Eli Evans, author of the pathbreaking book The Provincials: A Personal History of the Jews in the South, passed away in New York on July 26. Eli was born in 1936 in Durham, where his father E. J. “Mutt” Evans served six terms as mayor, and his mother Sara Nachamson Evans rose to the vice-presidency of Hadassah.
Eli graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1958, where he became the first Jew to serve as student-body president, and received his law degree from Yale University in 1963. He worked in various agencies of state and federal government, including as a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson. In 1965 under former governor Terry Sanford, Eli directed Duke University’s Study of American States.
In 1973 Eli published The Provincials, which introduced the public to the then largely unknown subject of Southern Jewry. In part a memoir of his Durham childhood and college years and a travelogue of colorful and significant characters across the Southern landscape, The Provincials became a best seller, going through multiple editions and still in print approaching its fiftieth year. Not only popular among the lay public, The Provincials inspired a new field of academic study. Eli was instrumental in creating the Southern Jewish Historical Society in 1976 and contributed “Southern Jewish History: Alive and Unfolding” to its pioneering anthology Turn to the South.
In 1977 Evans was appointed first president of the Revson Foundation, which included in its mission Jewish education and philanthropy. The Foundation supported the television series Civilization and the Jews, hosted by Abba Eban.
Abba Eban labeled Eli the “poet laureate of Southern Jewry,” and he continued to write works which reflected his sense of roots. In 1988 came Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate followed in 1993 by the essay collection The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner.
Eli’s retirement from the Revson Foundation in 2003 was commemorated with a substantial donation to launch the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill with Eli serving as founding chair of its advisory board.
Eli was predeceased by his wife Judith London Evans and leaves his son Joshua. Funeral arrangements at Beth El Congregation in Durham are pending.
Eli’s contributions to his beloved Durham, UNC, and North Carolina communities were immeasurable. In graphic and eloquent prose, he evoked how it felt to live as a Jew in the South, and through his personal energy and vision contributed to the preservation of Jewish community in our State and region. May his memory be a blessing.