Between 1900 and 1930, North Carolina’s first generation of professional historians constructed scholarly accounts of Tar Heel Populism. These pioneers offered a version of the recent past that supported white supremacy and the current Progressive Era political leadership. They agreed Populism’s destruction had been desirable. University-based historians opposed the Populist Party’s support for significant changes to tax policy, broad-based democracy, and radical forms of corporate regulation, especially of railroads, banks, and monopolies. The key figures included J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, Simeon A. DeLapp, Florence E. Smith, and John D. Hicks. Most earned Ph.D. degrees in history from northern universities, including Columbia, Chicago, and Wisconsin. In North Carolina, they worked as salaried employees of leading colleges, including the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and the North Carolina College for Women in Greensboro. Their writing provided an intellectual foundation that served political Progressivism and themselves, the new class of paid historians.
But the Progressive generation’s method sowed the seeds of its own obsolescence. Ultimately, historians’ conclusions about Populism reflected little more than temporary values and a culture of agreement between the historians and political power. Between 1930 and 1960, Progressive Era ideology lost most of its following in the universities. Equally important, during these decades, faculty members became less linked to local political leadership. In fact, evolving shifts in the wage economy of universities and their history teachers accelerated a repudiation of the initial interpretations. These changes increasingly incentivized younger historians, the second professional generation, to offer different perspectives about the past, especially perspectives likely to be endorsed by their academic peers. Success in the university eventually became measured by reputation among other historians and not by approval from state-level politicians. While the Progressive Era generation of North Carolina Populist historians viewed nonacademic elites as their target audience, by 1960, employee-historians, now overwhelmingly political liberals, focused on impressing each other. Overall, a decline in Progressive Era political faiths, a growing separation of the profession from political power, changing attitudes toward white racism and the Democratic Party, and the experiences of the Great Depression and its aftermath produced a recasting of North Carolina Populism.
James L. Hunt, Creating North Carolina Populism, 1900–1960: Part 2: The Progressive Era Legacy, 1930–1960, 97 N.C. Hist. Rev. 305 (2020).