Part 1: Bettersworth & Summersell–A look at two neighboring historians

“Bettersworth & Summersell.” It has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Sounds like an old line Montgomery law firm. Or Meridian or Tupelo, perhaps. Folks you would call upon to draw a deed, or to make your will. People of wisdom, of experience. Old-school professionals whom you would trust to handle your affairs.

John K. Bettersworth and Charles G. Summersell indeed were wise men of extraordinary learning and talent. They were never, however, law partners, or even lawyers at all. Indeed, although I assume they were at least acquaintances (they were contemporaries, and may have been fast friends, for all I know), they were not collaborators in their respective contributions to Mississippi and Alabama schoolchildren.

Bettersworth wore Mississippi State maroon; Summersell wore Alabama crimson. Professional historians both, the former rose to the vice presidency of Mississippi State University, and the latter served on the University of Alabama history faculty for 43 years, 16 as department chair.

Summersell was born in 1908; Bettersworth but a year later, in 1909. (For reference, my daddy was born in 1910). All are now dead. I never personally met Bettersworth, though I had the high privilege of taking classes from Summersell during my undergraduate tenure at the Capstone (1972-76.)

I remember Dr. Summersell best from the ridiculously challenging undergraduate examinations he administered, and from the remarkably generous manner in which he graded those exams. His essay tests were deviously designed to cause the student to examine and explore any number of plausible alternative answers; yet, once graded, it appeared that no one solution was particularly preferred over another, so long as one’s ultimate answers legitimately were supported by the course material.

Between the two of them, a full generation or more of these two states’ young people were exposed to the vital and violent history of their shared Deep South homeland.

Dr. Summersell’s purpose, I came to appreciate, was to force the student to think, to work it out, to delve into various alternative hypotheses, and to choose and defend one (of many) explanations available. This was, I think, the essence of his understanding of the discipline of history. As it turned out, the intellectual obstacle course posed by Summersell’s history exams proved excellent preparation for Vanderbilt Law School, where I matriculated after earning a history degree at Bama. (Summersell proudly sported a Vandy graduate degree also, along with his two UA diplomas.)

I had “met” Bettersworth much earlier in my life. Bettersworth authored Mississippi, Yesterday and Today, which, during my childhood, was the standard public school history text for Mississippi children. Summersell, of course, was the creator of the Alabama counterpart: Alabama History for Schools. Between the two of them, a full generation or more of these two states’ young people were exposed to the vital and violent history of their shared Deep South homeland.

Napoleon Bonaparte, probably the foremost figure of the 19th Century, once cynically observed: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Sir Winston Churchill, arguably with Hitler the central figure of 20th-Century history, similarly said that “History is written by the victors.” Why, then, do many people today regard the study of history as an essentially irrelevant memorization of static facts and figures, dates and disasters, wars and woes?

Come back tomorrow for “Part 2: Bettersworth & Summersell–A look at two neighboring historians.”

Written by: Greg S.