In praise of Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton: pioneering Alabama historian, author and mentor

In praise of Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton:  pioneering Alabama historian, author and mentor
Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton as a child. (Photo courtesy of NewSouth Books)

When Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton died in Birmingham on April 4, 2016, at the age of 94, the state lost one of its most important and prolific historians, and one of its finest teachers and role models for young women interested in studying history.

After earning her undergraduate degree at Birmingham-Southern College, Hamilton worked for the Associated Press (AP) in Washington, D.C., during World War II. She married Lowell “Larry” Hamilton and returned to Birmingham in 1948 and continued her journalistic path, reporting for The Birmingham News.

Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton: Pioneering Alabama historian, author and mentor from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

But in the 1950s, she took a different road. She earned a master’s degree at Birmingham-Southern and then, in 1961, a doctorate in history at the University of Alabama – only the second woman to do so, following in the footsteps of Frances Roberts of Huntsville. Hamilton’s accomplishment, despite a professor telling her that “a woman with children could not possibly do it,” was significant at the time because men dominated the field and were convinced that women should not be teaching history on the college level.

Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton (contributed)

During her long career, Hamilton taught at Birmingham-Southern, the University of Montevallo, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the University of Alabama when she was a doctoral student. She was brilliant, hard-working and determined, and she never backed away from an intellectual or interpretive argument.

Hamilton was born on Sept. 7, 1921, in Kansas City, Mo. Her father, McClellan “Teddy” Van der Veer Hamilton, worked at the Kansas City Post. After a brief stay in New York City, the family moved to Birmingham, where her father continued his newspaper career. Hamilton grew up in the 1920s with her father and mother, Dorothy Rainold Van Der Veer, in the Roebuck Springs area of Birmingham. The Depression years of the 1930s were hard, and the family endured what she described as “genteel poverty.” Hamilton wrote about these times in her last book, Teddy’s Child: Growing Up in the Anxious Southern Gentry Between the Great Wars. She grew up in a household filled with books, surrounded by intellectual discussions. She engaged at an early age with family and visitors who were writers, teachers and other accomplished people.

Hamilton attended a private elementary school and went on to the public Woodlawn High School, to Birmingham-Southern, and then to Washington, where her reporting for AP included covering Capitol Hill and the White House during the Franklin Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

The years as a journalist helped her develop her writing skills, and she learned from her experiences at home how to challenge opinions and defend her interpretations. She was not afraid to object to views she believed were not fair or accurate. That two of her most influential books were biographies of Alabama liberal Democrats – Hugo Black, the U.S senator and Supreme Court justice, and U.S. Sen. Lister Hill – gave her an arsenal of data to undergird her later writings.

Hamilton’s school textbooks, written for fourth and ninth grade, presented more accurate interpretations of the state’s history than earlier ones. For instance, in the late Charles G. Summersell’s 1957 Alabama History for Schools, a ninth-grade textbook used for many years, slavery was explained as “the earliest form of social security in the United States.” Hamilton’s narrative gives a more realistic and accurate account of the reality of slavery.

Education majors were required to take Alabama history, and hundreds went through Hamilton’s classes. She demanded effort and commitment and inspired countless students with her stories of their state’s history. She was focused on eliminating the vestiges of 19th century prejudicial interpretations of Alabama history, not only on the issue of slavery, but also in the almost total absence of Alabama women in the state’s previous histories, except perhaps for telling the traditional stories of Emma Sansom and Julia Tutwiler.

Teddy’s Child book cover (photo courtesy of NewSouth Books)

A book sometimes overlooked in assessing Hamilton’s influence is her history of Alabama, one of a series of state history books published around the time of the U.S. bicentennial by W.W. Norton for the American Association for State and Local History. The criteria for the series was to create readable and concise books, and participating authors were challenged to find new ways to tell the story with approaches that reflected on the “mind, spirit, and outlook” that distinguished each state. Simply titled Alabama: A History, Hamilton’s account is brief and well-written. But it is her organization that is so striking and different, and so effective.

Instead of the usual chronological story, Hamilton’s four chapters tell about groups of people who have most influenced Alabama history. First she writes about the state’s largest group, the yeoman, in a chapter she titled “Shades of Ma and Pa: The Obscured Ancestors.” Her second chapter, “Seen through a Glass, Darkly: The Tribulations of Blacks,” tells the story of African-Americans in Alabama from slavery to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The upper class of Alabama who had so often dominated prior accounts – the rich cotton planters, wealthy merchants, industrial leaders and corporate managers – Hamilton covers in her third chapter, “Build The More Stately Mansions.” Finally, she treats others who have enriched the history of the state in so many ways – Native Americans; the citizens of the state’s port city, Mobile; and the varied people of Alabama, such as Baldwin County’s Greek settlement at Malbis, the Germans of Cullman, the Quakers and Mennonites – in a chapter she calls “Other Voices, Other Cultures.” The book was judged the best volume in the series.

In 1991, in Fort Worth, Texas, Hamilton delivered to the Southern Association for Women Historians one of her most significant papers, which is included in the book of essays, Taking Off the White Gloves: Southern Women and Women Historians. At the time, Marlene Hunt Rikard of Samford University was president of the group, which was formed because the programs of the Southern Historical Association rarely presented research involving women’s topics.

Rikard knew Hamilton well, but not many of the graduate students and professors from across the nation who were in the audience that night had even heard of Hamilton – perhaps because her two most well-known books were biographies of men involved in politics. That night, Hamilton told about the prejudice she faced from older male historians who were biased against women seeking to earn doctoral degrees in history. Titled “Clio’s Daughters: Whence and Whither,” the paper recounted her struggles at the University of Alabama Department of History. They mirrored the experiences of older women historians at the meeting but were new to the younger women scholars who had more recently attended graduate school and who followed a path cleared by Virginia Hamilton.

After many successful years as a professor and department head at UAB, Hamilton retired. But her influence is greater than she imagined at the time. Hamilton changed the way history was taught in Alabama. She increased the respect and appreciation for the two of the state’s and the nation’s most significant liberal senators – Hill and Black – in a time period when the South and the nation were moving toward a more conservative political persuasion. She advocated for the equality of women in history, and capped her career directing a departmental faculty at UAB that was roughly half male and half female – more closely matching the true ratio of men and women in the population.

Young women in Alabama in 2016 may not realize who influenced the greater professional equality they now enjoy. Virginia Van deer Hamilton played a large role in that history.

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