Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
In the fall of 1933, a distinguished black couple, newly returned from their studies in Europe, headed south from Virginia in the direction of Nashville and then, with both dread and anticipation, passed a symbolic iron curtain into the heart of Jim Crow Mississippi. They were anthropologists embarking on a perilous two-year study of the social hierarchy of the South. They were entering hostile and alien territory where they would have to learn to sublimate their upright bearing and submit to the humiliations of the social order, knowing that any slipup could cost them their lives.
They could not reveal the true nature of their mission at their final destination of Natchez, Mississippi. They would have to watch their every step in a world that preferred to keep its feudal conventions to itself and to keep people who looked like them in their place. They were driving headlong into a region where a black person was lynched every four days for some breach, large or small, of those conventions.
They would soon discover that, just weeks before their arrival, a black man had been lynched in the county next to Natchez, under accusation of raping a white woman that even many local whites did not believe.
Allison Davis was an impeccably tailored academic with the sculpted, square-jawed face of a film star, and his wife, Elizabeth, was a model of refinement. But their path had been a twisting obstacle course. Just the previous spring, they had cut short their advanced studies at the University of Berlin and fled Germany when Hitler took power.
They had seen the Nazis burn books and jail teachers, and this gave him new insight into the nature of hate, and combined with the burdens he bore in his own country, further inspired him to examine injustice.
Davis was a young anthropologist with two degrees from Harvard University and a wealth of experience abroad, but, once in Mississippi, he could not in any way act like it. He would have to conceal his inner self to survive. The couple had chosen to make the personal sacrifice for the greater good of documenting the structure of human division, a mission that would practically render them undercover agents. Urbane and bespectacled though he was, he decided it best to keep a gun in the car to protect himself and his wife if it came to it.
In Natchez, they would be joining the other half of their team, a white couple named Burleigh and Mary Gardner, two other Harvard anthropologists, who, in keeping with the plan, had preceded the Davises to Mississippi. The mission was quietly revolutionary. Together, they would embed themselves in a closed and isolated southern town from both sides of the caste divide. Coming from the North, neither couple could fully know what they were getting themselves into. This was in the depths of the Jim Crow caste system, and they would find their every move dictated by the very phenomenon that they were studying.
This would be among the first studies of its kind and a groundbreaking experiment in interracial scholarship. They would have to plan every detail of their interaction with the local people and come up with plausible reasons for the four of them to be together in this alien landscape. Given the dangers, they would not be able to tell the local people the full intention of their project—that they were seeking to infiltrate the white and black worlds to accurately render how caste, class, and race operated in the region.
The two couples were to report back to a senior professor who was overseeing the project from Cambridge. The pioneering anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner anticipated the dangers the team would face and went to Natchez himself ahead of the two couples to scout out the area and to prepare the town for their arrival.
Warner met with the mayor and law enforcement officials and with editors of the local newspaper before leaving the team on its own. He told town officials that they had chosen Natchez to represent a typical southern town and that the researchers would be collecting data to compare it with a town in the North. This was not altogether untrue. Warner had completed research on social stratification in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and could find the comparison useful.
The officials in Natchez were delighted to share the history of their town with the white husband-and-wife team. But it was harder for the team to come up with a credible reason for African-American scholars to come into town doing research.
They made the decision to tell the locals that the black researchers were there to study the black church, a safe enough subject for the town fathers to accept. As a measure of how far ahead of society the researchers were and of
the proficiency of Allison Davis, it was he, the black anthropologist, who was chosen to lead the team on the ground in Natchez. They were two different castes studying caste in the belly of the caste system.
In order for the mission to work, the white couple went in first to get established before the black couple showed up. The Gardners rented rooms in an old country mansion as their base of operations and began gaining acceptance in Natchez society. But they had to give more forethought into where the Davises would live. The mansion was isolated, and the Davises would be uncomfortably, perhaps dangerously, conspicuous in that rural setting. Finding housing for them was a challenge in a region where most African-Americans were sharecroppers living in lean-to cabins. The team finally moved the project into the town itself, and the Davises rented rooms from a black doctor, who opened the way to the town’s few black elites.
The couples soon found themselves embedded in their respective and separate castes, but that restricted them in other ways. The team needed to study the layers within each caste—the elite and the lowly. But the social hierarchy drew such stark lines that even within one caste, fraternizing with those not seen as on one’s level invited scrutiny and potential ostracism. To reach poor white residents—the lower class of the dominant caste—
Mary Gardner took a position as a government caseworker in a New Deal program, which allowed her to meet poorer whites and to visit their homes.
That was not an option available to Elizabeth Davis as the Davises sought to meet with poorer black residents. At the time, few African-American women were permitted to hold those government jobs in Mississippi, and the federal relief that Mary Gardner was in a position to extend to the whites she met was not then being extended to poor blacks in Mississippi.
So Allison Davis sought to recruit a fifth researcher, St. Clair Drake, a former student of his who, decades later, would become a renowned scholar of mid-twentieth-century life in Chicago. The northern-bred Drake was not keen on spending months or years in the Jim Crow South, where, only a few years before, nine young black men, known as the Scottsboro Boys, had been imprisoned in neighboring Alabama, accused of attacking two white women, who later recanted their stories. Davis convinced him of the transcendent purpose of the mission. “You can’t really smash the system if you don’t understand how it works,” Davis told him.
Drake agreed to come, and he spent his time with sharecroppers and domestics that the Davises, now seen as part of the sliver of upper-middle-class blacks in Natchez, no longer had readily explainable access to. They were all locked in the roles into which they had been accepted, having to do whatever their subcaste did, or compromise their foothold in their research setting.
