Rupert Bayliss Vance (1899–1975)

Rupert Bayliss Vance was a sociologist on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), who, along with fellow sociology faculty member Howard Odum, established the field of “regional sociology”—in their case, an extensive study of the South. The two helped provide a progressive counterweight at UNC in the 1930s to the conservative agrarian philosophy centered with the faculty at Vanderbilt University and expressed in their collection of essays I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930).

Rupert B. Vance was born on March 15, 1899, in Plumerville (Conway County), the oldest of four children of Walter Vance and Mary Bayliss Vance. Walter Vance owned a general store, though the Vances lived on the family farm, raising cattle and operating a dairy farm. Rupert Vance contracted polio at age three, which left both legs paralyzed for the rest of his life, necessitating the use of crutches. His mother was a former teacher and taught Vance at home until he entered public school at age ten. Always an excellent student, Vance was a heavy reader throughout his life and as an adult was an avid reader of fiction, poetry, philosophy, and history. He was a man small in physical stature, possibly due to his contracting polio at such an early age.

Vance graduated as valedictorian at Henderson-Brown College in Arkadelphia (Clark County) in 1920, majoring in English and the social sciences. He was an active student at Henderson-Brown, serving as president of both the freshman and sophomore classes and as president for two years of the college chapter of the YMCA, in addition to service to the school’s literary society, of which Vance served as secretary for one year, treasurer for two years, as well as vice president and president. He was also active on the debate team for three years.

Following graduation from college, Vance taught high school in Talihina, Oklahoma, and college at South Georgia College in McRae. He received an MA in economics from Vanderbilt and a PhD in 1928 from UNC. He then joined the faculty at UNC in the sociology department, a department focusing in the 1930s on an analysis of the economic issues facing the South, particularly in the textile industry, tenant farming, and the region’s race relations. Vance remained at North Carolina his entire forty-year teaching career.

Vance married Rheba Usher in 1930, whom he met while a student at UNC; they had three sons.

Vance’s research and writing covered a wide range of topics related to the South. His first book, Human Factors in Cotton Culture (1929), was based on his dissertation and is considered one of his three classic works, along with Human Geography in the South (1932) and All These People: The Nation’s Human Resources in the South (1945). Vance wrote seven books and hundreds of articles using data drawn from historical, demographic, geographic, and statistical sources. Vance was not an agrarian romantic but rather a realist who believed the South should join in the mainstream of an urbanized society while maintaining some of its rural and small-town quality-of-life features. His writing style was easily followed even when writing about complex problems, so his audience included general readers as well as politicians and academics.

Vance believed in community service, serving as a consultant to the National Resources Planning Board, the Rosenwald Fund, the Social Science Research Council, the Institute of Health, the Bureau of the Census, and the United Nations. He served on the governing board of the University of North Carolina Press, long one of the leading university presses in the United States, and on the editorial board of the journal Social Forces. He was president of the Southern Sociological Society (1932), the American Sociological Society (1944), and the Population Association of America (1952).

Vance’s writing related to the South but not frequently specifically to Arkansas, although his 1930 essay “A Karl Marx for Hill Billies: Portrait of a Southern Leader” was a humorous profile of former Arkansas governor Jeff Davis and displayed Vance’s journalistic flair and humor. Vance cautioned readers that opinions of Davis “evoked a hierarchy of angels and demons in which there were no neuters” among Arkansans. Vance wrote that, since Davis’s tenure, “Arkansas has elevated to the governorship a banker and a farmer, sundry lawyers, a professor of sociology from the state university with his Ph.D., and a traveling salesman; has sent to the Senate the redoubtable Joe T. and Thaddeus the Terrible. But the land of the Slow Train, where fact becomes folklore if it is allowed to simmer overnight, had produced and will, God be thanked, produce no more consummate master of politics than Jeff the Little.”

Vance was named Kenan Professor in 1945 and in 1963 received UNC’s Thomas Jefferson Award for his life and work. He received honorary doctorates from Hendrix College and the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). He died on August 25, 1975, four days after suffering a stroke, and is buried in Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery in Chapel Hill.

For additional information:
Powell, William S., ed. Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vol 6. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979–1996.

Rupert Bayless Vance Papers. Southern Historical Collection. The Wilson Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Vance, Rupert B. Regionalism and the South: Selected Papers of Rupert Vance. Edited by John Sheldon Reed and Daniel Joseph Singal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Bob Razer
CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

Last Updated: 06/20/2019