Winthrop Jordan ’60 Ph.D.
“This study attempts to answer a simple question: What were the attitudes of white men toward Negroes during the first two centuries of European and African settlement in what became the United States of America?”On this quiet note begins a seminal 1968 book that, by helping lead a revolution in the understanding of how slavery became an accepted part of early American life, forever changed our understanding of the roots of racism in the United States.
Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 is one the most thorough, thoughtful, and influential books ever written on American slavery. By assuming “there is no clear dividing line between ‘thought’ and ‘feeling,’ between conscious and unconscious mental processes,” Jordan documented, for example, how the American Revolution presented a profound problem: reconciling liberty and democracy with the notion that black slaves were mentally and morally inferior to free whites. Within this conflict lay the seeds of the troubled history of race that has developed ever since. “What American intellectuals did in the post-Revolutionary decades,” Jordan wrote, “was, in effect, to claim America as a white man’s country.”
White Over Black was awarded the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes, as well as the National Book Award. Jordan, now a professor of history at the University of Mississippi, is the author of several other books, including Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy.
J. Saunders Redding ’28, ’32 A.M.
A New York Times reviewer once described j. saunders redding as “probably the most eminent Negro writer of nonfiction in this country.” Redding, like his older brother, desegregation lawyer Louis Redding ’23 (see page 66), also accomplished several firsts: he was the first black member of an Ivy League faculty, the first black to serve as a Brown fellow, and the first black to have his portrait hung in Sayles Hall.
Redding’s books include To Make a Poet Black, an analysis of African-American poetry, and his 1942 autobiography No Day of Triumph, in which he describes his search as a black American to find those values among his people “that proclaimed them and me men.” In the book, he writes: “I found those values and validities as quietly alive and solid, as deep-rooted as vigorous trees. They are the intangibles in the scale of human values. They are, unmistakably, integrity of spirit, love of freedom, courage, patience, hope.”
Redding’s opinions on race included the notion that African-American culture should be considered as part of—not as distinct from—American culture as a whole. The blues were created from experience, he once said, not genetics: “Had Bessie Smith been white and lived through the same experiences she lived through as a black, she would have sung the blues the same way.”
As a visiting professor at Brown in 1949, Redding became the first African American to teach at an Ivy League school. His course on blacks in American literature was the first such course given at a Northern college. After serving as a professor of English at Hampton Institute in Virginia for twenty years, he ended his career as the first African-American professor at Cornell’s college of arts and sciences.
Spencer Crew ’71
Historians want to make history matter, but they do it in different ways. Some teach; a few, like Undaunted Courage author Stephen Ambrose, write about it in a way that appeals to thousands of readers; and others, like Spencer Crew, create exhibits that millions of people can walk through.
As director of one of the Smithsonian’s big three museums, Crew is one the country’s historians with the most public impact. In 1994, when he was named to head the National Museum of American History, he became the first African American—as well as the youngest person—to direct any of the Smithsonian museums.
Crew, who has a Ph.D. in urban history from Rutgers, worked at the American History museum for thirteen years before becoming its director. In his work Crew walks the hazardous line between being a serious historical researcher and a popularizer. As an academic historian before arriving at the Smithsonian, he believes that museum exhibits—which are dismissed by some historians as history lite—can appeal to a large public without sacrificing intellectual rigor, something he tried to do with his widely praised exhibit Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940.
Crew says he discovered history at Brown, where he was also an active member of the Afro-American Society. This combination, he told the BAM a few years ago, allowed him “to understand my connection with American history in a different way,” something he hopes he is helping his museumgoers do today.
Adam B. Ulam ’43
At the height of the cold War, Adam Ulam’s dozens of books helped Americans understand the inner workings of the Soviet Union. Lacking any access to Soviet archives, Ulam developed his expertise by poring over newspapers, journals, memoirs, and official Communist literature. He visited the Soviet Union just once, during the mid-1980s.
Ulam’s work earned the praise of many colleagues. In a New York Times review of The Bolsheviks, for example, Henry L. Roberts called the book “the most rewarding single study of Lenin that I have ever encountered.”
Ulam spent forty-five years on the faculty at Harvard, where he also helped shape the minds of two students who would become important players in Cold War politics: Henry Kissinger and Robert F. Kennedy.
A nonpracticing Jew, Ulam immigrated to the United States from Lvov, Poland, only two weeks before Hitler invaded. Shortly before his death earlier this year, Ulam revised his autobiography, Understanding the Cold War: A Historian’s Personal Reflections. It was later published by Leopolis Press.