Ellis Merton Coulter, a University of Georgia professor and historian of the South, helped shape the southern public’s interpretation of its heritage in general and Georgia’s in particular.
He taught at the state’s flagship university in Athens from 1919 to 1958 (serving as chair of the history department from 1940 until retirement), edited the Georgia Historical Quarterly for fifty years, and produced 26 books, 10 edited volumes, more than 100 articles, and numerous book reviews and newspaper columns. He was also a founding member of the Southern Historical Association, serving as its first president in 1934 and nurturing it throughout its early years.
Writing with purpose and teaching with passion, Coulter emerged as a leader of that generation of white southern historians who viewed the South’s past with pride and defended its racist policies and practices. He framed his literary corpus to praise the Old South, glorify Confederate heroes, vilify northerners, and denigrate Black southerners. Generations of Georgia whites gained their distinctive perspective on their state’s past and its present condition from his college textbook A Short History of Georgia (1933; revised 1947, 1960) and his junior high school text History of Georgia (1954). Published in the same year as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating public school integration, Coulter’s junior high text taught children that slavery greatly benefited Black southerns, and emancipation negatively altered their condition. “People in the South did not believe the Negroes . . . would know how to vote,” Coulter wrote. Because formerly enslaved people often “sold their votes to dishonest people who wanted to win elections,” Coulter assured Georgia’s youth that the white people of their state determined that African Americans should not participate in elections and “worked out a special plan” that kept “most of the Negroes from voting.” Similar themes permeated Coulter’s other works. To him the term Georgians applied to whites only; the state’s Black inhabitants constituted a subservient, inferior, and threatening element.
Coulter’s values arose from his birth into the moderately wealthy family of John Ellis Coulter, a merchant and land speculator in Connelly Springs, North Carolina. Both of the historian’s grandfathers had served in the Confederate army, and his maternal grandfather died at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. His paternal grandfather was captured during the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, campaign and was incarcerated at Maryland’s Point Lookout prison. Following the conflict, Coulter’s surviving grandfather was accused of Ku Klux Klan–related violence. Though acquitted by an all-Black jury, he remained convinced that Reconstruction was aimed at humiliating southern whites by establishing Black rule in the South. He bequeathed this view to his son John Ellis and his grandson Ellis Merton.
John Ellis Coulter prayed that his son would enter the Lutheran ministry, but Coulter chose history instead. As a University of North Carolina undergraduate, Coulter relished classes under J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, whose lectures on Reconstruction emphasized southern white sufferings, northern treachery, and Black openness to corruption. In 1914 Coulter entered the University of Wisconsin, matriculating under professors sympathetic to the southern white view of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Three years later he completed his doctoral dissertation, which would eventually be published as The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky . Following a brief posting at Marietta College in Ohio, he began his six decades at the University of Georgia.
A prolific author, Coulter is best remembered for his two contributions to the History of the South series jointly sponsored by Louisiana State University and the Littlefield Fund for Southern History at the University of Texas. The South During Reconstruction (1947) and Confederate States of America (1952) are considered by many scholars to be historical apologies justifying southern secession, defending the Confederate cause, and condemning Reconstruction in the style of his mentor Hamilton. These works, along with his other writings, presented a powerful intellectual paradigm useful to those opposed to the mid-century crusade for civil rights reforms.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 greatly altered Coulter’s South, advancing a social revolution that had been defeated in the Reconstruction era. But he himself remained unreconstructed. Published in 1968, his small volume Negro Legislators in Georgia During the Reconstruction Period casts Black lawmakers as unmitigated villains who made a travesty of good government. Little wonder, he concludes, that “Georgians . . . should have done whatever they could to prevent Negroes voting and sending such representatives to the legislature.”
By the time of his death in 1981 Coulter had lived well beyond the point in time when his works had successfully bolstered the white vision of the South’s proper social order. To him this was the ultimate tragedy, for decades before he had proclaimed with fervor, “In my teachings I am still trying to re-establish the Southern Confederacy.”