The man behind the Affair

Even in old photographs, John Spencer Bassett looks a beat off from the rest of the world, leaning slightly on a garden urn in a shot from 1890 as others sit and stand up straight around him. A profile taken later in life captures him gazing out at the world with the same youthful tenacity, even as his hair threatens to depart with the swiftness of a moment in fame. But then, if you look closely enough, right around the corners, that tinge of generosity, of illogical, raging optimism, pokes out at you.

Perhaps it was that radically positive outlook that led Bassett to write a 1903 editorial in the South Atlantic Quarterly praising Booker T. Washington as "the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years." The essay catapulted him into the century's pioneering case of racial advocacy and academic freedom.

"He was very uncomfortable with the role he was thrust into," said Timothy Pyatt, the university archivist. "He wanted to get a little controversy because basically he wanted people to read it, but he had no idea it would become such a test issue."

By all accounts, Bassett began life as humbly as he lived it. The second child of Richard, a builder and contractor originally from Virginia, and Mary Jane, daughter of a Maine millwright, Bassett was born Sept. 10, 1867 into a modest home in Tarboro, N.C. He attended the public schools of Richlands and Goldsboro, enrolling in Jefferson Davis Military Academy at LaGrange and transferring as a junior to Trinity College, then in Randolph County. He taught English for two years in the Durham public school system, then for a year at Trinity's preparatory school. Bassett later studied history at Johns Hopkins University, earning a doctorate in 1894.

"Hopkins was a major institution for a new breed of historian," Pyatt said. "The Hopkins influence has to be a very changing experience. A number of historians from that program... just came back and were able to turn their schools around, really bring them into the modern era. It was a really pivotal point."

He returned to Trinity College, now in Durham, for 12 years, teaching and writing with new vigor. The days of learning by rote and date memorization fell quickly to the dust in Bassett's classroom, as he introduced primary source analysis to his instruction of Southern history. Bassett founded the 9019 honors society, a group which would later sponsor the South Atlantic Quarterly, and encouraged his students to submit works for publication.

Bassett wrote like a demon, publishing five books and a number of articles in a decade. Working with the editor of the student literary magazine and Trinity professor Stephen Weeks, Bassett breathed new life into the Trinity College Historical Society--the precursor to Duke's archives--and earned the library manager title in 1900.

"It's always amazing to me that a school that young was thinking about its history," Pyatt said. "He made sure the records from Randolph county made it over to Durham.... If it wasn't for him, my job wouldn't exist."

Vocation and avocation melded into a single academic quest for Bassett. He would spend long days touring the Carolina countryside for Civil War musket balls, Indian relics and other historical treasures, encouraging his students to do the same. The historical archives and the library always came first for Bassett, who soon earned a reputation as "the South's foremost scholar in the field," historian Wendell Stephen Holmes recalled in 1964.

"Bassett was very demanding, which made him popular then," said Sydney Nathans, associate professor of history. "He put his students onto interesting topics. And he also apparently had a pretty good sense of humor."

Bassett always was a great writer of letters. A loving husband, he wrote Jessie Lewellyn, whom he married in 1892, every few days when he was away. He wrote their children, Richard and Margaret, with the same devotion. Bassett also kept a correspondence with progressive historians like Trinity's William Boyd and William Dodd of the University of Chicago. W.E.B. Du Bois knew of him, as did Theodore Roosevelt, who praised him at a speech just off of what is now East Campus during a 1905 whistle-stop campaign tour.

Then there was the affair. When the dedicated professor found himself facing an enraged community--the backlash to his editorial far exceeded Bassett's worst expectations--he went through the "ritualistic statement," as Nathans put it, of assuring the crowds he was not an advocate for social equality and resigned his position at Trinity College. Former University archivist William King noted that Bassett inserted the inflammatory comparison between Lee and Washington only at the very last instant, after the galley proofs of the piece were ready--a "very unprofessional thing," King wrote in an article about the affair. Yet Bassett, said Nathans and Pyatt, stood behind his words.

"There is no basis for doubting that he believed what he wrote," Nathans said. "His bottom line was that political disfranchisement of blacks and racial hatred campaigns after the achievements of white supremacists was fundamentally corrosive."

The Board of Trustees grudgingly extricated Bassett from the very fires of racial antipathy he had stirred, refusing his resignation, but the quotidian elements of Trinity life took their toll. Bassett wanted a higher salary, fewer students and more research time. The number of trained scholars at Trinity disappointed him. Bassett also felt himself becoming a man known more for his scandal than for his studies.

So in 1906, Bassett left his native South for Smith College, an all-women's school in Northampton, Mass. His interests turned to Andrew Jackson, completing in 1911 a two-volume work on Old Hickory he had started at Trinity. Smith continued on his torrid writing streak, publishing works on plantation overseers, on World War I, on American reform and the classic "A Short History of the United States," which became a standard college text.

Though he made a name for himself as a historiographer, Bassett's fame as an academic never paralleled his notoriety as an iconoclast. He became an active member of the American Historical Association, a group which elected him secretary in 1919 amidst some fanfare. For the most part, however, Bassett edited letters, continued to teach, and lived the life of quiet he had always sought.

On the morning of Jan. 27, 1928, Bassett was on his way to a meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies at the Cosmos Club when a streetcar struck and killed him in Washington, D.C.

But Bassett left a legacy of intellectual and academic freedom that resonates with brave academics across the nation.

"Bassett had this bigger mission," Nathans said. "That is truly what academic freedom is about--when you're unafraid to transfer it into the public debate of the time."


Share and discuss “The man behind the Affair” on social media.