History professor focuses on hometown in new book

Feb 3, 2014 | General News, Liberal Arts

Many people have grown up in small towns in the South, but how many have turned the experience into a Ph.D. dissertation and then a well-received book? Assistant professor of history V. Elaine Thompson’s book, “Clinton, Louisiana: Society, Politics and Race Relations in a Nineteenth-Century Southern Small Town” has been published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press. A native of Clinton, the parish seat of East Feliciana Parish just north of Baton Rouge, Thompson majored in history at Centenary College, then received her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Rice University.  The doctoral dissertation she wrote at Rice was the basis for her new book. Noted Southern historian Clarence L. Mohr of the University of South Alabama has called attention to the importance of Thompson’s work, describing it as the first study in more than six decades to give “sustained and thoughtful attention to the history of a small southern community.” Most people may think of the Old South as a rural society dominated by plantations and small farms, but important interactions took place in cities and towns, too. “By building railroads, establishing strong mercantile houses, and developing a varied corps of artisans, Clinton’s elite made the town the center of a booming cotton region,” Thompson said. Clinton is known today for its well-preserved historical structures, especially its courthouse square.  But life there was not all romance in the 19th century, as at least one third of Clinton’s 1,000 residents before the Civil War were slaves. It is part of Thompson’s achievement, Mohr said, that she “takes readers behind the Greek Revival facades so beloved by commercial film makers to reveal the substructure of slavery, violence, exploitation and Reconstruction political strife,” which ranged from a near race riot to outright murder. Jeffery R. Hankins, interim head of Louisiana Tech’s department of history, expressed pride in her achievement, noting that Thompson “is contributing to Louisiana’s cultural and historical record, and reminding us all of the importance of local history in our interpretation of the past.” A member of the Louisiana Tech faculty since 2004, V. Elaine Thompson teaches courses in Louisiana history, the Old South, the Civil War and public history.  Her new book is available at various bookstores or online directly from the ULL Press.