About Our Guest
Paul M. Gaston, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Virginia, specializes in history of the United States South as well as American Civil Rights. A former President of the Southern Regional Council, he was well known in the area during the 1960s for his Civil Rights activism.
Born in Fairhope, Alabama, Paul Gaston arrived in Charlottesville in the fall of 1957 as a junior instructor of history at UVA. During his time in Charlottesville, Gaston became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement and local race relations. He was involved in several demonstrations, most famously the 1963 sit-ins at Buddy’s Restaurant, which is remembered as one of the pivotal events leading to the desegregation of the Charlottesville area.
Gaston has published several books and articles on Civil Rights and Affirmative Action, as well as the history of the United States South.
JAN PAYNTER: Hello, I am Jan Paytner and I want to welcome you again to our program, Politics Matters. We are very pleased to have as our guest today Professor Paul Gaston, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Welcome, Professor Gaston.
PAUL GASTON: Well it is my honor to be here.
JAN PAYNTER: Paul M. Gaston was born in Fairhope, Alabama. He graduated a BA from Swarthmore College in 1952. He was granted a diploma from the Danish Graduate School for Foreign Students in 1953. He received an MA and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina in 1961. He has published a number of books and articles in his distinguished career including, Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea, The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking, Man and Mission: E. B. Gaston and the Origins of the Fairhope Single-Tax Colony, and Women of Fairhope. Paul Gaston has won numerous awards and honors among which are the Legendary Civil Rights Activists Award, the Charlottesville-Albemarle Branch of the NAACP, 2008; Bridge Builders Award, City of Charlottesville, 2005; Brown v. Board of Education Recognition Award from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in 2004; Honoree, Remember the Struggle, Charlottesville-Albemarle Branch of the NAACP, 2001; Life Fellow, Southern Regional Counsel; the Bethune-Roosevelt Award for contributions for racial understanding, UVA, 1978; and the Lillian Smith Award for distinguished writing about the South in 1970. Paul Gaston and his wife, Mary, live in Charlottesville.
I generally begin the program by asking our guest to discuss what it was which brought them to a life of service in the interest of the public good. In the case of our guest today, he was literally born into it. The journey of the Gaston family is a remarkable and fascinating history which offers us a unique opportunity to understand what it means to be committed to the cause of economic fairness, independent thought and racial and social equality. Paul Gaston has indeed remained true to those familial ideals and principals throughout his life and his very significant career as a civil activist, scholar, writer, teacher, and mentor. We are very pleased that he has consented to sit down with us today to discuss the Nation’s and most particularly Virginia’s civil rights history and our ongoing quest for social justice for every American.
Thank you again, Paul, for agreeing to do this today.
PAUL GASTON: My pleasure.
JAN PAYNTER: To begin with, Paul, describe for us, if you would, the genesis of the colony of Fairhope. How did it come into being? Who founded it? And what were the guiding principles on which it was grounded?
PAUL GASTON: The answer really has to do with my grandfather. He was an unusual man, he grew up in Illinois. He was born in Illinois. Then he moved to Iowa and he went to college in Iowa. For a reason that I can’t fully explain, he was angered, moved by the extraordinary inequality which existed in the world into which he was born. He was upset about the—why the disparity in income and wealth. He never used the word, the 99% and the 1% but as I read what he did write, I am reminded of the wide disparity in the wealth, power, and privilege which exists in the United States today. And why he decided—he decided something had to be done about it. For him, he would not be a satisfied fulfilled person unless he found some way of meeting head on this problem. So he started a club, he called it the Des Moines Investigating Club. He called together a few friends of his and they would meet regularly; I can’t remember now whether it was weekly or monthly. And they read important books of the time, books that dealt with the issue of poverty that dealt with the issues with the wide disparity and wealthy and common privilege. And they read Henry Georges progress and poverty and a man named Gordon, whose first name I have suddenly forgotten. And then they decided that reading and informing themselves was not enough. They had to do something.
