Dabney was born at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on February 8, 1901. His father, Richard Heath Dabney, a history professor, was the son of Virginius Dabney (1835–1894), an author of romantic tales about Virginia; and his mother, Lily Heth Davis Dabney, a Charlottesville grande dame, was a descendant of Martha Jefferson Carr, Thomas Jefferson’s sister. Tutored at home until he was thirteen, Dabney attended Episcopal High School of Virginia, in Alexandria, from 1914 to 1917. He received a BA from the University of Virginia in 1920 and an MA the following year. His impressive academic record earned him a Phi Beta Kappa key, and he was also a star tennis player, a game that he played passionately until age eighty-six.
Dabney taught French at Episcopal High School for a year and in 1922 moved to Richmond, where he became a reporter for the Richmond News Leader. The publisher, John Stewart Bryan, was a longtime family friend and invited him to live at Laburnum, the Bryan family home. On October 10, 1923, Dabney married Douglas Harrison Chelf, of Richmond, who died on January 29, 1994. They had two daughters and one son. Dabney began contributing articles to the Baltimore Evening Sun in 1925, which he considered a turning point in his career. Like many other young journalists of the time, he admired the iconoclastic critic H. L. Mencken. Some of Dabney’s older colleagues worried about Mencken’s influence, but Dabney soon developed his own prose style, less exaggerated and more complimentary than Mencken’s.
Journalist and Liberal Reformer
By June 1928 Dabney had contributed articles to some of the nation’s leading magazines, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch wooed him away from the News Leader with an offer to become its chief political reporter. The following year, he also became the Upper South correspondent for the New York Times. Dabney’s complex relationship with Harry Flood Byrd (1887–1966) began during these years. His first article for the Sun predicted that if Byrd were elected governor, the state’s political machine would continue public policies that Dabney considered detrimental, but a few months after Byrd took office, Dabney began praising the reforms that the governor introduced.
Religious fundamentalists, prohibitionists, and machine politicians were Dabney’s favorite targets early in his career. He saw them coalescing in Virginia under the leadership of James Cannon, a Methodist bishop, ardent advocate of Prohibition, and one of the men behind the anti-Catholic campaign against Alfred E. Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential candidate. During the summer and autumn of 1929 Dabney took leave from the Times-Dispatch in order to complete a book about Cannon. The manuscript was scathing and hastily written, and he could not find a publisher. Not until 1949, after Cannon’s death, did Dabney publish a revised version with the title Dry Messiah: The Life of Bishop Cannon.
In the 1930s Dabney’s writings expanded into new areas as he began urging liberal reforms in industrial regulation and civil rights. His increasing stature as a spokesman for southern liberals was confirmed in 1932 when he published Liberalism in the South. Twice disappointed when other men were appointed editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Dabney applied for and accepted an Oberlaender Trust grant to study in several European countries in 1934. While he was in Germany, he received an offer to become chief editorial writer for the Times-Dispatch, and finally, two years later, he was named editor.
In 1935 Dabney helped found the Southern Policy Committee, a group that studied such issues as tenant farming, industrial conditions, and racial injustice. He also agreed to work with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, but growing suspicious that Communists were playing an influential role, he withdrew his support before the first conference in 1938. By the end of the decade, Dabney’s liberal credentials were well established. He had supported the protection of civil liberties for striking workers and Communists, proposed that African Americans serve on Virginia juries, advocated a federal antilynching law, fought for abolition of the poll tax, and criticized Byrd, who had been appointed to a vacant seat in the United States Senate in 1933, for his opposition to New Deal relief and reform measures. Washington and Lee University‘s Lee School of Journalism and the Virginia Press Association honored Dabney with the Lee Editorial Award for his editorials supporting the county manager form of government in Henrico County in 1937, and three years later the University of Richmond awarded him an honorary doctorate, lauding him as one who “fearlessly champions justice and brotherhood” and as a “tireless contender for freedom of thought and expression.”
