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In many ways, the Dunning School reflected and gave a scholarly foundation to the white supremacist outlook that was a significant aspect of American society before World War II. The central contention of William Dunning, a southern-born historian who taught at Columbia University and his many students was that Reconstruction had been an unmitigated catastrophe because African-Americans were unfit for self-government. Hence Reconstruction was a tragedy for Southern whites, and ultimately for blacks.
While mainstream (i.e. white) scholars did not begin a full-scale assault on the Dunning thesis until after World War II, Woodson, through articles published in the Journal of Negro History (which he founded and edited); Lynch, in his book The Facts of Reconstruction; and especially W.E.B. Dubois's 1935 masterpiece Black Reconstruction marked the starting point for a revision of Dunning that predated almost any scholarship from white historians. Each of these historians emphasized the achievements of southern blacks during Reconstructions, and argued that the tragedy of the event was that white Southerners forcibly rolled back these advances as part of the process of reestablishing whte supremacy.
While these works were significant, especially inasmuch as they inspired a new generation of scholars led by John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp, and C. Vann Woodward to fully discredit the Dunningites, the degree to which they managed to permeate popular culture remains difficult to ascertain. Many Americans, influenced by such popular culture icons as in Gone With the Wind, still accept the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Additionally, the impetus for a full-scale scholarly revision of the Dunningites can be attributed as much to the ideological atmosphere of the civil rights movement as to the influence of these pioneers in African-American and Reconstruction historiography. Still, these scholars, especially DuBois, anticipated many of the critiques and the methodologies used in social history.
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