And so they decided that they would create a community that was designed to illustrate what a just world would really look like. And now he was barely in his 30s when he did this; he was a young man. He had gotten married, I think they had had—he and his wife had had one child by this time. By the time they actually created this community, they got on a train in Des Moines and traveled with his wife and his four children, one of them still in diapers, and went to the site that they had chosen on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. One of his colleagues had said, “Gaston, you know this plan of yours, you got a fair hope of succeeding.” “Ah,” he said, “That is a good name for the community. We will call it Fairhope.”
JAN PAYNTER: Interesting.
PAUL GASTON: And he wrote an essay called “True Cooperative Individualism.”
JAN PAYNTER: That was what I was going to ask you about, what does that term mean?
PAUL GASTON: That is a good question and I want to get in touch with E.J. Dionne, if you watched E.J. Dionne recently he has spent a lot of time talking about cooperation and individualism, a time where no longer are we to have in the United States a society based exclusively on individualism. On an individual doing well and how do you do well, Mr. Romney reminded us of this, by making a money. And we need to split our interests or join our interests between individualism and cooperation and my grandfather thought that was a good idea although he hadn’t read any E.J. Dionne at that time since E.J. was not born by that time. And he based his community largely, not exclusively but largely, on the ideas of Henry George. Henry George had written a very influential book called Progress and Poverty. He argued that the great enigma of his time was the melding of poverty with progress. And somehow societies had to learn how to break that nexus between poverty and progress. And he thought that George had the right idea. Basically it is a little difficult to explain and some people don’t think it makes much sense others think it makes a lot of sense. Basically his idea was that land – land should never be privately owned, land should be owned by the community and it was the speculation land, the private ownership of land that led to the wide-spread poverty which existed. The gilded age was full of examples of wide-spread poverty—-
JAN PAYNTER: I did not want to interrupt you, I was just going to ask you, I know that Fairhope was what was called a single-tax colony. Did people pay a set amount, everyone the same amount of money essentially invested in the land so that they owned it jointly? Was it a one-time payment? How did that work?
PAUL GASTON: The land that the community owned—the community owned the land, they bought it, mind they did not get very much at the beginning; they never had enough land to have a community that would be based on these ideas. But what they did was, they paid the colony, as it was called—it was called originally “The Fairhope Industrial Association” and later, “The Fairhope single-tax corporation”. The idea of what they—how they tried to implement the principle was that land would be leased—-
JAN PAYNTER: I see.
PAUL GASTON: —-to members of the colony and they would pay each year to the colony what was calculated to be the economic rent; what the land was worth—a percentage of what the land was worth. And that was a kind of simulation of the single-tax. And I know that every time I have explained that to someone it is difficult to be persuasive.
JAN PAYNTER: Paul, as I was reading the book, I was struggling with precisely what it was so that makes me feel a little better. I know that one of the things that was very very singular and important with Fairhope and Tandem was also the Marietta-Johnson Organic School. And I wondered if you would speak about the principles under which the school was run and how it differed from other forms of education at the time.
PAUL GASTON: Yes, well, I think that the two things that distinguished Fairhope that brought progressives to the community that attracted people who wanted a better world and who believed that it was possible to create a society that was based on justice, opportunity, fairness, and the school was not part of the original plan, but shortly after Fairhope was founded, as a single-tax community, a community which would establish justice—shortly after that Marietta Johnson, who was a school teacher in Minnesota moved to Fairhope, in large part because she knew people there and they kept urging her to come.
JAN PAYNTER: You speak in the book interestingly about the fact that you were not graded, something that later on you learned about when you went to Swarthmore and that there was a de-emphasis on competition and a focus on, as I understand it, the whole student—the physical, spiritual, intellectual welfare of the student was stressed.
PAUL GASTON: Yes.
JAN PAYNTER: What kind of atmosphere did that create for the students that went to school there? How did it help them to develop intellectually would you say? And as human-beings?
PAUL GASTON: I kept a diary, my cousins gave me a diary, throughout the diary, I am writing about—I say that school begins next Wednesday or something—next Monday, I am really glad. And every entry in my diary talks about the enjoyment of the school, the importance of it, all of the things we did, how I liked the teachers, I liked my fellow students, I liked all of the things we did.
