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James McBride Dabbs papers

The South Caroliniana Library has received from the children of the late James McBride Dabbs (1896-1970) a major addition, nine linear feet, to its holdings on this Sumter County native who became one of South Carolina's, and the South's, most distinguished twentieth-century writers, teachers, social philosophers and civil rights leaders. The principal focus of this new unit of manuscript and printed material is the period from 1909 to 1920, providing heretofore unknown details of his life as an adolescent growing up in the country on the eastern side of the county, his career as a student at the University of South Carolina (1912-1916), his graduate year at Clark University (Worcester, Mass.) in 1916-17, his World War I military experience, and his subsequent employment at the Farm Life School in Vass, N.C. A small but important final unit is comprised of correspondence which documents a trip he made into New England in 1934.

The hundreds of letters written to Dabbs during his student days in Columbia provide a rich source of information not only on the record of his achievements there and on the University of South Carolina itself; they also reveal a great deal about the life back home, and about the quality of the human associations which characterized it. The letters from E.W. Dabbs, James's father, are particularly significant in number and content. The father wrote to the son with great frequency to tell him about the farm operations: the growing and harvesting of crops (cotton, corn, oats), the raising and use of livestock (horses, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens), the labor situation and the status of tenants, stump-pulling and the cutting and sale of timber—and "Mother's garden," with its Irish potatoes, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, and peas. Weather conditions, so critical to country economy and well-being, are often mentioned. In a letter to James of 16 July 1916 his father writes—"The worst storm since Aug 23/93 hit us Thursday night & Friday till Sat. morning. In 48 hours Uncle Lewis measured 11 inches rainfall. Our canal is on a boom nearly a hundred yds wide. Water from in front of cotton house nearly to field gate. Black River is over causeway for 300 yds & above the bridge—gone & others likely to go tonight. It looks like our beautiful crop is injured half." Finances were always a concern, and saving the land and the estate. On 19 May 1915 E.W. wrote James at the University—"It is a poor way to farm, this farming on two places two miles apart, but I just had to do it. Mr. Cole made such a failure last year all of the crop he made was not worth the rent which I paid the Estate & I am out over $400. for fertilizers furnished him, with about 100.00 worth of cotton seed to offset that....I may have to borrow on your & the other children's bank stock, but hope I can find some other way." Less than a month later, on 10 June, he wrote—"I would not be surprised if the best thing for you that could happen would be for me to write you that I have no money & you would have to start out and earn some. I have none, it is only too true, but I will have to borrow some to send you I suppose. I am afraid you have too exalted an idea of what a rich man you will be when you inherit `Rip Raps', and I am writing to tell you that if things keep on as they have started that there will be no Rip Raps for you before the end of this year." At the end of it, on 11 December, he reported—"It takes so much to keep running that I was out of money when your letter came & had to gin cotton yesterday & sell the seed to get money to send you and for Aunt Harriett's annuity of 25.00 both of which I can write chks. for today."

But the frequent letters from E.W. and his second wife, Sudie Furman Dabbs, were generally solicitous and affectionate. "Your last report came this wk. all `A.,'" James's father told him in a letter of 23 March 1913. "Dr. [Samuel Chiles] Mitchell said you are maintaining your `high standard of conduct as well as scholarship', and that you are going on the track which is very important for such a hard student. We are all so glad that you are doing so well. Hope you will keep in good health too, and win some distinction in athletics as well as conduct and scholarship." "Do try to take plenty of exersize," he again urged his son in a letter of 15 February 1914. "Your Uncle Guy says you are `looking well but too close a student'. You must remember that health is the best asset a man can have & try to conserve yours."

On 7 May 1915, the day before his son's birthday, E.W. wrote that it recalled to his mind "19 years ago and your dear brother and our humble home with its rough walls & clay chimneys & vine covered porches and how happy we were in our love, and the little blue eyed, red-headed token of that love. Two little boys one named for me and one for her father; both grandmothers & uncles were given namesakes, but she the sweet unselfish loving wife & mother would not give her name to either girl. How I did want one more to name for her whether she would or not—But God willed otherwise. I know she is proud of her `Jamie', if those in the heavenly land keep track of the ones left behind & I believe they do." Exactly a year later, he says again—"Not a day since [`Jamie's' birthday] but what in some way the dear little fellow made us happy—until now he is a big man with heaps of College honors, but the same loving, thoughtful heart....I hope your dear Mother can see how fine you are—how handsome—and what a credit to her loving prayers and training and blood—for blood will tell—you are." "Your life has been such a joy and blessing to us during these twenty years, an inspiration to these younger children, that it is a joy to look forward to," "Mother" [Sudie] wrote in a letter enclosed with her husband's.

