Diversity Demands Struggle: Lessons from Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History

tags: historiography, African American history

David A. Varel is an adjunct professor of history at Metropolitan State University of Denver and the author of two books, most recently The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Black lives matter. Over the last year, both the idea and the movement have awakened a new consciousness in many Americans. The historical profession, however, has long understood that Black lives matter, and indeed much of the vibrancy and dynamism of scholarship over the last half century can be traced to this recognition. Yet the historical discipline, too, was late to foreground race and the African American experience, and the way it did so was deeply problematic. This history is a cautionary tale that we should bear in mind, even as this thriving subfield has emerged as one of the most sophisticated and diverse within the profession. 

There is no better guide into this troubled history than the long-neglected life and thought of Lawrence Dunbar Reddick (1910–95). Reddick was one of a generation of scholars working during the Jim Crow era who laid the groundwork for modern Black history. But these historians’ contributions and critical perspectives have long been marginalized—to everyone’s detriment. 

Centralizing the Black experience in the 1970s occurred only after two generations of Black scholars had laboriously built up the field, developed scholarly journals, collected and organized primary sources, and devised interpretive breakthroughs. The problem was that the history discipline, like American society generally, was still deeply segregated during the mid-20th century, so Black scholars’ pioneering efforts were all but ignored. 

Then, finally, white historians became interested in Black history and brought a perception of legitimacy to the field. Notable early examples include Herbert Aptheker, August Meier, and Kenneth Stampp, but the watershed came in the 1960s and 1970s. Inspired by the civil rights movement and encouraged by their advisers to investigate the origins of racial caste and Black protest, white scholars in the 1970s published a proliferation of landmark studies, especially on slavery. In 1974 alone, these included Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll; Ira Berlin’s Slaves without Masters; Peter H. Wood’s Black Majority; and Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s notorious Time on the Cross. The fact that all of these scholars were white men underlines how the process by which the historical profession came to prioritize African American history was enmeshed in the larger racial (and gender) inequalities of the time. 

Reddick was uniquely situated to critique this New Black History. As a little-known but indefatigable Black historian, he helped to build up Black history and put it in service to the larger freedom struggle. Reddick was part of Carter G. Woodson’s inner circle of Black historians in the 1930s and earned his PhD in history from the University of Chicago in 1939. He served as a curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History, and Prints in the 1940s. As an activist, he participated in the Double Victory campaign during World War II and the decolonization movement thereafter. A co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he served on its board of directors and as its historian for decades, and he mentored Martin Luther King Jr. In 1970, Reddick assumed a tenured appointment in the history department at Temple University. From that perch, he launched a scathing critique of the New Black History and the institutional racism that underpinned it.

Although Reddick had long criticized white control over Black subjects, the breaking point came in 1974 with the publication of Time on the Cross. Using flawed statistical analysis, Fogel and Engerman argued that American slavery was not so terrible, reinforcing the Lost Cause narrative. The book was widely rebuked by historians and had little lasting influence, except as a case study in history gone awry. Far more influential were the more nuanced studies of slavery and its aftermath by white scholars such as Genovese, Wood, Berlin, Stampp, Leon Litwack, and Lawrence Levine, as well as Black scholars such as John Blassingame and Sterling Stuckey. Yet, as a Bancroft Prize–winning trade book praised in high-profile periodicals, Time on the Cross had a sizable public impact. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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