JAN PAYNTER: I know one of the emphasis for the school had to do with learning for learning sake, just what you are talking about. And that that inculcated lifelong habits and this was also—they were also attempting to instill social responsibility.
PAUL GASTON: The idea of child-centered education rather than goal-centered. One of the critics of progressive education is a professor here and he and I used to argue about it quite a lot. And his point was that he felt too much that progressive education was so much as a “do-as-you-please” school. And that was not the case with us, it was really remarkable because what we came to please-to-do was to work hard and read books and talk about them and feel that there was a rare fulfillment and learning to like to learn.
JAN PAYNTER: That makes sense to me because to me, I think through the experience of a lot of people, so much of what stunts people’s learning at the beginning is the sense of being strongly judged. And if you remove some of that, strongly making judgments, obviously, knowing your years of teaching, you found that people become inspired, they relax and they begin to naturally grasp material and want more.
One of the things in going back to Fairhope for a minute and this goes to kind of the crux of the central complexity and contradiction in things and that I know Fairhope was not integrated and I wonder if you would speak to your grandfather’s decision about that. Why he made it and some of the history of that?
PAUL GASTON: Well, Fairhope was founded in 1894. There was not much enthusiasm in the deep-south for having an integrated society. Racism was running strong in the south in 1894. And a member of the—a person who wanted to be a member of the colony but was reluctant to become one because there were no black members and he did not think that was really consistent with the idea that the land belongs to anyone.
JAN PAYNTER: Sure.
PAUL GASTON: And so he wrote to my grandfather and said, “You know I don’t—I can’t support you if you are going to make this a “whites” only community.” And I would like to be able to remember the exact wording of what my grandfather wrote back to him, he said, this brings up the question of how far we can go in applying correct theories—I can’t remember the words.
JAN PAYNTER: You had a very interesting phrase which really stuck with me which maybe you are referring to, I don’t know, he mentioned—your grandfather mentions, for the sake of the survival of the community, I assuming a sort of pragmatic reason that he felt, we perhaps couldn’t quote, “to follow the naked principle of equality unreservably.”
PAUL GASTON: How far we can go in applying the naked principle of equality in a society—that wasn’t his words, but in a society that doesn’t support that kind of equality.
JAN PAYNTER: Well, it was fascinating because I think it really goes to the issue of how you accomplish change and how one descents and resists which obviously became an ongoing problem in our country and in Mr. Jefferson’s University, which I know you will talk about later.
PAUL GASTON: Yeah, he was very clearly saying, I translated though—they were very moving words and now I wish I would have—I should have brought my book. They were very moving words but in essence, he was saying that “you are right that to exclude anyone because of race is contrary to our principle that the land belongs to everyone.” He did not say “this land is your land, this land is my land,” but I always think about that song when I think of Fairhope but it never worked out quite that way. And so that happened and then once the Fairhope School, not the organized school but the public school excluded black children and as Fairhope became a segregated community, the belief became deeply in grained that there was no contradiction between segregation and the George’s Principles of Justice and equal access to the land.
JAN PAYNTER: Well, this raises an issue that I thought a lot about in reading your work and that is this issue of Southern—and you mentioned cognitive dissonance and you have a very—a way in which people take on pleasant trues and somehow incorporate them into their ideals of the country and where they live, in this case the south. But really it goes to the kind of split screen that people in the country and southerners certainly had about the south and obviously later on very much true with issues of racisms. Professor, why did you decide to teach history at a southern university? I know you had the opportunity to—you had the offer to go to Princeton as well as back to Swarthmore. What factored into your decision?
PAUL GASTON: When I met Mary in college, we were in the same year. We both started a year beyond whenever I supposed we should have been. We had the same feelings about racial inequality and that something ought to be done about it. Because of the place where I had grown up that justice came when you restructured society with the school, the colony, these things, we had these things so that once people became accustomed to a different way of living then they would change. We wanted to be involved somehow in the world that was changing, the south, and we were pretty clear in the early 50’s that it was a big issue in the country. And we wanted to be a part of it.
JAN PAYNTER: Paul, thank you very much for being a part of this wonderful conversation today.
PAUL GASTON: Thank you for asking me, Jan, that is very nice of you.