The folks back home also took notice of his budding talent as a writer. "We are all very much interested in your poem and your prose in the Carolinian," James's Aunt Alice [Warren, his grandmother Sophronia Warren McBride's sister] wrote him on 1 November 1914. "We did not know it was in you to write so." In her letters to him, Aunt Alice also touched upon matters of politics and religion. On 18 April 1913 she remarked upon Dr. Mitchell's departure from the University—"Yes, I, too, am regretting the resignation of Dr. Mitchel[l], very much indeed, especially for the reason for which he is leaving our State & University. As I said to you...last August just after the Dem. Primary, I am hoping that when the young men of your age become voters, they will be able to use the ballot so as to cleanse our Commonwealth and restore it to its rightful position of honor among the States." And on 28 September 1913 she remarked upon an occasion of attendance by "Mr. Dabbs and Sudie" at services in the Baptist Church at Mayesville and went on to say—"I had hoped Sudie would unite with Salem, B[lack] R[iver Presbyterian Church], as it is so much nicer for families to be united in their religious faith, now, I feel somewhat apprehensive, as the Baptist[s] are known to be the most procelyting [sic] of all the churches, and she is a person of such strong will power....I trust none of Maude's children will ever think it necessary to go back on the faith and vows of their parents and be re-baptized—a truce to such fears, God forbid!"

Anecdotes and stories highlight the correspondence. On 5 February 1916, for instance, Mother Sudie tells James of an incident concerning E.W. and his automobile—"Father got home without further accident from Sumter Tuesday, only he forgot he was driving a car and not a horse when he nearly ran into a buggy in front of Boyles Stables and holl[er]ed out Whoa! Whoa! much to the amusement of onlookers." And in another letter, of 5 October 1915, E.W. tells the story of his few months as a student at the South Carolina College in the fall of 1880, which provides a virtual portrait of the school and of Columbia at that time—"On a Tuesday morning Oct. 5th 35 years ago as the sun was rising Gillie McCutchen, Tom McCutchen and this scribe got into a hack at the old car shed on Gervais St. and drove up the hill by the state house which looked like a mountain to my inexperienced eyes, past Trinity Church, and into the campus of the musty, dusty, old S.C. College, up the South drive way to the tenement of Rutledge College just west of the chapel (It had a sign State Normal School over the chapel entrance) where on the 2nd floor the McCutchens had the room next the chapel and I the room west of theirs #12 then." He then tells of moving to a boarding place on the west side of Lower Main Street for twelve dollars a month—"I staid there 10 days when the rowdyism of the boys became unbearable (I ought not use the word rowdyism either; it was just uncouth table manners, boisterous talk, and the disgusting flirting of one of them with the young lady of the house." After telling how homesick he was, and about how little money he had with which to cover necessary expenses, he describes the jobs he took to support himself—"I was janitor for the joint literary society and spent one Saturday cleaning out the dust of decades from the Clariosophic hall which was the only one that we could undertake to clean....Then I got the bell ringer's job at 40.00 annum, the old rate in lieu of tuition. I wrote Col. R.W. Boyd one of the trustees from Darlington that I had to ring the bell 16 times a day & I thought it was worth more. At their next meeting they raised it to 75.00. I did not get any good of it for I had to leave on Dec. 5th and never was paid a cent but your Uncle Guy three or four years later rec'd the benefit of my speaking out, and it has helped many a young man since. Probably but for me the job would have always staid at 40.00."

In addition to the letters from his father and stepmother—and from his great-aunts at the Crossroads, especially Aunt Alice—James received mail from his older brother, Eugene, who was at The Citadel; from his sister Sophie and his younger brother, Mac, who were at home; from his sister Elizabeth, who had matriculated at Winthrop College; from his Uncle Guy [McBride], his mother's brother who lived at the Crossroads and looked after his Warren aunts; and from his cousin Julia Hamlin, who earlier had boarded at the Dabbses' and been the children's teacher when James was twelve and thirteen. There are letters from such friends in the neighborhood at home as Anna Workman and H.C. Brearley.

