Challenging Historical Notions

Diane Sommerville, associate professor of history and director of women’s studies at the College at Florham, loves a challenge — whether it is enlightening her students through insightful class discussions or, in the case of her book, Rape and Race in the Nineteenth Century South, changing preconceived notions about the so-called “Southern rape complex.”

Sommerville was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when the prevalence of the “black-beast-rapist” theme in 20th-century Southern fiction piqued her curiosity. “I was intrigued by the utter irrationality of white fears of black men raping white women, so I set out to explore its historical origins,” she says. To do her research, she went to Richmond, Va., and Raleigh, N.C.

The wealth of information Sommerville found served as the basis for her dissertation, “The Rape Myth Reconsidered: The Intersection of Race, Class and Gender in the American South, 1800–1877.” It has long been assumed that a universal dread and fear of the black rapist existed among white Southerners. By examining actual cases of black-on-white rape throughout the 19th century, Sommerville challenged widely assumed beliefs about race and sexuality in the South. She writes, “… court records and other legal documents showed that accused black rapists frequently avoided the fates of execution and castration due to pockets of support offered by members of the white community. The leniency at times accorded convicted black rapists belies claims that antebellum white Southerners were beset by anxiety about black rape.”

“My dissertation committee … felt that the implications of my research were so important … that it had to be published.”

Sommerville’s research also showed that there was a greater tolerance than previously thought among whites for intimacy between black males and white females. “My dissertation committee at Rutgers University felt that the implications of my research were so important to many fields [Southern history, history of women, history of sexuality and African-American history] that it had to be published,” she explains. She landed an advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press, the premier press for Southern history, particularly Southern women’s history. The book, published in November 2004, has been described by one scholar as a “controversial and beautifully researched work that should have a large impact on the writing of Southern history.”

Rape and Race is Sommerville’s first book, but she has written a number of essays and articles on race and sex in the South. Her recent article, “Moonlight, Magnolias and Brigadoon,” is a criticism of historian Eugene Genovese’s book Roll, Jordan, Roll, which, she contends is incredibly indifferent to the sexual exploitation of female slaves.

The topics of race and sex may be a common thread among Sommerville’s writings, but the range of courses she teaches — Women’s History, Civil War and Reconstruction, 20th-century United States and Introduction to Women’s Studies — highlights her versatility and diverse interests. She is currently exploring how white Southerners responded to defeat, loss and depression following the Civil War. Her findings suggest that men were more likely to take their lives when they experienced economic failure, while women were driven to suicide because of a personal loss such as the death of a husband or a child. “I’m captivated by it all,” she enthuses.

Sommerville describes her style of teaching as a cross between Billy Graham and Madonna.
“I try to
convey my
love of history and my passion for the
topics being discussed.”

Sommerville describes her style of teaching as a cross between Billy Graham and Madonna. “I try to convey my love of history and my passion for the topics being discussed,” she explains.

History may be Sommerville’s vocation, but it is her family who gives her the greatest fulfillment. “As proud as I am of writing the book, it pales in comparison to the joy and pride I take in my children’s lives. They are the greatest gift imaginable.” Outside the University, she enjoys spending time with her husband, Don, a corporate executive and an FDU alumnus (MBA’92 [M]); daughter, Shannon, 19, a freshman at the University of Georgia; and son, Jackson, 12. She also runs, works out and grooms her dogs, Lexie and Scout.

No matter how busy she gets, Sommerville makes sure to keep her priorities in order. “Life is packed with demands and obligations. It’s important to remind yourself of the things that really matter.”

— M.M.B.

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