Paul Gaston is a consummate Southerner. He was born and raised in Alabama, then came to UVA in 1957 to teach American history to “the fortunate sons of the South,” as Gaston describes them. He’s written several books about his much-loved landscape and speaks with affection in his honeyed accent about the legacy of Jefferson or the beauty of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet his devotion is informed by an intimate familiarity with a painful and tumultuous period in American history. In his memoir, Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea, Gaston reveals his struggle against racial injustice and documents the great changes that came during the civil rights movement.

A young Paul Gaston with his soon-to-be wife, Mary
The book begins with the Fairhope Colony—founded by Gaston’s grandfather in 1894 and later led by his father—which was an experiment of radical economic ideals meant to overcome the poverty that Gaston’s grandfather saw as the natural outcome of industrialized capitalism. Gaston was raised at Fairhope and might have taken up the legacy of his forefathers, but instead answered a call to fight the social problems of his own era. He left the colony and became a historian and activist. Gaston’s years as a professor in Charlottesville were transformative ones; student activism caused the University to enroll African Americans and hire African-American faculty, while protests forced businesses on the Corner to desegregate. Gaston himself was beat up at a sit-in. Later, Gaston taught what he’d learned from the American civil rights movement in South Africa during apartheid.

Coming of Age in Utopia offers an important and often unknown side of Charlottesville’s and the University’s history from one of its beloved professors. It also traces a personal history through the monumental events and famous personalities of the second half of the 20th century. It is a coming-of-age story not only of an individual but of the South itself.

A young Paul Gaston with his wife, Mary, and cousins at the Fairhope Colony in Alabama.