Along with the extensive correspondence from family and friends at home and elsewhere, the collection contains other letters, manuscripts and printed items which detail Dabbs's life and experience during the regular school terms and the summers of his college years. Particularly valuable is a unit of graded writings from his earliest English classes at Carolina, notably themes and essays on such subjects as "The Moral Benefit of Woman Suffrage," "The Power of Music" and "Moods of the Soul." Another is called "My Autobiography," and one entitled "A Militia Encampment" documents the fact of his enlistment in the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, which he refers to as the "Sumter Light Infantry," during the summer of 1912 and describes the ten-day encampment in Anniston, Ala., which he and his brother Eugene participated in that season. Another major segment comprises a valuable record of the publishing of the Garnet and Black, the University yearbook, which Dabbs worked on as business manager his junior year and then as editor-in-chief his senior year. Furthermore, letters from W.D. Weatherford and others, plus miscellaneous printed materials, attest to his serious involvement in the Southern Student Conference of the Young Men's Christian Associations, whose conventions at Blue Ridge, N.C., he attended for three summers. And one group of documents and correspondence reveals the hitherto unknown fact that at one time during his student years Dabbs sold aluminum cooking utensils as a money-making venture.

By the end of the spring term of 1916, when Dabbs was ready to leave Carolina and pursue graduate work elsewhere, the record he had achieved as an undergraduate resulted in his receiving top recommendations from his professors at the University. In a letter of 11 May 1916, Dean L.T. Baker stated simply—"We regard Mr. Dabbs as one of the best men that the University has trained. He has been an active leader in student affairs, and enjoys the high esteem of the faculty and his fellow students for his manly qualities." On 13 May his mentor Josiah Morse wrote—"He is a young man far above the average, in every respect. Justice cannot be done to his intellect, his character and personality, his industry and qualities of leadership without a liberal use of superlatives. His fellow students have shown in what high esteem they hold him by electing him President of the student body, and recently Valedictorian of his class. He has also been President of the Y.M.C.A., editor of the several University publications, and has been a leading force in all the University activities." A year later, when Dabbs was about to receive his M.A. degree from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., President G. Stanley Hall, in a letter of 3 May 1917, had this to say about him—"He is a quiet but effective man, studious, able, earnest, who has won the respect of his instructors by both his character and his work here during the present year, and we should be glad to have him continue with us."

In the meantime, however, the realities of World War I had intervened to determine the shape of his next several years, along with his marriage to Jessie Armstrong, of Barnwell, a Winthrop girl whom he had met through his sister Elizabeth. In his 1960 autobiography, The Road Home, Dabbs would write—"[I]n 1917-1918, my relatively quiet world was shattered by the coming of war and love." The collection provides the documentation of these two experiences. Included is the record of his army training at Camp Jackson in Columbia, in Chattanooga, and at Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga.; his overseas assignment with the American Expeditionary Forces in France; his three months in the spring of 1919 as a "soldier-student" at Edinburgh University; his release from service as a first lieutenant of field artillery. Of special interest are the letters from his officer brother Eugene, and of course those to and from Jessie.

In a letter to Jessie written from Edinburgh, 2 June 1919, Dabbs responds to his wife's reports on her fragile state of health, acknowledges the possibility of her needing to go to a sanatarium, and discusses their post-war plans—"I too am beginning to think that it would be better if I worked for several years" [rather than attending graduate school]. He then focuses on the matter of "our going to the Foreign Field [as missionaries] sometime when you are able"—"I made that decision...amid high spiritual surroundings; I was thinking clearly when I made it. There was no illusion about it, and no emotion. I was no more excited then than I am now. As regards the Mission Field, you and I feel differently—i.e., in degrees: you more strongly than I—; but we think exactly alike. My heart binds me to my childhood home, my pines and the flaming sunsets beyond them; but I will not let those things make my decisions for me.—In religion, also. I am slower to believe, less enthusiastic than you. Yet, I have principles; they are certainly based on Christ's teaching; and I try to live up to them: perhaps these might be of more value in a foreign land than in my home-community. I say, yes, if you get well enough to go, and at that time we still deem it best, certainly, let us go."

"My feelings on the matter now are almost nil!" he goes on to say. "My present situation is so abnormal, that it would not be fair to consider them at all. I am on no spiritual mountaintop; though at times, in prayer, I rise above the monotony of things, and find cheer and happiness." And then, near the end of his letter, he declares—"Why, I swear now that it would take a war twice as big as this one to ever get me out of the United States—`God's Country'—again! I will want to fall upon my knees and kiss the soil of the dear land when I return! Talk about Christopher Columbus being glad on the morning of Oct. 12, 1492, when he sighted the sandy shores of the West Indies—well, you haven't seen me yet!"

The collection also includes valuable pictorial resources: original prints of photographs used in the Garnet and Black; postcard depictions of military sites and groups, and scenic ones of Sumter and Summerton; portraits and snapshots of James, Jessie, various family members and friends.

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