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Guion Griffis Johnson: A Pioneering Scholar

Guion Griffis Johnson's 1937 book Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History was groundbreaking in at least two ways. First, Johnson was a female scholar publishing at a time when women were routinely marginalized within academia. Second, by directing her scholarly efforts toward previously neglected subjects such as African Americans and women, Johnson opened up new territory in the historical study of the South. Documenting The American South marks Women's History Month by celebrating Johnson's life and work.

Scholar Sarah Caroline Thuesen outlines the details of Johnson's life in a 2002 biographical sketch. Frances Guion Griffis was born in Wolf City, Texas, on April 11, 1900. She graduated from Baylor College for Women in Belton, Texas, and, in 1923, married Guy Benton Johnson. One year later, Guy Johnson received an offer to undertake graduate study with Howard Odum, a sociologist at The University of North Carolina. Guion Johnson agreed to make the move to Chapel Hill with her husband, but only on the condition that she, too, begin doctoral work. Once at UNC, Johnson switched from sociology to history, a male-dominated department. As Thuesen notes, "On graduation day in 1927, [Johnson's] adviser congratulated her, but then quipped, 'Now that you have your Ph.D., go home and learn to bake a chocolate cake!'" (para. 5). Despite such comments and a lack of post-graduate support from the history department, Johnson continued to revise and expand her dissertation, even while raising two young sons. This dissertation became Ante-Bellum North Carolina, which upon publication was widely praised—two reviews in professional journals even called the book "monumental" (para. 10). Nevertheless, "Johnson (and most female scholars of her day) remained on the margins of professional life" (para. 12). Unable to find work with the UNC history department in the 1940s, she turned her focus to volunteerism. She continued to write, though, and published two additional books: 1967's Volunteers in Community Service, "an ambitious plan for involving volunteer women in anti-poverty programs," and 1980's Research in Service to Society, which she co-authored with her husband (para. 12). Johnson died on June 12, 1989.

In twenty-six chapters and more than 935 pages of clear, jargon-free prose, Ante-Bellum North Carolina uses extensive archival evidence to draw "a picture of the way the average North Carolinian lived his life between 1800 and 1860" (p. vii). Significantly, Johnson does not assume that only white, land-owning males could be this "average" North Carolinian. Indeed, the "Social Life of the Slave" and "The Free Negro" each receive their own chapter, and the lives and experiences of women are described throughout. In Chapter 8, for instance, Johnson notes that the South was "the region where 'modest softness' and 'flattering timidity' [in women] were a fetish," but she also points out that there were "women in North Carolina taking an active part in politics long before Miss [Susan B.] Anthony's day" (p. 248). Johnson thus highlights both the social forces acting upon women, and the individual women who acted in spite of, or against, those forces.

Social change, and debates over the best way to achieve it, are among the topics of conversation in a July 1, 1974, interview that Mary Fredrickson conducted with Johnson. She notes that during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, her husband believed in a policy of slow and gradual social change, whereas she herself did not always agree with him on "the philosophy of gradualism," because she thought that "there comes a time when some dramatic change must be made" (p. 34). To illustrate her point, Johnson tells a story about working to get The Home Days Nursery, a child care center for the children of working African American mothers, set up in Chapel Hill. Johnson says that an accident—in which three African American children burned to death in a house fire because their working mother lacked child care services and had had to lock them in the house for the day—convinced her that not all change could afford to be gradual. From the late 1940s onwards, Johnson was active in a variety of volunteer organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the North Carolina Council on World Affairs, and the Young Women's Christian Association. In a May 17, 1974, interview with Fredrickson, Johnson discusses her volunteerism and explains that "women can, by working together, get bills through the legislature" because if "you get 500 women to write letters … the men [in the legislature] are scared to death" (p. 31). Johnson thus makes it clear that volunteerism enabled women to exercise political power, even in a world that was largely hostile to women working outside of the home.

Theusen's article and Johnson's book are both part of DocSouth's North Carolina Experience Collection, which collects a wide variety of print and manuscript materials that tell the story of the Tar Heel State as seen through representative histories, descriptive accounts, institutional reports, fiction, and other writing. Fredrickson's interview with Johnson is part of DocSouth's Oral Histories of the American South project, which is in the final phase of making available online over 500 oral history interviews selected by the Southern Oral History Program.

Harry Thomas