Arthur F. Raper (1899-1979)
Described by many as decades ahead of his time,
Born in 1899, Raper grew up in central North Carolina on his family's struggling tobacco farm. His father's hard work and sacrifice allowed Raper to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he distinguished himself with his grades and his involvement in community service.
After receiving his master's degree in sociology at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, Raper returned to Chapel Hill in 1925 and entered the doctoral program under Howard W. Odum, who headed the university's renowned Institute for Research in Social Science. Raper eventually grew weary of classroom drudgery, and when Will W. Alexander, executive secretary of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC), came to offer Odom's students an opportunity to go to Georgia and study sociology among the people, Raper jumped at the chance. He arrived in Atlanta in 1926 and began working with the local interracial committees, which were established to prevent lynchings and increase positive contact between whites and blacks. Despite his ability to work comfortably with members of both races on the committees (ironically, a trait unusual for whites on the CIC), Raper again became restless.
He soon learned that Greene County, a Black Belt community eighty miles east of Atlanta, was experiencing massive outmigration because its system of plantation agriculture was gradually dying of soil depletion, low cotton prices, and boll weevil attacks. His interest piqued, Raper began a comparative study of Greene County and the more stable Macon County in an attempt to determine the effects of plantation life on their respective residents. He eventually published the results of his study in Preface to Peasantry (1936). Raper argued that the plantation system served not as a "school of civilization" for black sharecroppers but instead taught them dependence and irresponsibility; the plantation system's decay became a "preface to American peasantry."
Raper made another mark on southern thought with his most important work, The Tragedy of Lynching (1933). In it he focused on the unusually high number of lynchings (twenty-one) that had occurred in the United States in 1930, the first full year of the Great Depression. Twenty took place throughout the South, including six in Georgia. Using personal interviews and other research techniques, Raper concluded that most of the lynchings occurred where community life was weak. (Other critics had argued that lynch mobs came from the South's more close-knit localities.) In addition he found that only one-sixth of the 3,724 lynchings that had taken place from 1889 through 1930 arose from charges of rape. Because its tone was sufficiently restrained, The Tragedy of Lynching received considerable praise throughout the South and became an important weapon for the antilynching campaign. As to its overall significance, historian Daniel Singal commented, "Perhaps no other social science book written about the South during [the 1930s] received as much serious attention from southerners, and perhaps none has had a greater impact on changing southern behavior." For Raper this productive period in his life also involved a part-time job teaching sociology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur. He took the opportunity to show his all-white, all-female students the significance of the surrounding racial climate, but he went too far for parents and alumni when he took his classes on an overnight trip to the all-black Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Bowing to the angry criticism that resulted from his controversial actions, Raper resigned from Agnes Scott in 1939 and returned to Greene County. There, he observed the effects of the Unified Farm Program, which, under the direction of the Farm Security Administration, attempted to improve health and farming conditions for local tenants. His continuing research resulted in two more publications, Sharecroppers All (1941) and Tenants of the Almighty (1943). The former book, cowritten with Ira De A. Reid, aroused considerable controversy in the South because it stressed that the economic exploitation of the sharecropper system was evident in all sectors of the southern economy, industrial as well as agricultural. Such exploitation indicated that all southerners, in one way or another, suffered the fate of the sharecropper. Tenants of the Almighty served as a sequel to Preface to Peasantry in its continuing emphasis on Greene County and the federal measures that were taken to speed the county's recovery from the troubles of the Great Depression.
Raper's later publications concerned life in Japan, Taiwan, Pakistan, and other parts of Asia. He died in 1979.
Louis Mazzari, "Arthur Raper: Modern Realist in the New Deal South" (Ph.D. diss., University of New Hampshire, 2004).
Arthur Franklin Raper, A Southern Profile: The Life and Times of Arthur Raper, 3 cassettes (Radio Free Georgia Broadcasting Foundation, 1986).
Daniel Joseph Singal, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist Thought in the South, 1919-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
Matthew L. Fincher, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.