The New South and Civil Rights
In 1940 Dabney lectured on the New South for a semester at Princeton University. His next book, Below the Potomac (1942), exposed many problems of the region, but the volume’s tone was positive and emphasized the progress that was being made. By then Dabney was questioning whether a federal antilynching law was any longer necessary, and he cautioned that litigation by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that sought to break down legal racial segregation could make race relations in the South worse. During World War II he also became concerned about national security and less concerned with the civil liberties of laborers. The real test of Dabney’s status as a liberal, however, came in the area of race relations. As the pressure for desegregation mounted, he held to the separate-but-equal policy and feared that it would take generations for accumulated racial prejudices to fade away. In January 1943 he drew heated responses when he shared those sentiments in an Atlantic Monthly article.
At the same time, Dabney began working with others to keep southern control over the movement to improve conditions for African Americans. He wrote favorably about the Durham Manifesto, an outline of specific reforms issued by southern black leaders in December 1942, and he participated in the 1943 Atlanta and Richmond conferences on the substance of the manifesto. The Southern Regional Council grew out of those meetings, with Dabney as an original member of its board. As a further sign of good faith, he looked for areas where he thought desegregation might be brought about peacefully. In November 1943 Dabney wrote editorials in the Richmond Times-Dispatch urging the integration of streetcars and buses. The following year he received honorary doctorates from Lynchburg College and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, but public transportation remained segregated in Virginia.
As criticism of the South mounted, Dabney became more defensive about the region. “Is the South That Bad?” was the title of an article he published in the Saturday Review of Literature on April 13, 1946. Privately, he began to wonder whether he still qualified as a liberal under the changing conditions that prevailed after World War II. He opposed the 1947 report of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which called for a strong federal program to eliminate segregation, but he was dismayed that he had been forced to choose sides.
Byrd and Massive Resistance
When Dabney received the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his editorial writing of the previous year, his national prestige seemed secure, but there were signs of trouble. His editor at the New York Times had complained about the local themes of his columns, and in April 1947, after one of his columns was rejected, Dabney severed the relationship. He was bothered, too, by what he perceived as a rift between himself and Byrd. In 1946 a Dabney editorial praised but did not endorse Byrd’s opponent in the Democratic Party primary, and even though Dabney ultimately endorsed Byrd, the senator stopped responding to Dabney’s letters. The breach widened in 1948 after Dabney lambasted the Byrd-dominated General Assembly for attempting to keep Harry S. Truman’s name off the presidential ballot in Virginia. Byrd’s allies in the House of Delegates retaliated by voting to have Richmond Newspapers, Inc., owner of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, investigated. Dabney fired back with an editorial in which he declared, “The Times-Dispatch will not be intimidated.” He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for that editorial.
More threatening to Dabney’s security was his deteriorating relationship with John Dana Wise, vice president and general manager of Richmond Newspapers. In 1943 they had a bitter argument about a syndicated column that the Times-Dispatch carried, and Dabney, without naming names, took his case to the public in a 1945 Saturday Review of Literature article critical of publishers who dictated editorial policy. Wise later required that Dabney justify his outside activities that took time from his newspaper work.
Dabney was accustomed to coaxing his readers into moderately liberal positions with conservative arguments or flattery, but he never strayed far from the dominant conservative opinion at home. In 1949, estranged from Byrd and from his publisher, he grew wary and made no endorsement in the Democratic Party gubernatorial primary, even though he had worked on the Southern Policy Committee with Byrd’s sometime adversary, Francis Pickens Miller, who was one of the unsuccessful candidates. Dabney subsequently moved closer to Byrd with a 1951 laudatory magazine article, and in 1952 he withdrew from the Southern Regional Council after it adopted a policy calling for an end to segregation in the South. The Richmond Times-Dispatch took the unprecedented step of supporting a Republican for president in 1952. Dabney’s editorial in favor of Dwight David Eisenhower won him a second Sigma Delta Chi award. That year he also gave a strong endorsement to Byrd when Miller challenged him for the senatorial nomination.
