Wilson Center Experts

Theda Perdue

Fellow
United States Studies

Expertise:
North America
;
United States
Affiliation:
Professor of History, University of North Carolina
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Indians in the Segregated South, 1865-1965"
Term:
Sep 01, 2006
-
May 01, 2007

I was born in the segregated South, and I grew up with race as a fact of life. I was a first-year law student when I first encountered the notion that race was a social construction. Fascinated by this idea, I abandoned law school and enrolled in graduate school in history. A chance encounter with a state historic site, the early nineteenth-century house of a Cherokee planter in Georgia, revealed that race, even in the American South, is far more complicated than black and white. My dissertation, which became my first book, Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1865 (1979), examined slave-holding Indians and their African-American slaves. Racial ambiguities and anomalies in race relations became a theme that reappeared in much of my work, even while I focused on other topics on Native Americans that ranged from oral histories in Oklahoma to Cherokee removal to Native women. I returned explicitly to the issue of race for the Lamar Lectures, which I delivered at Mercer University in 2001. Published as "Mixed Blood" Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South (2003), this work addressed the early nineteenth-century construction of a racial category, "mixed bloods." Largely meaningless within southern Indian society, white politicians used the term to discredit Indian leaders and dispossess their peoples. In some ways that book was the prelude to my project at the Wilson Center. Having played the race card in their campaign to force the large Indian tribes to move west of the Mississippi in the 1830s, southern elites moved to eliminate remaining Indians by redefining them as "colored" in the period after the Civil War.Contested ethnicity in the century following the Civil War continues to shape the lives of many southern Indians in the twenty-first century and has profound policy implications as many of them seek federal recognition. My appreciation of the racial quagmire in which many southern Indians find themselves deepened when I moved to the University of North Carolina in 1998. Most of my Indian students are members of tribes that are not recognized by the federal government or provided services by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many of these students interpret the absence of federal recognition as public doubt about their identity as Indians. The documentary record, however, reveals that their peoples have a long history in the South as Indians, even if it is a history that is rarely acknowledged.As I write this profile in June 2006, I am on a driving tour of many of the Indian communities that I will write about in my fellowship year. Although I have read virtually their entire archival record, I have been astonished by the people I have met. From the practice of traditional arts and crafts to the daily use of indigenous languages to the preservation of a communitarian value system, American Indian peoples are alive and well in the South. I look forward to writing their history.
 

Education

A.B. (1972) Mercer University; M.A. (1974) University of Georgia; Ph.D. (1976) University of Georgia
 

Subjects

U.S. Studies,American Indian History
 

Experience

  • University of North Carolina, Visiting Professor 1995, Professor since 1998
  • Atlanta Distinguished Term Professor, since 2003
  • University of Kentucky, Professor, 1988-97, Hallam Professor, 1997-98
  • Clemson University, Professor 1985-88, Associate Professor 1983-85
  • University of Auckland (New Zealand), Visiting Professor, 1987
  • Western Carolina University, Associate Professor 1981-83, Assistant Professor,1976-81, Instructor 1975-76

Expertise

American Indian history; Southern history

Project Summary

I am writing a book about Indians in the segregated South. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, segregation laws, ethnographic research, and popular images contested the identity of Native peoples in the South. Categorized as "colored," Indians had no distinct place in the system that ordered race relations. As they became excluded from economic and political life, Indians isolated themselves geographically and socially. In this book, I will explore the ways in which Native peoples struggled to preserve their ethnic and cultural identity while they challenged both southern segregation and national ideas about Indians.

Major Publications

  • 'Mixed Blood' Indians: Racial Construction in the Early South (University of Georgia Press, 2003; paperback edition, 2005)
  • Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (University of Nebraska Press, 1998; paperback edition 1999)
  • Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1866 (University of Tennessee Press, 1979; paperback edition, 1987)

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