Their lives depended upon obeying the rules they had come to study and proving themselves loyal to the caste to which they were ascribed. Mary Gardner, the white woman researcher, went so far as to
climb into a hoop skirt and to serve as hostess at a mansion tour to which she had been invited. It was perilous to step out of character, perilous for the white couple to be seen as too closely aligned with the Davises, with whom, in that world, the dominant caste would have had minimal contact.
Out in public, they had to remain in character at all times, with the Davises required to show deference to the Gardners and never give the appearance that they were, in fact, friends and colleagues in the trenches. The two women found that they could not be seen together in public at all, had to conceal how well they knew each other, the caste system disallowing that kind of camaraderie between women of different castes. “
Their encounters were limited to an occasional chance meeting at the chain grocery store in the center of town,” wrote David A. Varel, Davis’s biographer. “There they exchanged only a polite, restrained greeting.”
Over time, the white researchers came to see firsthand the barriers that African-Americans faced. Wherever they went, if they were together, there were no guarantees of food or restrooms for the Davises.
Every move had to be thought out in advance with consideration of caste protocol. There were times when Gardner, the white researcher, had to request the bathroom key if Davis were to be allowed to use it.
Davis was the leader of the team, but they could not let the locals know that. They had to keep to their caste performance. It was a revolutionary concept, this idea of an educated black man working with a white man in this way to begin with, a spectacle the likes of which the townspeople would never have seen before.
They couldn’t pretend that they weren’t working together, but “
it was explained to them, and generally understood by others that Allison was working for Burleigh: this was the only acceptable relationship between a white man and a Negro,” Varel wrote.
Just to meet and discuss their findings required an elaborate choreography. They had no outside office and could not go to each other’s homes without arousing suspicions or causing discomfort. It did not sit well with the caste system for a white person to visit a black person, so Gardner could not visit Davis. It would have been permissible, and in fact, expected, for a subordinate-caste person to go to the dominant-caste person’s location for the convenience of the upper-caste person. But for purposes of morale and dignity, it would have been unacceptable for Davis, as the team leader, to walk through the back door of his colleague’s home. “It was not enough to say that Allison was working for Burleigh; each of them was expected to behave strictly according to his caste role,” Varel wrote.
So they created a protocol for themselves whenever they needed to meet. One would telephone the other to make an appointment. Davis would arrive at an agreed-upon corner. Gardner would pick him up, and they would drive to a rural back road to go over their work in the car without bringing undue attention to themselves. Even this, they knew, was a breach of the caste system but it was their only option if they were to get their work done.
Later, Gardner happened to learn that “both the chief of police and the sheriff were informed of each meeting,” Varel wrote. The sheriff and police chief did not intervene, but it was so serious a violation “that the sheriff felt compelled to keep tabs on the two men.”
This surveillance was a reminder that, at any given moment, the authorities could shut down their project, or worse. “The sheriff could seize their notes at any time, exposing the true nature of the larger study and destroying the data that they were gathering,” Varel wrote.
To protect their research, they made frequent mailings to Warner back in Cambridge. But Allison had to be careful in doing so. “Frequent mailings by a Negro, especially an educated Negro, would have aroused suspicion in the middle-aged, middle-class white postal clerk,” Varel wrote.
The whole Negro-white research,” Warner once said, was “delicate and filled with dynamite.”
In 1941, as the United States prepared to enter the Second World War, the Davis and Gardner team emerged with perhaps the most comprehensive study to date of the American caste system. The volume was 538 pages long and titled
Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class
. It described the layers of social classes within the two major castes in America—white and black people.
Davis and the Gardners determined that caste was “
the fundamental division” in the Jim Crow town they studied, built on economic interdependence, in which “the caste system and the economic system reinforce each other.” They documented the multiple rungs within the two castes, the layers of classes within each caste, the social control employed to keep the castes separate, and the slave-like conditions and power structure on the plantations in America as it approached the middle of the twentieth century.
They chronicled the rigid codes of conduct required to maintain the hierarchy. A black landlord, for instance, had to walk to the back door of his own building to collect the rent from his white tenants. The team described the terror campaign against the subordinate caste, the daily menace to the sharecroppers who were subject to ambush in the planters’ whipping parties and the risks to the Davises themselves as they documented the assaults on other African-Americans.
It had taken them eight years to publish their findings, and even then, the researchers were bedeviled with setbacks and the disadvantages of both caste and timing in getting it out to the world. They had begun the work in the midst of the Great Depression and thus faced the ongoing challenge of financing a project that seemed risky from the start.
Two years in, with the Depression worsening and the project taking longer than expected, the Davises, who had borne the brunt of the humiliation that confronted their caste and with the least personal resources, found themselves so strapped for money that they had to take on teaching duties at Dillard University, an underfunded, historically black institution in New Orleans. There, Allison Davis was weighed down with a teaching load of five courses each semester while trying to complete the larger caste study. Worn down by the isolation and indignities, having to perform in character over the course of several years, he fell into a depression over their circumstances.
At the same time, competition arrived on the scene. The Mississippi Delta got crowded with young social scientists investigating this feudal country-within-a-country, as the Depression had raised interest in rural and southern poverty. And while the interracial Davis and Gardner team had spent far longer—years, in fact—living under the caste rules they were studying, two Yale anthropologists, both white and working in the same area in two separate studies, spent several months in Mississippi and, with their shorter timelines, were able to beat the Davises’ and the Gardners’ more comprehensive study to publication.