I came to Chapel Hill for graduate study in sociology in late spring
1949. The last leg of my journey from northern New York was by bus from Durham. Franklin St was still a two-lane road, the trees on both sides replete with fragrant wisteria, a warm and welcome sensation after a long hard winter.
I met with Gordon Blackwell, a kind gentleman who found me a room with Frank Graham’s sister, Mrs Drane. While chatting with me he took a call apparently dealing with a job reference. He commented at one point that the man under discussion was “religiously motivated” and I knew that I was in a different cultural setting.
I began my program in summer classes with Odum, appropriately awed at the onset by his reputation and his physical presence; his demeanor was looming but casual. His lectures were very like story telling told with feeling and a near spellbinding power. I was soon steeped in folk sociology as much by anecdote as evidence. Odum, the whole complex figure of Odum, dominated my thinking and greatly embellished my sociological imagination.
A group of students from various disciplines had formed a discussion committee supporting the application of an African American graduate of the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham to the UNC School of Law. As a long-time civic rights advocate I joined the group and we soon had a meeting in the Student Union to discuss the issue. The NC State Constitution forbade the admission of Negroes so we knew we were controversial for forming even a discussion group. The meeting was swamped with ranting loud ugly “Wool hat” boys as they were called, led by the student leader of the Dixiecrat party of 1948. The mob was successful in bringing the meeting to a close with no discussion.
Regional newspapers reported the meeting and listed the names and field of study of the committee members, mine included. They tended to describe the group as outside agitators, neatly dismissing the students of North Carolina College at Durham. Odum was very angry about this token move towards racial integration. He had frequently spoken about his painful experiences of public criticism of the department. Prominent among these concerned Professor Ernest Groves, professor of marriage and the family. Graves divorced his wife and that reflected badly on the department according to Odum.
Odum also spoke grudgingly of other interesting happenings which caused him to have to defend the department. About the latter he spoke many times and bitterly about the Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma”. It seemed that he was more deserving and qualified for the task of writing about race in America. Although he professed sympathy with the black Americans, he claimed that one must work for gradual change and not rely on stateways such as endorsing integration by law. The point at which integration could come about was never explained, but activism and legal interference would make matters dangerously worse for all parties, he thought.
Odum vented his anger in many ways. His creed was that sociologists as professionals should not express political activism. That point was hammered home in his lectures, much to everyone’s discomfort it seemed to me. One day he even addressed me as a communist in class; the room fell cold and silent. To even hint at such a thing in the days of McCarthyism was about as threatening as could be. I was terrified and the allegation was way off-mark. My years of living through the years of the New Deal and my service in the Army forged my convictions that as a sociologist I could help improve social conditions.
Long story short, after presenting my Master’s thesis and oral exam in 1951, Odum convened the faculty and announced that I was unfit to continue graduate study for being unprofessional and unstable. My thesis advisor, Nick Demerath, was incensed, but overruled. He had been, and continued to be, very supportive until he left to chair the department at Washington University. I had studied with John Gillin whose support and advice saved the day for me in many ways. I continued to take courses in Anthropology, but, needing to earn some money, was invited to work in the Bulls Head Bookshop. I met Dean Lucille Kelling of the School of Library Science, who persuaded me to enroll in that School. I completed my Master’s degree there and went on to teach under Dean Kelling. Shortly thereafter, I was awarded a generous fellowship to study Sociology from the Southern Fellowship Fund, and returned to the post-Odum department. I was welcomed literally with open arms by Bill Noland. My journey through the doctoral program included very enriching study with Dick Simpson, Hubert Blalock and Rupert Vance as well as visitors such as Robin Williams. A much earlier treat was Talcott Parsons’ lecture at the Morehead Planetarium which allowed me to have some illuminating and exciting discussion. Rupert Vance guided me through the throes of the dissertation and I finished my degree at long last in 1968.
I had been teaching in the School of Library Science all along and was loathe to give up my rank and salary teaching the graduate-student body in that program to begin a new teaching career in Sociology. I retired as Professor of Information and Library Science in 1992. During my long years in that School, my teaching always had a sociological bent, including courses in Management of non-profit organizations, Social Science research methods, social survey research and statistics, and literature of the Social Sciences and Management. I was more or less fulfilling Rupert Vance’s notion that sociologists should go out and practice their profession in other disciplines, all by happenstance.
Folk sociology had much to offer and is relevant today in some respects. Understanding the conflict between folk and state ways is useful, and Odum’s forecast of the man/woman ratio as a major social issue on the horizon was on the mark.
The discipline of rigorous methodology and statistical reasoning were the strongest contributions to my professional life and carried me successfully through a good deal of research. Ironically, such was the hold of Odum’s persona that in spite of his dreadful mistreatment of me I defended folk sociology in my doctoral exams, probably the last student to do so.
Submitted August 2015