Dewey W. Grantham, distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University and prominent scholar of the twentieth-century South, was born in rural Georgia in 1921. After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1943, he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Coast Guard during World War II. Upon completing his military service, Grantham, with the help of the G.I. Bill, earned his doctorate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1949. In 1952, he began teaching at Vanderbilt University, where he made substantial contributions throughout his career to the university, its graduate history program, and the historiography of the modern South. After thirty-nine years mentoring numerous undergraduate and graduate students, Grantham retired in 1991 but remained active in the field for the remainder of the decade.
A former president of the Southern Historical Association, Grantham received several honors throughout his career. His biography of Hoke Smith won the 1960 Charles S. Sydnor Award from the Southern Historical Association, which recognizes distinguished books in southern history. Because of his accomplishments at Vanderbilt, Grantham received the Harvie Branscomb Distinguished Professor Award in 1971, an award established in 1963 to honor retiring Chancellor Harvie Branscomb. In 1977, Grantham was named the Holland N. McTyeire Professor of History, an honor created in recognition of Methodist Bishop Holland N. McTyeire, the university’s first executive. During his career, Grantham served as visiting professor at the Coe Institute, State University of New York at Stony Brook, and as a Fulbright-Hays Lecturer, University of Aix-en-Provence. He also held various fellowships from several organizations including the National Humanities Center and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
Grantham authored numerous books and articles about twentieth-century southern history and politics. In particular, four themes underlined his scholarship and persisted throughout his career. He stressed the continuity of southern distinctiveness and the significance of sectionalism in national politics. He also highlighted the convergence in the thinking of southerners and non-southerners in modern times and the intermingling of southernism, racism, and the national behavior concerning the region’s treatment of the black segment of American society. After his first book, Hoke Smith and the Politics of the New South (1958), Grantham emerged as a notable southern historian. His subsequent works further shaped the historiography of the modern South, including The Regional Imagination: The South and Recent American History (1979), Southern Progressivism: The Reconciliation of Progress and Tradition (1984), The Life and Death of the Solid South: A Political History (1988), and The South in Modern America: A Region at Odds (1994). Along with a number of other articles, Grantham wrote “Tennessee and Twentieth-Century American Politics,” an article published for the Tennessee Historical Quarterly’s Bicentennial Series in 1996 that stressed Tennessee’s importance in national politics. Grantham argued that the lasting effects of the Civil War caused Tennessee politics to evolve differently from the solid South. According to Grantham, the modern division between Republican East Tennessee and the Democratic remainder of the state originated during the Civil War when the state separated between Unionist East Tennessee and Confederate Middle and West Tennessee. Despite a Republican minority, however, Tennessee led the Republican resurgence of the 1960s and 1970s.
Aside from academia, Grantham found time to enjoy golf and belonged to the Shakespeare Club, an organization composed of faculty, post-graduates, and Nashville alumnae. An active member of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Nashville, Grantham served his community well. In 2001, he donated his entire personal library of approximately four thousand books to the newly opened downtown branch of the Nashville Public Library. The Dewey W. Grantham Collection consists of both secondary historical works and various primary documents spanning fifty years of historical scholarship on post-Civil War America and the American South. The library hosted a reception on January 27, 2002, to honor Dr. Grantham’s generosity and achievements. A historian, philanthropist, and community leader, Grantham died on August 26, 2004.