Douglas Freeman and Virginius Dabney were modest men, serious thinkers and two of the best newspaper editors of their time. A retrospective on a pair of influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists.
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Courtesy of Richmond Times Dispatch
From left: Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, writer and editor Douglas Freeman, and Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Chief of Naval Operations, at Freeman's home in Richmond in 1946. (Richmond News Leader staff photo)
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Freeman, center, enjoying a light moment with Nimitz (Left) and Dwight Eisenhower in 1946.
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Virginius Dabney, editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, at his desk in May 1942. (T-D staff photo)
When Virginius Dabney was a cub reporter at the Richmond News Leader in 1922, he misquoted a state official about a failed bank, implying the bank’s president was a crook. When the misquote was published, both the official and the bank president were livid, and Dabney figured he’d be fired. But the newspaper’s editor, Douglas Southall Freeman, reached down through management and encouraged Dabney to keep his spirits up. As it turned out, there had been chicanery at the bank, and Dabney survived the storm to become a distinguished newspaperman just like the older man who had counseled him.
The story reveals something of both journalists, 15 years apart in age: Dabney braced himself against invective, and Freeman understood that character required development.
A decade apart in the middle of the last century, both Dabney and Freeman won Pulitzer Prizes. Dabney, by then at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, won for general editorial writing in 1948; Freeman won posthumously in 1958 for his multi-volume biography of George Washington. Freeman actually had already won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1935, for his four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, a work that catapulted him into the first rank of American historians and rendered him a sage to be consulted by world leaders. His second Pulitzer, awarded in the biography category, bore an oddity beyond its posthumous nature: The work’s seventh and final volume had been completed by two associates, John Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth.
Dabney and Freeman had certain things in common besides the fact that both were Richmond-based newspaper editors. For one thing, neither man was overtly ambitious or ostentatious. They didn’t pursue awards and accolades and did not flaunt them afterwards. If asked for a reaction to their Pulitzers, both would surely have answered that their pleasure was in their work and pride in a job done well.
Both Dabney and Freeman were stars of Richmond’s—and, it can be said, Virginia’s and even the nation’s—journalistic firmament at a time when editorials and the written word bore more civic and national weight than they do today. Freeman, born in 1886, was editor of the afternoon News Leader from 1915 to 1949, long before the dawn of television evening news. In those days, people finished their dinner and read the evening newspaper, including the informed opinions of the editors. Dabney, born in 1901, was of a younger generation. He was editor of the rival morning Times-Dispatch from 1936 to 1969. Those were tumultuous years for Virginia and the world.
By all accounts, although both worked in the 4th Street building the News Leader and Times-Dispatch had shared since their 1908 merger, the two men were not close and did not mix socially. Nor were they competitors. Rather, each tended to his own business of delving deeply into personalities and issues of the day—and then writing about his discoveries. Both men opined not only on the affairs of their city and state but also on the big issues of the day—global affairs, world wars, and economic and social matters. Their intelligence and wisdom won admiration far beyond the readership of their two newspapers. They were consulted by the likes of Winston Churchill, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. If there were a Monument Avenue to writers and editors in central Virginia, these two would be among its honorees.
Freeman was best known for two things during his distinguished career. The first was his incredible—and incredibly regimented—work ethic. The second was a personal habit: Day after day, decade after decade, as he drove to work through the pre-sunrise Richmond mornings, he saluted the statue of Robert E. Lee as he passed in his car. “These are absolutely true,” says David E. Johnson, author of the 2002 biography Douglas Southall Freeman. “They encapsulate the man, and in some respects reflect the era in which Freeman lived. Confederate veterans then walked the streets of Richmond; Freeman knew people who knew Robert E. Lee.”
Freeman’s father, Walter Garland Freeman, was a wounded Confederate veteran. Twice shot at the Battle of Seven Pines, he later defended Petersburg from the day Grant’s assault began and fought with the Army of Virginia all the way to Appomattox.
Born to this man in Lynchburg, Douglas Freeman as a small fry ran frightened past the house of Jubal Early because he had been told the old Confederate general ate boys for breakfast. Later, his father moved the family to Richmond. In 1892, when Freeman was 4, his father took him to witness Jefferson Davis’ reinterment in Hollywood Cemetery, the Valhalla of Confederate heroes.
When Freeman was 17, in 1903, his father took him to Petersburg, where Southern veterans were to re-enact the Battle of the Crater. Young Freeman stood with his father and 20,000 spectators as he watched his father’s comrades form ranks and restage their old fight against the invading Yankees. Later, at the hotel, Freeman saw these men up close—bent with age, some crippled, graying, but proud enough to gather again as in the old days. On that day, according to Johnson’s biography, Freeman’s future crystallized. He vowed to himself, “If someone doesn’t write the story of these men, it will be lost forever. I’m going to do it.”
Freeman was even then a determined and disciplined person. Although his father had built a business out of the ruin of his family following the Civil War, he could not quite manage to send his son to the University of Virginia; instead, young Freeman enrolled in Richmond College (now the University of Richmond). He performed exceptionally and entered Johns Hopkins as a history graduate student at age 18. He completed his thesis on the secession of Virginia, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was awarded his Ph.D. in history in 1908. He was 22.
