World War II dramatically changed the American South, bringing industry and challenges to the racial and political climate known for low wages and non-union business practices. This reputation made it a prime target for organized labor. Much of the conventional wisdom on this topic points to racial tension as the main reason for the failure to unionize the South in the 20th century. However, Ken Fones-Wolf, professor of history at West Virginia University, is completing a project that examines the role that religion played in this failed crusade.
This May, while many students and teachers empty the halls of WVU and begin a much needed summer vacation, Fones-Wolf will turn his attention to completing the research and writing made possible by his receipt of the American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship.
The fellowship program is dedicated to furthering research in all disciplines of the humanities and related social sciences, and makes it possible for scholars like Fones-Wolf, to dedicate up to 12 months on research and writing. Of the 1,125 applicants for this fellowship, Fones-Wolf is one of only 65 who received the award.
“Scholarship in the Eberly College is of the highest caliber,” Dean Robert Jones said. “Ken Fones-Wolf’s work in this area is original and highly respected. The recognition is well-deserved.”
Fones-Wolf will be devoting his attention to research and writing from May of this year until August 2014, and will continue working with graduate students in the department. Though the fellowship is an individual award, he feels that in a way his success acknowledges the efforts of many others as well.
“The extra semester made possible by the fellowship will, I hope, also enable me to get a significant start on my next book project, which will look at the complex interaction of popular religious belief and working-class identity in the Appalachian region,” Fones-Wolf said. “This will involve research in the rich oral history collections at various Appalachian institutions.”
“I feel very fortunate to be awarded such a prestigious fellowship. However, as most scholars know, while awards are individual, scholarship is a collective enterprise,” he said. “I have had the benefit of a tremendous group of colleagues in my department and throughout the country who produce terrific scholarship on a regular basis.”
“The Struggle for the Soul of the Postwar South,” is Fones-Wolf’s current book project with his wife, Elizabeth, professor and chair of the Department of History, and the book is also the basis of his fellowship proposal. The book is an attempt to explain the inability of the labor movement to grow in the post-World War II South.
“We feel that to truly explain the success or failure of social movements in the 20th century South, it is imperative that we understand the centrality of the sacred in southerners’ grappling with issues of class and race,” Fones-Wolf said. “The religious culture of the South in the 1940s and 1950s was dynamic and contested by prophetic and evangelical forces.
“The results of that contest and the rise of modern evangelicalism not only worked against organized labor by making workers question their support for a collectivist campaign for workplace justice but also diminished the support that prophetic white Christians might have given to the emerging Civil Rights Movement.”
Ken Fones-Wolf received his doctorate in history from Temple University, and holds the Stuart and Joyce Robbins chair in history at WVU. He is the author of several publications, his most recent being the article “Religion, Human Relations, and Union Avoidance in the 1950s: The Electrical Industry’s Southern Strategy and Its Limits,” which was featured in Enterprise & Society.
For more information, contact Kenneth Fones-Wolf, at 304-293-9308 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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