Paul Gaston at New Dominion Bookshop December 3

Coming to New Dominion Bookshop:

Paul M. Gaston will present selections from his memoir

Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea

on Thursday, December 3 at 5:30 PM

In this exquisitely wrought memoir of a committed life, historian and civil rights activist Paul Gaston reveals his deep roots in the unique utopian community founded in 1894 by his grandfather and later led by his father.

The Fairhope colony was the creation of Ernest B. Gaston, an Iowa journalist, Populist, and communitarian reformer. Appalled by Gilded Age America, he planned a model community on the shores of Mobile Bay, Alabama. Fairhope grew into a unique political, economic, and educational experiment; a center of radical economic and educational ideals and institutions; a home to vibrant idealism and creative arts; and a haven for reformers, writers, and other visitors.

As time passed, however, Fairhope’s radical nature went into decline. Once a community where people came to solve social problems, it became a resort where they came to escape them. By the early 1950s it was clear that great changes were coming to the South, and the author began to look outward for ways to take part in the coming struggle—the civil rights movement.

Gaston’s career at the University of Virginia, where he taught from 1957–97, forms the core of Coming of Age in Utopia. For a young man looking to enter the struggle against racial injustice, Virginia was an ideal place. Virginia offered most of the white supremacy myths, values, and institutions of the Deep South but less of its violence and retribution. Beyond Virginia, his long years as an officer in the Southern Regional Council and his several visits to South Africa provided widening vistas for understanding how social change both comes about and is thwarted.

The story Gaston tells of social change both in the city of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia is one in which he played significant roles. It illustrates a truism about struggles for justice: when privilege is deeply ingrained in the social order, change must come from below. For Charlottesville, the first turn away from the closed society of segregation came in the wake of 1963 sit-ins. Violence, arrests, and a dramatic trial led previously resistant theaters, motels, restaurants, and other public facilities to open their doors to blacks. For the University, the resistance to recruitment of black students and faculty; the refusal to inaugurate a black studies program; the ongoing whiteness of athletic teams—these and other remnants of a white supremacy culture endured until a student movement, begun in 1961 and inspired by the larger Southern civil rights movement, broke the log jam of resistance eight years later and opened the way to the beginning of racial justice.

A master story teller with a compelling personal life and unique involvement in the events he describes, Gaston weaves these and other stories of struggles for social justice into a forceful narrative enriched with provocative interpretation.

About the Author

Paul Gaston, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia, was born and reared in Fairhope, Alabama, about which he has written two books. He is also the author of The New South Creed, winner of the Lillian Smith Award for distinguished writing about the South. He served for twenty-five years on the executive committee of the Southern Regional Council and has been a frequent visitor in South Africa, both before and after the fall of apartheid. He has received numerous awards and honors for both his professional work and civil rights leadership, including the outstanding professor award from the Commonwealth of Virginia; bridge builder recognition from the city of Charlottesville; legendary civil rights activist from the NAACP; and community leader, from his alma mater, Swarthmore College. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife of fifty-seven years, Mary Wilkinson Gaston.


“This deeply moving memoir and absorbing social history takes Paul Gaston from an upbringing in a model utopian community in Alabama to a forty-year career as a model scholar-activist for several generations of students at the University of Virginia, marked throughout by his radical commitment to racial and economic equality and his lifelong hope in the possibility of a more humane South.”

—Matt Lassiter, Professor of History, University of Michigan.

“Contrasting places—populist Fairhope, Alabama, the utopian community turned reactionary resort, and the segregated University of Virginia become multiracial—ground Paul Gaston’s beautifully told life as an agent of change. This southern story needed to be told and now needs to be read, to remind us that positive change does not come easy. It only happens when courageous people like Paul Gaston take action, and in this case, action grew out of an inspiring community.”

—Nell Painter, Edwards Professor of History Emerita, Princeton University, former president, Southern Historical Association, Organization of American Historians.

“What a fascinating life journey it’s been for Paul Gaston—and how lucky we are that he has shared it with us in his new book. This distinguished University of Virginia professor was a lion of the civil rights movement, and his contributions remind everyone that a single person’s deep commitment can make a giant difference.”

—Larry Sabato, political commentator, director, University of Virginia Center on Politics.

“Paul Gaston’s Coming of Age in Utopia is both a compelling personal memoir and an important document of the American South during the transformative years of the civil rights era. With characteristic candor and wit, Mr. Gaston tells the story of growing up in an idealistic community in Alabama and later confronting tough challenges and harsh realities on the front lines of the desegregation battle. For nearly a half-century, Mr. Gaston has written wisely and convincingly about the American South and the civil rights struggle that transpired there. This new book will be worthwhile reading for anyone who cares about our shared past and future prospects as American citizens.”

—John T. Casteen, President, University of Virginia.

“Paul Gaston has given us two great gifts: a life well lived and a story powerfully told. Gaston has been a witness to, and a maker of, profound and humane Southern change. An enduring love of the South shines through in every act and in every sentence.”

— Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond.

“The arch of his personal story moves from an unlikely experiment in utopian living, to an enduring marriage, through a distinguished career in the academic world—one that energized his engagement with the civil rights movement. Author and professor Paul Gaston is one of those most fortunate among us who has lived a wonderfully fulfilling life of quality and purpose. These pages inspire service, loyalty, education, dissent, and, most of all, the justice that inevitably follows.”

— Suzanne Hudson, novelist, Fairhope, Alabama.

“I read this touching, beautifully crafted book cover to cover, in one sitting, swept along by its honesty and immediacy, its ability to conjure up a momentous period in American history from a unique and yet unfailingly expansive and self-critical point of view. The civil rights struggle has produced an enormous body of autobiographical testimony. Paul Gaston’s wry and riveting book will take its place among the very best of these invaluable memoirs. Among its many gifts is an inside look at the impact of the movement on higher learning in the South, one of the great and relatively untold stories of the 1960s and 1970s. Most of all, Coming of Age in Utopia captures the intimate human drama of how the generation of black and white Southerners that came of age after World War II put their ideals into practice, mobilizing their gifts and transcending their own frailties to transform the South and the nation.”

— Jacquelyn Hall, Director, Southern Oral History Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, former president, Southern Historical Association, Organization of American Historians.

“From a utopia to a university, from growing up to growing wise, for an idea to an ideal—Paul Gaston’s compelling memoir of promoting racial justice in the South.”

—Julian Bond, Chairman, NAACP

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