Freeman taught for a while, and then, having done some work at the Virginia State Library on taxation issues, was recommended to Times-Dispatch publisher John Stewart Bryan. The paper needed someone who could write articles on tax reform, and thus Freeman became a newspaperman. A few years later, in 1914, Bryan sold his interest in the Times-Dispatch and focused his attention on publishing the News Leader. Freeman had formed a friendship with Bryan and followed him there. In the next year, Bryan named Freeman editor of the News Leader. This was also the time when Freeman completed editing Lee’s Dispatches, a volume of the letters from Lee to Jefferson Davis. The book was heavily footnoted and was well received. Charles Scribner’s Sons soon wrote asking if Freeman would write a biography of Robert E. Lee.
It was meant to be a one-volume work, but Freeman was an exceedingly thorough historian, and the book became an exhaustive, multi-volume work. Freeman had the good fortune of working with Max Perkins, who within a few years would become a legendary editor himself.
Biographer David Johnson, who works in Richmond as deputy attorney general, says that when Freeman began organizing his book on Robert E. Lee, he “realized there were lots of Lee papers, including ones at West Point and Washington & Lee, that previous biographers had largely or entirely ignored, and that there were letters throughout the South written by Lee but closely guarded by the families who possessed them. Freeman felt he had to get every scrap before he wrote.” In those days, before copy machines and PDF files, research involved visiting the original documents, or having them loaned to a nearby historical society where you could examine them. This Freeman did, garnering more Lee papers than anyone ever had before.
These were the years when Freeman’s legendary schedule took form. Married now to the former Inez Goddin, Freeman rose well before dawn, cooked his breakfast and drove to the office, giving himself 17 minutes to do so. Another four minutes were allotted to parking the car and walking to his desk. He read the morning’s news and dispatches. At precisely 7:58 a.m., he left his office, allowing two minutes to walk to the WRNL radio studio, to orate the first of his daily radio broadcasts. He allowed himself two minutes for the walk back. The day continued in like manner, through a second radio broadcast at noon. Newspaper work done for the day (it went to press in the early afternoon), he drove home for lunch with Inez and some unstructured time. By 2:30 he was at work on Robert E. Lee (or later books), stopping at 6:30. Then dinner and to bed by 8:45. He kept to this routine for decades.
Freeman’s output—both newspaper commentary and radio broadcasts—was prodigious. He was not a crusading commentator but one who wrote reasoned, detailed editorials about current events. He was a fastidious editor, scolding a writer for the phrase “1940 census” by positing that a noun should not be used as an adjective. Another time, when challenged by a reporter, he retorted, “Sometimes the dictionary is wrong.” He even formulated four Rules to Live By, and the first was “Self Control.” But he had a light-hearted side as well, says Johnson. At meetings of the Current Events Class, a group of Richmonders to whom he gave lectures, there was much merriment and good cheer.
The four-volume Robert E. Lee was published in 1934 and 1935. It not only enshrined Lee, but it also enshrined Freeman in a way, too. He was hailed in national publications as the country’s best historian of the Confederacy and a military historian of the first rank. On the day he was appointed Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff, in 1940, George C. Marshall wrote to Freeman and asked if he would escort him through Civil War battlefields. That same year, Eugene Meyer offered Freeman the editorship of the Washington Post, but Freeman turned him down, saying his life was in Richmond.
Having succeeded so well with Lee and having accumulated so much research on the Army of Northern Virginia, Freeman then undertook the two-volume Lee’s Lieutenants, published between 1942 and 1944. That finished, he was urged to write a biography of George Washington. Johnson surmises that here Freeman was a bit out of his element—the Civil War in Virginia. Nevertheless, he plunged into the effort with his customary thoroughness and energy. Freeman completed six volumes by 1953, the year of his death.
Of his work on Lee, Freeman once remarked, “A man ought not to go over a field and leave something else for the next man who comes along to do. When you do a thing, do it thoroughly … so that not a new word can be said.”
Somewhat like Freeman, Virginius Dabney was a scholarly young man who stumbled into newspaper work. He was teaching at Alexandria’s Episcopal High School in 1922, after graduating from the University of Virginia, when his father, a history and economics professor at UVA, suggested he try working in Richmond as a reporter. Dabney tried it, liked it and stayed with newspapers for the next 50-odd years.
Dabney came from a long line of Virginians. Both his mother and father were children of Confederate officers. He could trace ancestry to the 1840s chairman of the UVA faculty; in Dabney’s home were chairs auctioned from Monticello after Jefferson’s death (James Monroe had bought them for Jefferson from the Tuileries palace in Paris).
Dabney grew up in the Preston Heights neighborhood of Charlottesville in academic comfort. During summers as a young boy he enjoyed the rural pleasures of a relation’s farm near Lynchburg. Dabney’s father and maiden aunt tutored him at home, with German and Greek as part of the curriculum. Dabney’s mother, Lily Heth Davis, was a force of nature. She was a voracious reader, a vivacious entertainer, a promoter of good causes and a fixture in the Charlottesville literary circle. On her 95th birthday, she was feted by Dumas Malone, the noted biographer of Jefferson.
