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William Louis Poteat

William Louis Poteat: A Leader of the Progressive-Era South

Randal L. Hall
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 344
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    William Louis Poteat
    Book Description:

    William Louis Poteat (1856-1938), the son of a conservative Baptist slaveholder, became one of the most outspoken southern liberals during his lifetime. He was a rarity in the South for openly teaching evolution beginning in the 1880s, and during his tenure as president of Wake Forest College (1905-1927) his advocacy of social Christianity stood in stark contrast to the zeal for practical training that swept through the New South's state universities.

    Exceptionally frank in his support of evolution, Poteat believed it represented God at work in nature. Despite repeated attacks in the early 1920s, Poteat stood his ground on this issue while a number of other professors at southern colleges were dismissed for teaching evolution. One of the few Baptists who stressed the social duties of Christians, Poteat led numerous campaigns during the Progressive era for reform on such issues as public education, child labor, race relations, and care of the mentally ill. His convictions were grounded in a respect for high culture and learning, a belief in the need for leadership, and a deep-seated faith in God.

    Poteat also embodied the struggle with the intellectual compromises that tortured contemporary social critics in the South. Though he took a liberal position on numerous issues, he was a staunch advocate for prohibition and became a strong supporter of eugenics, a position he adopted after following his beliefs in a natural hierarchy and absolute moral order to their ultimate conclusion.

    Randal Hall's revisionist biography presents a nuanced portrait of Poteat, shedding new light on southern intellectual life, religious development, higher education, and politics in the region during his lifetime.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5768-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    From his lair on the South’s northern border, Baltimore journalist and critic Henry L. Mencken pounced on the region’s absurdities and intellectual sterility throughout the early twentieth century. On rare occasions, however, he observed someone worthwhile trekking through the cultural aridity of the southern Sahara. One such person he identified was William Louis Poteat, president of Wake Forest College in North Carolina, whom he included on a list of “a few hard-boiled and heroic men, their veins filled with manganese, [who] manage to hold out” as intellectuals in the South.¹

    Poteat was born in 1856 on a large plantation in...

  6. 1 Genesis of a Southern Reformer
    (pp. 5-21)

    The Poteat family began a long relationship with North Carolina in the mid-1760s when John and Ann Miles McComas Poteat, along with her father, apparently moved from Baltimore County, Maryland, to the frontier portion of Orange County, North Carolina, that later became Caswell County.¹ The early Poteats chose an excellent area for settlement. Caswell County is nestled in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and borders Virginia to the north. Land was granted there as early as 1745, and Caswell County was formed in 1777, only a few years after the Regulator uprising against the royal administration brought this region...

  7. 2 Separate Spheres—Personal, Professional, Religious
    (pp. 22-59)

    In 1878, only a year after graduating, William Louis Poteat returned to Wake Forest College as a lonesome tutor, but he gradually established himself as a popular professor of biology and a vital part of the college’s administration and religious life. By 1905 he had achieved statewide intellectual eminence, and his alma mater eagerly elected him president. He rose to prominence as an educator, scientist, church statesman, and intellectual by participating in the nationwide trends of Victorian America, and he led a family based upon notions of nurture and self-control. However, Poteat never fully accepted the overriding devotion of the...

  8. 3 Christian Progressivism in the South
    (pp. 60-102)

    As historians have belatedly acknowledged, the American South participated actively in all aspects of the Progressive movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.¹ North Carolina is often cited as one of the states most involved in reform activities, and an understanding of William Louis Poteat’s role in the state’s Progressivism is crucial to an understanding of the movement in the state and the region. From the 1880s to the 1920s, even as he labored diligently as a biology professor and then college president, he participated in numerous campaigns for change. Poteat’s reputation as an educator and a leader...

  9. 4 Wrestling New South Education
    (pp. 103-128)

    Following the Civil War, one group of southern leaders advocated that the South should overcome its postbellum devastation by reconciling with the North and recognizing and exploiting its own rich resources. In their program, scientific techniques and diversification would improve agriculture, and industrial development would process the South’s agricultural products and mineral riches and bring wealth to the region. Northern capital and skilled labor would be induced to move South to help implement this vision, which historians have labeled the New South Creed. The prosperity and regional salvation promised in the doctrine came to pass only in myths created by...

  10. 5 Christianity, Enlightenment, and Baptist Democracy
    (pp. 129-156)

    Between 1920 and 1927, conservative Baptists in North Carolina subjected William Poteat and Wake Forest College to a searching critical examination. Fearing that the college and Poteat in particular had fallen under the influence of modern liberal ideas, Tarheel Baptists demanded to know if Wake Forest was failing to guide their sons toward proper Christian conduct and understanding. In 1920, amid contrasting assumptions about who should direct Baptist colleges and worries about worldliness and slipping discipline at Wake Forest, fiery criticism began of Poteat’s theological views. In the beginning, the issue was his interpretation of the atonement, but focus soon...

  11. 6 Spokesman for Another Lost Cause
    (pp. 157-194)

    When William Louis Poteat stepped down from the presidency of Wake Forest College in June 1927, a perceptive editorialist prophesied that “the retirement of Dr. Poteat from the presidency doesn’t mean that he will drop out of the public eye, for a man of his recognized ability as a leader in education and religion cannot disappear, even if he should desire.” Another observer agreed, “So long as he retains his health, no matter what position he occupies his leadership in the realm of culture and intellect in North Carolina is inevitable.”¹ These predictions proved true, for in the decade following...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 195-200)

    William Louis Poteat’s 81 years of life in North Carolina covered fully half of the 162 years since the birth of the nation in 1776, and the year of his death coincided with the beginning of the South’s full entry into modern America. The year he died, 1938, marked a divide for the region.¹ Civil rights, the great political and social battle that would cleave the South for years to come, gained strength and direction in that year. The legal strategy of black activists began to pay off when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor for the first time...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 201-246)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-257)
  15. Index
    (pp. 258-264)