Guest post written in conjunction with the start of the Organization of American Historians’s annual conference #OAH21, by David A. Varel, author of The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power
Black historian and activist Lawrence Reddick (1910-1995), the subject of my new UNC book, died over a quarter century ago, but his legacy lives on in innumerable ways. The latest involves helping the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) reckon with the past and present racism of the American historical profession.
In the February edition of its newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, the AHA announced the launch of a new initiative to investigate its past racism. In that same edition, it made an article of mine—“Diversity Demands Struggle: Lessons from Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History”—the cover story. The pairing was effective in underlining why the initiative is so important: Reddick critiqued institutional racism in the profession in powerful and compelling ways, but because his critiques were often marginalized, the profession failed to make the progress it needed to. Now a systematic effort is underway to rectify that, and perspectives like Reddick’s will be indispensable.
Meanwhile, the OAH’s magazine, The American Historian, published another article of mine, “Those We Honor, and Those We Don’t: The Case for Renaming an OAH Book Award,” which advocated removing a Lost Cause scholar, Avery O. Craven, as the namesake of its book award in Civil War and Reconstruction history and replacing him with Reddick. Reddick had been Craven’s PhD student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, and he experienced Craven’s racism firsthand. I have since learned that the OAH has indeed removed Craven’s name from the award, and has appointed a committee that has now rewritten the guidelines for establishing and naming prizes, all to ensure that the person is up to the organization’s present standards. Reddick’s direct testimony about Craven’s classroom behavior, in addition to Craven’s racist scholarship, was central to pushing the OAH to make the changes.
All of this is a reminder that we historians are also products of the deeply unequal society in which we live, and that we must be scrupulous in interrogating our own profession. We do this not to tear down our discipline nor to erode the public’s confidence in us. It’s precisely the opposite. We will only enhance our credibility by owning up to our own mistakes, and by using them to create a better, more equitable discipline that is up to the task of writing the complex, painful, but also empowering histories that our country so desperately needs.
The OAH and AHA exist to bolster the work of history, to celebrate the best contributions, and to support historians themselves, especially through this polarized and divided time. For these reasons, I hope that Craven’s name is not replaced with another traditional scholar, nor by someone wealthy enough to endow the award. The renaming of this prize has the potential to aid in prompting a larger reckoning. We need to deal with the fact that it is only the most privileged academics, ensconced at research universities, who are fully supported in generating a significant corpus of scholarship and having their work widely read, reviewed, and assigned. The majority of us now labor away as contingent faculty members with dismal pay, few benefits, dim career prospects, and little time to do the writing we were trained to do.
In these prizes, therefore, let us seek to acknowledge scholarly excellence while also accounting for the myriad obstacles confronting less-advantaged historians, with an eye toward the non-traditional contributions they often make.
This is why Reddick would make such a powerful symbol as the new namesake of the OAH award. Not only was he denied the privileges that bolstered the careers of white scholars like Craven, but he also—even more impressively—at times conscientiously set aside scholarship to be a productive citizen and activist. He used his historical knowledge to communicate to Black and white publics, to develop archives for future generations to write Black people back into history, to directly mentor activists like Martin Luther King Jr., and to steer activist organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And he still managed to write a dissertation about the runup to the Civil War that was far superior to Craven’s scholarship, as well as a young adult’s book about the Civil War and Reconstruction that captured more about this history—namely, about the essential role of African Americans—than Craven was ever able or willing to comprehend.
How better to inaugurate a new era of naming prizes than to honor Lawrence Reddick, a figure more than worthy and too long ignored?
David A. Varel is an affiliate faculty member at Metropolitan State University–Denver, and author of The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought.