It has been an exciting few weeks of new research leads, evolving narratives, and hours of writing and re-writing. Recognizing my own tendency to jump the gun a bit, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to simply start my thesis from scratch. That said, I’m excited about some of the new developments that might feature in a revised Chapter 2 and Chapter 3.
I’m particularly interested in further examining King’s transition away from the WCTU presidency that led her into the leadership of the First Sociological Club of Atlanta. What did she think she might achieve through sociological methods that seemed impossible within the Union? Why did she move from keeping the company of Selena Sloan Butler to undertaking new research with her husband, Dr. HR Butler? My working theory is that the repeated failure of Scientific Temperance Instruction legislation had shown King the limitations of the organization she had built. Although a reliance on the traditional gendered ideals that had characterized the 1880s allowed the No. 2 Unions to flourish in scale, they did not permit a similar expansion in scope – King might have been given a platform, but she still felt stuck with Mother’s Meetings and Social Purity pledges. When the Union reformers (white and black) pushed the envelope by exploring the franchise, the Unions were crushed by the backlash. The status of the post-Candler scandal is perhaps best expressed in eight consecutive years of failed Scientific Temperance initiatives: while every single other state in the Union managed to wield their feminine moral authority to pass these laws, the Georgia Unions could no longer authoritatively claim such issues within their gendered domain. The reason why Georgia was the very last state to achieve this temperance landmark speaks to their uniquely weakened position. By 1896, King would have felt the frustrations of the ‘politics of respectability’ and the consummate reformer would have started searching for more effective methods.
The decline of the Unions coincided neatly with the rise of the Atlanta School of Sociology; the circles within King moved were already adjacent to the elite academics who would become the face of the local African American community in this second half of the decade. But for King, a transition between the activities of club women and the research of Atlanta University would not have been obvious:
- At a basic ideological level, temperance and sociology had diverging operating logics. While temperance is based on the assumption that individual misbehavior causes social ills, her later pleas for juvenile reformatories reflect a conviction that systemic injustice is what truly triggers these individual choices.
- King would have gone from being among the more educated women in any room to a small fish in a sea of PhDs and MDs. Moreover, King would have faced enormous structural barriers to achieving the markers of authority within this world. Her moral power meant little in this new context.
- Sociology as a discipline was just emerging, and so figures like DuBois were deeply protective of their field. DuBois desired a standard of professionalism that sometimes excluded amateur researchers like King. His speech to the Sociological Club in 1897 in response to a conference organized by King provides crucial insights into this tension.
- Further, the speech demonstrates that King and DuBois might have wanted very different things from the same activities. For the reformer in King, data was a means to an end – survey taking meant finding convincing figures to spur social action and change. It would have made little sense for King to measure the health effects of drunkenness, for example, without utilizing the data to push for physiological temperance instruction. For DuBois, however, the mere collection of empirical data was an end in and of itself. He imagined a much more longterm project of intraracial examination.
Nonetheless, King entered the field and made significant contributions that have been entirely ignored. The above debates were contests King would lose in the short term – with significantly less authority within the field, she would be remembered as a temperance reformer and not a social scientist. Nonetheless, it might be noted that DuBois is rarely remembered as a sociologist either – and he ultimately utilized his data in much the same way that King imagined in its earliest stages. Although the ultimate fate of the Atlanta School might be beyond the scope of my thesis, I do want to understand King’s role in these early, formative years – especially as sociological theories might have been tested by the real life crises of Black Atlanta during the riot and subsequent disenfranchisement.
Beyond these new narrative directions, I’m also making plans to visit Princeton University’s archives over Spring Break – there may be an interview with Georgia Swift King in the Ridgely Torrence papers!