Paul Gaston, 82, has had an extraordinary life.
A professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia, Gaston was born into a cooperative colony in southern Alabama in 1928 and later became a civil rights activist. In his new memoir, “Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea,” Gaston writes about the way his early ideas about economic justice formed the foundation for his understanding of racial equality.
Gaston describes his childhood in Fairhope, Ala., as idyllic. A progressive school taught children for free, and members of the colony believed in cooperative ownership of the land. Gaston remembers time spent on the beach, playing basketball and working at a local bank. Yet when he returned to the town as an adult, he found the paradise he remembered had not blossomed as his father and grandfather had hoped it would.
“When I went down to Fairhope in 1978-79, thinking I would write a book, a big social history of Fairhope, I realized that the model community that my grandfather had founded and directed for 40 years or something and that my father had directed for some 30-odd years after him had vanished,” Gaston related in a phone interview last week. “That was painful but not surprising. I decided I would like to write a book about what particularly my grandfather had tried to do, and my father, and the sadness of its failure.”
Established by Northerners who wanted to prove poverty didn’t have to exist next to wealth, the colony was nonetheless restricted to whites. Gaston wrote that his relatives believed in racial equality but also believed a community that welcomed blacks in the early 1900s would face vehement opposition from its neighbors. Nevertheless, they thought that economic justice would lead to justice for Americans of every race. As Gaston served in the military in the Korean War and attended a couple of colleges, he defended the idea that black Americans should be treated the same as he was.
“Multiple injustices faced the America of our youth, but as Southerners we understood the greatest of these to be our region’s cruel, inhumane — and, we thought, un-American — treatment of its dark-skinned population,” he wrote. Ultimately, Gaston earned advanced degrees and decided the best course would be to teach students about the South.
“I wanted to teach Southern history in a Southern university, hold up the past as a kind of mirror to see what people had done, and fortunately my first job offer was at the University of Virginia,” he said.
At UVA, Gaston witnessed and encouraged the student movement of the 1960s. It started with the 1961 boycott of a nearby theater that didn’t allow black audience members and grew. In 1963, Gaston was beaten as part of a sit-in, but he remembers that the “direct action” led to the integration of nearly all of Charlottesville’s hotels and theaters soon after. As students who supported integration became a majority on campus in 1968, the university president made plans for recruiting black students and forming a new interdisciplinary black studies major. A dean asked Gaston to head the committee that would establish the major, and he taught UVA’s first black studies classes. Among his students was John Charles Thomas, the first African-American appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
“Racism, often in deliberately disguised forms, would continue, but people with standing in their communities, or desiring to have it, could no longer publicly defend slavery or excuse segregation,” Gaston wrote.
“Coming of Age in Utopia” is not Gaston’s only look at racism in the South or at the community where he grew up. He is best known as the author of 1970’s “The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking.” He also wrote a book about his grandfather, “Man and Mission: E. B. Gaston and the Origins of the Fairhope Single Tax Colony,” in 1993 and a look at three women in his hometown, “Women of Fair Hope,” in 1984.