Special Collections and Archives recently digitized the collection of history professor David E. Smiley, who specialized in the history of the American South, dabbled in the history of Wake Forest, and taught Sunday school lessons on local radio station WFDD, among other things. Julia Ough, a recent Wake grad, completed that work and wrote about her time in our digitization lab with these materials.

For those who remember Dr. Smiley, these materials will provide the familiarity of his voice, spoken or written. They also provide insight into how a supporter of integration taught about enslaved people and their enslavers, the outcomes of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the fight for civil rights.

Smiley was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and after serving in World War II, he received two degrees at fellow Baptist institution Baylor University and his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. Smiley was opposed to segregation, and along with several University colleagues and students, he helped bring the first black student to Wake Forest campus. The Ghanian student, Edward Reynolds, graduated in 1964, with the assistance of the African Student Program and his “good friend Smiley.”

Dr. Smiley is renowned for his warmth and support for the College’s integration, but he also talked about the Confederacy in ways that perpetrated what John A. Simpson called in 1975 “Southern myth-making,” in his speeches regarding the Confederacy and its symbols. [1]

In his speeches especially, Smiley defends the Confederate flag and Confederate men who enslaved Africans and their descendants and whose own descendants “wrote the laws that declared African Americans to be untermensch in mind and soul” (“Centenary Meth Ch.,” May 17, 1989). While acknowledging the realities of the South by invoking horrifying Nazi vocabulary, Smiley then extolls Southerners who took up arms in defense of slavery as intelligent and brave men “who had given the country about all of its history” (“South Win CivWar,” November 1981). Many constituencies, beginning with Native American tribes, would revise this assessment of early America’s history regarding who provided what and for whom.

On March 5, 1994, marking the occasion of “Confederate Flag Day,” Smiley defended the right to maintain a connection to the Confederate flag. His speech script says, “If we in the present fight with the past, then, as Winston Churchill said, we lose the future. So may we renew our allegiance to the flag of our fathers, accepting the heritage they have transmitted to us, warts and all, for it is the record of our past.” Smiley’s script goes on to say, “But in the mercy of God… our memories are clear and unashamed. Out of the roots of death and despair have sprouted green twigs of hope, and the blooming flowers of beauty. To the flag, the symbol of our heritage, all hail.” Many arguments, at various intersections of religion, politics, and humanist teachings, can be used to contradict this conclusion.

Historians have written for decades about how Confederate support became commonplace so soon after the War, and its lasting effects on U.S. politics, practices, and even our landscapes in the form of monuments. According to historian Simpson, by “fus[ing] basic truths with nostalgic emotions to revise the picture of Confed­erate history,” post-Civil War writers created “an image of pure-hearted soldiers fighting for noble principles” in popular culture. He writes further, “the ‘moral magnificence’ of Confederate leadership evolved as the single most important aspect of Southern vindication.” [1] And with these aims and mind that the United States, whether it was part of the Confederacy or not, became populated with monuments to the Confederacy’s generals and soldiers that have become so contested today, including here in Winston-Salem.

Another historian, David S. Cecelski, also has delved into how writers after the Civil War “created a mythical image not only of the Old South, but also of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” [2] Cecelski goes further that Simpson in linking the past and present, writing that the tales could be considered “merely self-indulgent if [they] had not provided an intellectual underpinning to powerful white supremacist forces at the end of the nineteenth century.” [2]

As we, individually and institutionally, move towards a more anti-racist union, Smiley’s records provoke questions and perhaps some answers. What can be learned from this South, where it felt natural to welcome Ed Reynolds, and yet also deliver speeches that celebrated the feats of Confederate soldiers and spoke reverently of a flag belonging to people who fought to continue enslaving fellow human beings? The records can help unravel the prologue of our past.


[1] Simpson, J. A. (1975). The Cult of the “Lost Cause”. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 34(4), 350. Retrieved from https://go.libproxy.wakehealth.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1309994217?accountid=14868

[2] Cecelski, D. S. (1997). Oldest Living Confederate Chaplain Tells All? Or, James B. Avirett and the Rise and Fall of the Rich Lands. Southern Cultures, 3(4), 5-24. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26235550