In the spring of 1954 Dabney received an invitation to lecture at the annual Fulbright Conference on American Studies at the University of Cambridge. On May 17, 1954, two months before he left for England, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Dabney urged calm and predicted that the decision would take a long time to implement. He helped establish and was the first chair of the Southern Education Reporting Service, which sought to ensure access to accurate, objective information about how southern communities were adjusting to the Court’s decision. In a Saturday Evening Post article explaining how an illustrious Virginian, John Marshall, had made the Supreme Court the final interpreter of the Constitution, he indirectly told his readers that the 1954 court order must be obeyed.
Early in 1956 it became clear that the Byrd Organization had something else in mind. In January voters approved a constitutional convention to authorize tuition grants as part of what appeared to be a local-option plan, but in February the Speaker of the House of Delegates headed a large group that introduced a resolution committing the state’s schools to remain segregated during the next year. Dabney accused the organization of a breach of faith in abandoning the local-option plan. The following week Byrd issued a public statement calling for coordinated, massive resistance to enforcement of the Court’s orders. James Jackson Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader, supported Massive Resistance, and Dabney’s publishers fell in line with Byrd. Dabney acquiesced.
Dabney’s professional colleagues elected him president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1957, but his decision to accept Massive Resistance undermined his reputation. In September 1958, when the governor closed schools in several Virginia communities rather than allow them to integrate, Life magazine asked Dabney to explain the state’s position. He presented the commonwealth’s case in an article published on September 22 and entitled “Virginia’s ‘Peaceable, Honorable Stand.'” Both the federal courts and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared the Massive Resistance laws unconstitutional, however, and after the school closings, some influential Virginia politicians abandoned Massive Resistance. Dabney had once been one of the best-known liberals in the South, but when he retired as editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in January 1969, the New York Times reported that, among liberals, he had come to be considered an apologist for Massive Resistance.
In April 1968 Dabney agreed to serve as rector of the new Virginia Commonwealth University, formed by the merger of the Medical College of Virginia and Richmond Professional Institute. His association with Byrd and Massive Resistance produced protests from the Students for Afro-American Philosophy at the university in April 1969, but he had the support of the university’s board. Nevertheless, he resigned at the end of July in order to work on a history of Virginia. He remained on the university’s governing board for many years.
In retirement Dabney devoted more time to his interest in history. For more than thirty years he sat on the executive committee of the Virginia Historical Society and from 1969 to 1972 served as its president. Assisted by a Guggenheim Fellowship, he published a large one-volume history, Virginia: The New Dominion (1971). Both it and Richmond: The Story of a City (1976) remained in print for many years. Dabney told his own story in Across the Years: Memories of a Virginian (1978). The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (1981) attempted to refute assertions that Thomas Jefferson had children with the enslaved Sally Hemings. Dabney wrote institutional histories of the two universities he knew best, Mr. Jefferson’s University: A History (1981) and Virginia Commonwealth University: A Sesquicentennial History (1987). He drew on his own reporting for The Last Review: The Confederate Reunion, Richmond, 1932 (1984), an event he had covered for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and he also wrote Pistols and Pointed Pens: The Dueling Editors of Old Virginia (1987). A collection of his previously published articles, Virginius Dabney’s Virginia: Writings about the Old Dominion (1986), contained an introductory essay about Dabney by the internationally recognized writer and Richmond native Tom Wolfe.
Virginius Dabney died in his sleep at his Richmond home on December 28, 1995, and was buried in the city’s Hollywood Cemetery.
- Dry Messiah: The Life of Bishop Cannon (1949)
- Virginia: The New Dominion (1971)
- Richmond: The Story of a City (1976)
- Across the Years: Memories of a Virginian (1978)
- The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (1981)
- Mr. Jefferson’s University: A History (1981)
- The Last Review: The Confederate Reunion, Richmond, 1932 (1984)
- Virginius Dabney’s Virginia: Writings about the Old Dominion (introduction by Tom Wolfe, 1986)
- Virginia Commonwealth University: A Sesquicentennial History (1987)
- Pistols and Pointed Pens: The Dueling Editors of Old Virginia (1987)