Studies give in-depth look at York life in the 1940s

Three sociologists came to York in the late 1940s and quietly put the town under their academic microscope, dividing the town into three social groups -- textile mill workers, blacks and town merchants/whites. Perhaps no other mill town in the Carolinas has ever undergone the same level of scrutiny as York. The scientists went to funerals, weddings, pool halls, church services, fish frys, barbershops and ball games -- asking questions, writing notes and above all else, constantly observing.

More than a half-century later, the complete trilogy of their research is being published for the first time by USC Press. The books that examine the details of York residents' social behavior, church worship, medical practices, work habits and even nonmarital sex.

To make the York residents more comfortable with their interviews, the sociologists agreed to not identify anyone by name.

They even masked the identity of York, calling it Kent because "that's how York got its name in the War of the Roses."

The books are called "The Blackways of Kent" (1955); "The Millways of Kent" (1958) and "The Townways of Kent" (2008).

In recognition of the Kent trilogy publication, two lectures and panel discussions are being hosted by Winthrop University and the Culture & Heritage Museums on April 18-19 at Winthrop and at York's McCelvey Center.

The books provide a "window on a way of life in York that no longer exists," said Mike Scogggins, a historian with the Culture & Heritage Museums.

Scoggins was researching the books when he came across references to two rare documentary films that "Townways" author Ralph Patrick narrated. They were made in 1958 but never aired outside of a New York public television station.

"The films are like Christmas presents," Scoggins said. "You really don't know what you have until you unwrap them."

The films are being converted from 16mm film to digital with the help of the Library of Congress. After the April 19 lecture, Scoggins would like the public to view the films in their entirety.

I've been aware of the Kent trilogy for more than two decades, and interviewed "Blackways" author Hylan Lewis from his New York City home in 1988. I also talked with several people who were in the books -- such as Isaac and Roberta Wright, whose family helped host Lewis.

Not many people have heard of the books. Patrick -- who grew up in Gastonia -- submitted the work as his dissertation at Harvard in 1954 but said he did not want his work published, in order to protect the privacy of his new friends in York.

All three authors are deceased, as are most of the people they interviewed.

The person who is most responsible for seeing the trilogy finally published is John Shelton Reed, a retired UNC Chapel Hill sociologist, author and co-founder of the Center for the Study of the American South. He edited and wrote preface/introductions for the trilogy.

Reed learned of the series shortly after he arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969. He never met Patrick but had seen the "big-bearded fellow" on campus. After Patrick died in the late 1980s, Reed approached Patrick's widow about finally publishing "Townways."

"She gave me his original manuscript, all typed out on onion skin paper," said Reed, who edited it with his wife, Dale. He then spent several more years "shopping it around" to academic presses before striking a deal.

USC Press published the trilogy through its Southern Classics series.

"The significance of the Kent trilogy is that these authors inserted themselves into the guts of these communities," said series editor Mark Smith, a USC professor of history. "Sociology has changed radically since the 1940s. It's much more data-driven now, but this 'participant-observation' practiced by these men captures that sense of place at mid-century when York and America was undergoing tremendous change. What they did was ... amazing."