John Spencer Bassett (1867-1928)

John Spencer Bassett, undatedTrinity College's most renowned professor is fondly remembered on campus but hardly in a fashion that recognizes the totality of his accomplishments. When John Spencer Bassett is mentioned it is almost always in reference to the Bassett Affair in 1903, the cornerstone of the university's policy of academic freedom, which was, indeed, a significant event in the evolution of academic freedom in the history of higher education. But while of great significance, dwelling on that incident does little to reveal the personality and accomplishments of the man who would be a strong candidate in a debate on the most influential faculty member in the history of the institution.

Born in rural eastern North Carolina in 1867 amid the poverty of a defeated South, Bassett had intermittent schooling until his devoutly Methodist parents sent him to their church's college, Trinity, then in Randolph County. Entering as a junior in 1886 he experienced the arrival of a new president, John F. Crowell, for his senior year. Crowell came from the North unencumbered by southern tradition and prejudices and full of zeal for educational reform.

Infused with the excitement of research in original sources and with a broadened perspective learned in the new courses of sociology and economics, introduced by Crowell, Bassett graduated with a degree in history. He began teaching in the public schools of Durham but he soon headed north to Johns Hopkins University to earn a Ph. D. degree in the famous seminar of Herbert Baxter Adams.

After Trinity relocated to Durham, Bassett returned, but this time with the best education then available in his field and as professor of history at his alma mater. Of Adams, Bassett later wrote, "You have been to me more than an instructor. You have given me sparks of yourself, and you have made me hope that I might be a useful man in some not unimportant way."

At Trinity, Bassett was a very popular teacher who had the willingness to work hard and the discipline to balance his teaching with his primary love of research and writing. Yet his devotion to his students was legendary. When tragedy such in one family a student's aunt implored Bassett to comfort the young man because her nephew had spoken of his great admiration for his professor. Another student made an intriguing comment about Bassett, writing, "He is the one faculty member who believes that Jesus Christ died for freshmen too."

Bassett did not hesitate to take on responsibilities outside the classroom. He revitalized the Trinity College Historical Society which had been founded by his predecessor, Stephen B. Weeks, to foster the study of southern history. Bassett opened an historical museum, turning the entire college community into collectors in the process. Believing that everyone could collect, if not write, his ulterior motive was to acquire a body of materials for historical research. Students, administrators, and alumni combed their attics donating Confederate money, Indian relics, travel souvenirs, and political memorabilia as well as volumes of books, pamphlets, religious and secular newspapers, maps, and manuscripts. After a few years Bassett proudly reported to Adams that over 2,000 documents had been collected for use in primary research. Soon "manager of the library" was added to his varied duties.

In 1906 an analysis of society meetings revealed that historical presentations had been made by 53 students, 38 faculty and 6 visiting scholars. Following the Hopkins example of a series of published research, Bassett began an annual publication of historical papers of the Trinity society in 1897. At first a cheaply reproduced set of reprints of student articles from the campus magazine, The Archive, the series became more sophisticated and widely distributed when the administration enthusiastically endorsed it. Some noteworthy early articles were on the Ku Klux Klan, the North Carolina Manumission Society, and the North Carolina Governor during Reconstruction, William W. Holden. Bassett proudly wrote Adams, "So far as I know, this is but one of three [academic] historical publications in the South. It is the only one in North Carolina."

The society also sponsored an annual patriotic town-gown civic rally intentionally set on February 22, the birth of George Washington, and not on a date commemorating a Confederate hero. Of the historical society a respected historian later wrote, "There is reason to believe no local historical association ever succeeded better than the Society at Trinity College in effecting its program." In yet another corollary to his passion for learning, Bassett launched a secret student honor society based on academic distinction and service. Named 9019, presumably because nineteen qualifying members had averages of above ninety, the society was a precursor to Phi Beta Kappa which was chartered in 1919.

Surprisingly these extracurricular endeavors were carried on despite a teaching load of fifteen and sometimes eighteen hours a semester. Growing slowly in its early years in Durham, Trinity did not have the means to support more than a single faculty member per discipline. Having to teach history courses far afield of his primary interests, Bassett once privately lamented over the continuance of a "troublesome" French class. Intermittently he introduced new courses such as a senior seminar in Contemporary History which emphasized class reports with special attention to Southern development. Another course, the History of North Carolina, offered students a chance "to learn methods of original research and to gain an impetus to historical writing and the collection of historical materials."

Extremely popular on campus and confident in his ability which was earning accolades in the region and nation, Bassett, nevertheless, had periodic misgivings about life at Trinity and in his native South. He believed his salary to be inadequate for growing family responsibilities and the teaching load constantly interfered with time for research and writing. He also became exasperated at the slow pace of change in the region. Seeking a wider audience than a single college campus, he successfully launched a journal of thought and action, The South Atlantic Quarterly, in 1902. An editorial in that journal and the resulting clamor for his dismissal from the college faculty by Democratic political leaders in the state, rudely altered the comfortable position he had attained at Trinity. In 1896, he had written Adams, "There are a lot of fools in N. C. and it takes some time to lick them into shape. . . . Trinity is about the only place in the state that is trying to do it [but]. . . as long as the fool-killing is to go on I want to be here to see the fun." Unfortunately, John Spencer Bassett became among the hunted.

This article is based in part on "John Spencer Bassett as a Historian of the South" by Wendell H. Stephenson, North Carolina Historical Review, July, 1948, and "The Negro in the Thinking and Writing of John Spencer Bassett" by Wendell H. Stephenson, North Carolina Historical Review, October, 1948.

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© William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.