In 1914, at age 13, Dabney began three years at Episcopal High School. In 1917, he enrolled at UVA, graduating four years later with a master’s degree. He admits in his 1978 autobiography, Across the Years, that his was a rather normal college career, and that when he emerged his views were rather “parochial.” Then it was on to teaching for a year, followed by the shock of newspaper reporting.
Dabney, in his autobiography, wrote that his first six months at the News Leader were revelatory. “I learned more about the world around me … than I did at any other similar period of my life.” He was sent to police courts, higher courts, city hall, the state Capitol, churches and more.
In 1922, Dabney moved to the Times-Dispatch for more money and better assignments. By this time, he had been asked to make contributions to other periodicals, including The Evening Sun in Baltimore. He came to the attention of H. L. Mencken, whom he met and by whom he was influenced. Mencken’s viewpoints, together with a sensitivity to social injustices he had developed while a cub reporter, turned Dabney into a writer who pressed to see wrongs righted. He began calling for greater rights for African Americans; he championed trade unions against harsh treatment by factory owners; and he defended the Scottsboro Boys against charges of rape. He urged an end to the poll tax and a shorter workweek for women—not the 10-hour day, 60-hour week contemplated by the legislature. He supported Democratic, and Catholic, candidate Al Smith for the presidency in 1928.
In 1934, after six months of grant-financed study in Germany, Dabney was placed in charge of the editorial page of the Times-Dispatch, in which capacity he would write editorials and be more or less divorced from the news-gathering operation. It was an arrangement Dabney greatly preferred, and he took to writing editorials with gusto.
Maurice Duke, a retired VCU professor who worked at the Times-Dispatch early in his own career, remembers Dabney as “very exacting, very careful about detail. He had tremendous integrity, and he would not be intimidated. And he was sort of a 19th-century Virginia gentleman; his word was his bond.”
Earle Dunford, the city editor at the Times-Dispatch for almost 20 years, wrote in his book Richmond Times-Dispatch: The Story of a Newspaper, “Dabney was one of the three great liberal editors of the South, along with Ralph McGill in Atlanta and Jonathan Daniels in Raleigh.” Dabney, in fact, was writing about liberalism. He penned Liberalism in the South, published in 1932, tracing liberal movements in the Southern states since the American Revolution.
Dabney’s editorials crackled and flared. In 1938, upon hearing of the Munich Pact, he began an editorial, “The year 1938 will mark the beginning of the end of the British Empire, the decline of France as a world power, and the rise of a German Empire far mightier than that of Charlemagne. … Hitler stands on the threshold of greater triumphs.” A thorough foe of Nazism, Dabney did not believe the Munich Pact would prevent a war, only delay it, and that it would strengthen isolationism in America. He was right on both counts. Dabney endorsed Roosevelt four times for president and criticized the Byrd organization when it attacked the New Deal.
In 1948, the Times-Dispatch angered the Virginia House of Delegates over various measures but in particular a bill by which Virginia Democratic electors would not be bound to winning candidates in presidential elections. Then under the sway of Harry F. Byrd, the House passed a bill calling for the investigation of the newspaper. Dabney responded with an editorial that read, in part, “No threats from any section of the State, or from any branch of the General Assembly, nor yet from the Democratic machine, will influence [our newspaper’s] course. … The Times-Dispatch will not be intimidated.”
The editorial won a top prize from the Society of Professional Journalists. It was in this year that Columbia University awarded the Pulitzer Prize to Dabney for general editorial work completed in 1947. Dunford recalls that Dabney never flaunted the prize, but it must have been some succor in the troubled years just ahead. The Byrd organization launched “massive resistance” as a means of defying the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, one tactic being the denial of public funds to any public school in the state that desegregated. Dabney was opposed to the massive resistance scheme, but the paper’s owners were not. Dabney considered leaving for another job, but remained instead at the Times-Dispatch and refrained from severe attacks on massive resistance, rationalizing that the publisher has the last word on a newspaper’s policy. Within a couple of years, Virginia’s massive resistance laws were overturned and the segregation of public schools ended. Dabney could breathe easier and speak his mind more freely.
But in some respects liberalism was passing him by. Dunford’s book quotes him as recalling, “I think that later on I believed more or less the same things that I believed in the ’30s, but they were not liberal any more.” In race relations he called for gradualism; he endorsed Eisenhower twice, then Nixon against Kennedy, though he later warmed to JFK’s presidency.
Dabney retired from editorial writing in 1969. He helped to found and run Virginia Commonwealth University. He wrote books on Virginia and Richmond history, in all enjoying a productive retirement until his death, at age 94, in 1995. He was revered, and his opinion trusted. The Norfolk Ledger-Star referred to him as “Mr. Virginia.”
So perhaps here is what Douglas Southall Freeman and Virginius Dabney, the two Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/editors of 20th-century Virginia, really had in common: an indelible love of Virginia’s heritage, and a sense that the honor of this heritage requires commitment to the community, analysis unfettered by prejudices of the past, and fierce adherence to truth wherever it leads. Those values certainly constitute a large part of their formidable legacies.