Gaston’s history: Idealism spurred civil rights activist

UVA history professor emeritus Paul Gaston both taught and made Southern history.
Laura Branton UVA history professor emeritus Paul Gaston both taught and made Southern history. Laura Branton

When Paul Gaston came to the University of Virginia in 1957, it was overwhelmingly white and male, and segregation was the order of the day. And that’s why the young history professor and early civil rights activist chose it for his life’s work.

He brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Old Cabell Hall in 1963, just weeks before King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. That same year, Gaston became UVA’s only professor to get punched and arrested during a sit-in at the staunchly segregated Buddy’s restaurant on Emmet Street.

Professor emeritus Paul Gaston died June 14 at age 91.

Daughter Chinta Gaston remembers her brother Blaise teasing her that “Daddy is in jail.”

She also recalls, “My dad was kicked out of Fry’s Spring [Beach Club] after Buddy’s.” A number of people threatened to leave the club in protest of his ouster, she says, “but Father decided it was wrong to belong to a segregated place. My recollection is we didn’t go back.”

As a white boy growing up in Jim Crow Alabama, Gaston might have seemed an unlikely leader of the civil rights charge. But he was raised in the utopian community of Fairhope, founded by his grandfather, an experience he wrote about in a 2009 memoir.  “I grew up in a community where equal rights and justice were grounding moral principles,” he once told this reporter.

Gaston’s Deep South roots also struck civil rights legend Eugene Williams, who was head of the local NAACP in the 1950s and met Gaston and his wife Mary at a meeting, where they became regulars. Williams says he was “very impressed” when he heard Gaston was at the Buddy’s sit-in.

“I am speaking of a white man, Paul Gaston, born in Alabama, professor at the University of Virginia, and a sure face at civil rights meetings,” says Williams, who also remembers Gaston’s charm during those days of segregation. “And at the end of meetings he would mingle with the attendees.”

Paul Gaston in 2009 at the site of the former Buddy’s, where he was punched and arrested at a sit-in. File photo Hawes Spencer

The ‘60s were cathartic for Gaston. “Life in the 1960s was the most rewarding era I’ve known,” he said in 2005. “I found a community of students who wanted to shake things up. We marched together, we had sit-ins, we had boycotts. I was their leader—I was 30.”

Gaston was offered jobs up north, but chose to stay at UVA, says his youngest son Gareth. “He wanted to teach white Southerners.” Gareth admires the way his father “combined scholarship and activism.”

Gaston taught the South’s history, and wrote The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking in 1970. The book was republished in 2002 and his former student, Robert J. Norrell, wrote in the introduction that it had “stood the test of time as a historical interpretation.”

He helped establish the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies in 1981. And he is credited with wooing civil rights leader Julian Bond to UVA’s faculty.

In the 1980s, he went to South Africa, met Desmond Tutu, and taught a class at the University of Cape Town, says Gareth.

University of Richmond president emeritus Ed Ayers, former UVA dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, recalls that Gaston was a “legend” when Ayers arrived at UVA in 1980.

“I think Paul will be remembered for both writing and making Southern history,” he says.

Chinta notes her father’s optimism and idealism in his belief that he could dispel racism by talking truth. “He was not successful,” she says. Yet he continued to believe “there was a new dawn that would make these poor benighted white people understand.”

He had a great faith in people, says Chinta. He was “endlessly interested in his children and he was nonjudgmental.”

Mary Gaston died in 2013. Gaston is survived by his three children and two granddaughters. A memorial is planned for the fall.