, only a fiction, a myth which white people had created for reasons of their own. A vicious myth, to be sure: one with a history, which could and did wreak havoc in the life of their people, but a myth pure and simple just the same” (215)."
-Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin
City, Town, Region
Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin was born in 1897 in Macon, Georgia, the youngest of 11 children of Annette Morris Lumpkin and William Wallace Lumpkin, descendants of plantation owners who raised their family to revere the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Of her ten siblings, seven lived to adulthood, and the three sisters each served, at the instigation of their father, as orators at reunions of Confederate soldiers, proclaiming the nobility of the Cause and the sanctity of white southern womanhood.
The family name was illustrious, but family finances were often precarious, and the Lumpkins moved several times in Georgia and then to South Carolina, living first in Columbia and then in the Sand Hills area. Her time in this poor rural part of the state haunted Katharine Lumpkin, who had never witnessed the kind of abject poverty common in the Sand Hills. This experience with unrelenting poverty would leave a profound and lasting
impression on her.
Lumpkin borrowed money from an uncle for college and enrolled in 1912 at Brenau College (now University), a small but vibrant women’s college in Gainesville, Georgia, which her sisters, Elizabeth and Grace, had attended. She earned a BA in history in 1915 and stayed on at Brenau as a Teaching Assistant for another two years, after which she worked for the YWCA.
The social gospel and liberal Christianity in which Lumpkin was immersed at Brenau informed her work at the YWCA and led to a conversion of her beliefs about white superiority and black inferiority. She came to see race as a social construct perpetuated by whites in order to preserve their alleged superiority, a fiction created to segregate and limit African-Americans in virtually every realm of life.
Lumpkin went north in 1918 to pursue a Master’s degree in sociology at Columbia University, which she completed in 1920. She continued her work for the YWCA until 1925, when she started doctoral studies in sociology and economics at the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a PhD in 1928. She worked as a professor and research director for Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wells Colleges, during which time she published prolifically and was politically active, advocating for social, labor, and race relations reform.
Lumpkin published her ground-breaking autobiography, The Making of a Southerner, in 1946 to critical acclaim. She opens the book with stories of life on her ancestors’ plantation as she had heard them at her parents’ knees, repeating the romanticized trope of happy, loyal slaves while starkly depicting the dehumanizing business of slavery. Her autobiography offers what Fred Hobson calls a “white Southern racial conversion narrative.” Lumpkin traces the beginning of her conversion to witnessing as a girl her father viciously beating the family’s cook, a small black woman. In a telling detail, she refers to her father in this troubling memory only as “the white master of the house” (Lumpkin 132).
This experience planted seeds of doubt about the corrupt power structure that governed race and class relations. These seeds of awareness came to fruition during her time at Brenau College and in her work with the YWCA, where she advocated for racial integration and social equity. As she observes, “The disrupting notion had overtaken me that ordinary canons of human rights should apply equally to all conditions of people (239).
Her goal became nothing less than remaking herself and “reremember[ing] the South” (O’Dell 6), with her autobiography as one means for doing both. “With this new kind of writing is a social commitment, ‘a calling,’ which motivates the writer to reevaluate her experience in light of the person she understands herself to be at the time” (Prenshaw 181). As biographer Jacquelyn Dowd Hall notes, “Embedded within this personal yet epic narrative are two metaphorical strands. First, the expatriate’s search for an emotional and intellectual home. Second, the pressure of personal, family, and collective memory on efforts at self- and regional reinvention” (Sisters and Rebels 8).
Considered a classic, The Making of a Southerner remains Lumpkin’s masterpiece, a seminal examination of creating the self in a South contending with the lingering effects of its history, traditions, class divisions, and assumptions of white superiority. The success of her book brought Lumpkin into focus on the national stage, where she endures as a vital and influential figure in Southern letters and American social history.
In the 1950s, relationships among the Lumpkin sisters were complicated by Grace’s role as an informer during the McCarthy witch hunts, implicating her sister as a “warm fellow traveler” of the Communist Party. Grace, a radical proletarian novelist of the 1930s, recanted her leftist views in the 1950s and remained proud of her role as informer for the rest of her life, never publicly stating any regret for reporting her sister to the FBI as a radical. Nevertheless, Katharine helped support her sister in old age as Grace, who died in 1980, struggled financially.
In 1967, Lumpkin retired to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she wrote The Emancipation of Angelina Grimké, a study of the South Carolina Abolitionist and her sister. Published in 1974, the book, on which she had worked for over a decade, was widely praised for restoring the feminist Grimké sisters’ story to public awareness and for uncovering much new information on their anti-slavery crusade. The Making of a Southerner was re-issued in 1981, with an afterword by the author that outlines America’s advances in the struggles for racial, social equality in the decades since her book was first published.
Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1988, but her contributions to social justice in America continue to engage scholars and ensure her legacy. The Making of a Southerner, re-issued in 1991with a foreword by Darlene Clark Hine, resonates still in its depictions of regional and national complexities surrounding race, gender, and class. Its narrative of one woman’s conversion to the cause of equality in a region rigidly resisting it stands as an exemplar in the field.
In 2019, noted historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall published a comprehensive, critically-acclaimed biography of Katharine, Grace, and Elizabeth Lumpkin: Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America. Suggesting the enduring significance of Katharine Lumpkin’s work, the University of Georgia Press will publish in 2020 her unpublished historical novel, Eli Hill, A Novel of Reconstruction, edited by Hall and Bruce Baker.