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Fletcher M Green
Fletcher M. Green smiles from behind his desk. (courtesy of The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History)

Professors in the Department of History usually advise numerous graduate students, but few have had as much influence on graduate education as Fletcher M. Green, a Kenan Professor of History from 1927 until his retirement in 1968. Green, a specialist in the history of the American South, directed over 100 doctoral dissertations and 150 master’s theses during his time at UNC—and left a lasting legacy in the study of the American South.

Because of his work with graduate students, “Fletcher M. Green has probably had a more far-reaching influence on the writing of Southern history than has any other man of his generation,” historian William C. Binkley once wrote. Indeed, at a time when interest in Southern history was on the rise, many of Green’s students rose to the top of their field. Well-known Southern historians Arthur S. Link, Dewey W. Grantham, George B. Tindall, and Paul M. Gaston all studied under Green.

Green focused his own research on the Civil War and Reconstruction, but he also studied the American South more broadly. His first book, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (1930), was based on the dissertation that he wrote at UNC under the direction of Joseph Gregoire de Roulhac Hamilton. Although some of Green’s interpretations would seem dated to a modern reader, Green did not share his adviser’s support for white supremacist movements. Rather, Green drew on his expertise in the history of Reconstruction to condemn the resurgence of white supremacy in twentieth-century North Carolina.

Green was always willing to advise projects outside his immediate area of expertise. “One of Dr. Green’s most interesting qualities was that his students ranged the field of the old and new South—developing no central theme or pattern,” historian J. Isaac Copeland wrote. “So frequently students follow their director’s interest—all pursuing law, policy, slavery, agriculture, the small farmer or what have you—all working on various segments of thought with their basic interpretation being that of the director. With Dr. Green that was never true. He encouraged you to pursue your historical interest in your own way and with your own interpretation.”

Dissertations that Green advised included topics as diverse as the Florida everglades, farmer organizing in the South, prohibition in Alabama, the 1912 presidential election, and the southern home front in the Civil War.

Green’s willingness to let his advisees pursue their own interests was but one of his many qualities as an adviser, according to former student Paul Murray. Green, Murray recalled, was best defined by his “personal friendliness, patience, and perfectionism.” Occasionally, from the student’s perspective, his perfectionism did not seem so friendly.

Describing Green’s feedback on his first dissertation chapter draft, Murray wrote: “This letter was accompanied by a returned manuscript literally torn to shreds. My first reaction was that [Green] had completely failed to grasp my meaning and I immediately wrote him to that effect. He never even answered that letter. As I studied the matter I realized he had been actually kind to me and that the only course for me was to rewrite the thing. This sequence with slight variations was repeated twice on the first chapter and at least once on every chapter in this study.” Although Green’s high standards could be daunting for Murray and other advisees, he helped them produce high-quality scholarship and obtain jobs at colleges and universities across the nation.

Beyond his work as an adviser and teacher, Green helped to professionalize the field of Southern history. In 1934, he was among the founding members of the Southern Historical Association, an organization dedicated to taking an “investigative rather than memorial approach” to Southern history. He helped oversee the organization’s Journal of Southern History and served as organizational president in 1945. At UNC, Green also served as the Director of the Southern Historical Collection. After retirement, Green continued to publish and speak about the field of Southern history until his death at the age of 82 in 1978.

Green’s papers, housed in the Southern Historical Collection, include many pieces of advice for his graduate students that have withstood the test of time. Here is a bit of wisdom for graduate students today: “You are writing to make clear to others. You have in the background all your reading and study. Others have only what you put down. Hence you want to make your manuscript tell clearly to the reader the whole story. In other words, try to make things stand out boldly.”

Aubrey Lauersdorf

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