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Faculty Spotlight: Charles Irons, history

Charles Irons, associate professor of history and geography, recently completed a yearlong sabbatical to study the segregation of Southern churches in the post-Civil War American South and how black Southerners endeavored to create churches independent of white control. His journeys took him to seven archives in three different states. He commandeered the Department of History’s microfilm reader. He completed more archival work and took more intellectual risks than he ever had in his career to date. And, he says, he expects the hard work to be well worth it.

Charles Irons, associate professor of history

“It was pure joy,” Irons says looking back on his work. “I hope to give Elon a good return on its investment in me by producing both thoughtful scholarship and thoughtful young historians.”

He has begun to disseminate the early results of his research, tentatively titled "Uneven Exodus: The Segregation of Southern Evangelicalism," in the form of conference papers, book chapters and journal articles, and he’s working on a monograph revisiting the religious choices black Southerners made during reconstruction. He makes what he calls a “fairly straightforward observation that African-American churchgoers made different choices after emancipation, just over a third of them choosing to remain in white-controlled churches for two more years, some incrementally seeking independence through close cooperation with white authorities and others striking out on their own as soon as possible.”

Irons acknowledges his observations represent a revision of current scholarship, which strongly emphasizes black Southerners’ search for autonomy. On a more subtle level, he says he is trying to pay attention to what black Southerners’ ecclesiastical choices meant.

“For some Southerners of color, for example, retaining membership in white churches represented a claim to citizenship,” Irons says. “It may be that a politically salient minority of African Americans held more closely to what scholars have called a ‘liberal, integrationist vision’ than a proto-black nationalism when white and black Americans were first negotiating the terms of life after slavery.”

Irons returned to the classroom this fall and is looking forward to bringing this wealth of new knowledge to his students.

Kristin Simonetti,
9/14/2011 11:47 AM