(b 8 February 1901 in University [now part of Charlottesville], Virginia; d.28 December 1995 in Richmond, Virginia), newspaperman, historian, and author.
Dabney was the only son and second of three children of Richard Heath Dabney, a historian who for forty-nine years was on the faculty at the University of Virginia, and Lily Heath Davis, a homemaker. Virginius was named for his grandfather, the first male in the family to be named after his native state. He attended the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, graduating at age sixteen, then completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia in 1920. He earned a master’s degree there the following year. He taught French at Episcopal High School for a year, then began his newspaper career as a cub reporter at the Richmond News-Leader in 1922. He soon began specializing in stories on state politics. During his six years with the News-Leader, he regularly contributed pieces on southern regional topics to the New York Times and such national periodicals as the Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review of Literature, New Republic, The Nation, and Harper’s. A vigorous man, standing just over six feet, two inches and weighing 200 pounds, his hobbies were walking and tennis; he called the latter a “most contributing factor in my writing.”
On 10 October 1923 Dabney married Douglas Harrison Chelf; they had three children. In 1928 Dabney moved to the Richmond Times-Dispatch as an editorial writer, rising to chief editorial writer in 1934 and to editor in 1936. For thirty-three years he had full responsibility for the editorial page. He was also a lecturer at Princeton University in 1940 and at Cambridge University in England in 1954. Dabney was an early supporter of the New Deal but later came to view much of it as “specious and wasteful.” Nevertheless, Dabney and the Richmond Times-Dispatch endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency four times, albeit with “diminishing enthusiasm each time.”
Early on, Dabney himself took moderately progressive positions on national issues as they affected the South, as in his first two books, Liberalism in the South (1932) and Below the Potomac (1942), a distillation of his Princeton lectures. Dabney argued in 1936 that the political views of most southerners were too much influenced by racial prejudice. Too often, he said, the southern viewpoint was “shaped … on the basis of attitudes inherited from our grandfathers.” This would have to change, he said, lest the region fall permanently behind other parts of the country. In 1937 he gave his support to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)-sponsored anti-lynching legislation in Congress, and he continued to press this issue until its final enactment many years later. He consistently urged that reforms be made in the South’s racial policies, notably repeal of the poll tax and the desegregation of public transportation. During World War II he urged the defense industry to employ blacks and pay them the same salaries as white workers. In the 1950s he opposed closing the public schools when the state’s Democratic Party leadership advocated massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision. In 1938 he urged the Roosevelt administration to provide healthcare for the poor. He also frequently took issue with conservative positions taken by his state’s influential senator, Harry Flood Byrd, not only on matters affecting race, but also on a variety of other social and political questions. Dabney spoke out on many domestic and foreign issues, including shorter working hours for women, farm tenancy reform in the South, and Hitler’s rise in Germany.
During his thirty-five year tenure as editorial director at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dabney took a principled stand on a wide range of issues. He was frequently critical of the American presidents who served from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson and was not afraid to condemn a leader’s position on an issue or question his integrity. He considered Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin “a disgrace to American civilization,” and he also thought that the Senator’s importance had been blown out of proportion. Dabney objected to the close association of John and Robert Kennedy to McCarthy, and did not understand the adulation given to these men by the American public. He did not trust Johnson, believing him too prone to reverse himself on major issues.
The issue of race was a challenging one for Dabney during his editorship. He felt strongly that the white and black races should “strive to maintain their racial identities and cultural heritages.” He contended that immediate enforcement of the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation decision would be “premature, unwise, and productive of much trouble.” Fearing white Virginians’ immoderate resistance to interracial contests for political office and other shows of equality, he editorially proposed “slow but certain” steps that could be taken in race relations. In general, however, most of Virginia’s political leaders showed little inclination to follow his lead. Dabney urged that Virginia school districts be allowed local option in the matter of school desegregation, but from 1954 to 1959, the state’s senior senator, Harry F. Byrd, pressed instead for a policy of “massive resistance.” Inasmuch as both the owner and then editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch supported Byrd, Dabney did not attack the prevailing view, though he later wrote that he would have “liked to do so.”
In 1948 Dabney was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing. He retired from full-time newspaper work in 1969. Of Dabney’s fifteen books, several focused on the history of his state, including Virginia: The New Dominion (1971); Richmond: The Story of a City (1976); and Mr. Jefferson’s University (1981), a history of his alma mater. His autobiography, Across the Years, appeared in 1978. Dabney’s health declined in later years and he died at age ninety-four of natural causes. He is buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
A number of Dabney’s typed and handwritten manuscript articles, papers, correspondences, and other materials are in the Virginius Dabney Papers, Special Collections Department, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. This same repository holds additional Dabney materials in the papers of Harry Flood Byrd Sr., Sarah-Patton Boyle, and Frederick Nolting Jr. Dabney’s autobiography, Across The Years: Memories of a Virginian (1978), is a valuable resource, providing many useful details. An obituary is in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (29 Dec. 1995).
Keir B. Sterling