Leon Litwack, 91, Dies; Changed How Scholars Portray Black History

One of Berkeley’s most popular professors, he brought passion and nuance — and a love for blues music — to his award-winning study of the marginalized and the oppressed.,

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

Leon Litwack, a leather-jacket-wearing, blues-loving historian whose pioneering books on slavery and its aftermath demonstrated how Black people thought about and shaped their own liberation, even as they were constrained by racism in American society, died on Aug. 5 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 91.

His wife, Rhoda Litwack, said the cause was bladder cancer.

Professor Litwack, a son of left-wing immigrants from Russia, brought an ethos of patriotic dissent to both his teaching and his scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley, insisting that the historian’s job is to give voice to the marginalized and to make the well-off uncomfortable. He sought to teach students, he said in a 2001 interview, to “feel the past in ways that may be genuinely disturbing.”

Beginning in the early 1960s, a time when many historians still treated enslaved and freed Black people as passive actors in their own narratives, he cut a different path, immersing himself in the archives to discover Black voices and their stories and show how they thought about, and struggled against, oppression.

One notable fruit of that effort was “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery” (1979), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Image

In “North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860” (1961), Professor Litwack illustrated how racism had structured institutions and relations in which Black and white people were supposedly equal, at least in popular memory.

Just as important, he showed how oppression against Black people was not unique to the South. In his book “North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860” (1961), Professor Litwack illustrated how racism had structured institutions and relations in which Black and white people were supposedly equal, at least in popular memory.

“He understood how deeply racism and white supremacy cut through the country, and he did it before a lot of other historians did,” said Jason Sokol, a historian at the University of New Hampshire who studied with him at Berkeley.

As a teacher Professor Litwack advised scores of doctoral students and taught an estimated 40,000 undergraduates in his huge survey courses, where he often showed up in a leather jacket and a Grateful Dead tie. He loved blues and rock, and used film and music clips to illuminate American history since the Civil War; in one course he included the “The Complete Recordings” of Robert Johnson as a required text.

“There’s a stereotype that famous academics don’t teach the intro course,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association and a former student of Professor Litwack’s, said in an interview. “Leon thought the opposite. For Leon, teaching that intro course was an obligation, but also an opportunity to have an impact on students no matter what their major was.”

Leon Frank Litwack was born on Dec. 2, 1929, in Santa Barbara, Calif. His parents, Julius and Minnie (Nitkin) Litwack, met after arriving separately in California as Jewish immigrants. There they each gravitated toward left-wing political circles.

They were both working class — Julius was a gardener, Millie a seamstress — and they raised Leon, their only child, in an ethnically diverse, pro-labor enclave in Santa Barbara. He read voraciously, and while he loved the social realism of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo, he felt especially drawn to John Steinbeck, who in “The Grapes of Wrath” and other books recorded the struggles of California workers like his family.

He also encountered the work of the Black historian W.E.B. Du Bois, whose 1935 book, “Black Reconstruction in America,” told a much different, and much more positive, story about the period after the Civil War than the one in his high school history textbook.

One day he asked his teacher if he could offer a response to the textbook; receiving permission, he delivered a withering assault. When he was done, his teacher gave him a scornful look and said, “Now, students, you must remember that Leon is bitterly pro-labor.”

He took his commitment to social justice with him to Berkeley, where he campaigned for Henry Wallace, the 1948 Progressive candidate for president, and protested the state’s requirement that public employees, including university faculty, sign an oath of loyalty to the United States.

During the summers, while his better-off classmates went on vacation, he worked as a mess boy on freighters shipping out of San Francisco Bay, becoming active in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, one of the country’s more left-wing labor organizations.

His activism — and refusal to sign a loyalty oath — got him fired from a student job at the Berkeley campus library, and in 1953 he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But it also brought him in touch with his idols: He introduced Wallace when he came to speak at Berkeley; met Harry Bridges, the radical West Coast union leader; and talked with Du Bois about how American universities were teaching post-Civil War history.

He met Rhoda Goldberg as an undergraduate and they married in 1952. She worked as a preschool teacher. Along with Ms. Litwack, he is survived by their children, John and Ann, as well as two grandchildren.

Professor Litwack served in the Army after graduation, then returned to Berkeley for his doctorate, where he studied with Kenneth Stampp, a groundbreaking historian of the Civil War. After he received his Ph.D. in 1958, he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, where he turned his dissertation into his first book, “North of Slavery.”

He returned to Berkeley in 1964, just as the campus was roiling with student activism. Unlike many of his fellow professors, Professor Litwack fully supported the protesters — he canceled his class the day after the police arrested 800 of them during a sit-in at Sproul Plaza.

He also drank deep from the emerging counterculture around the Bay Area, especially its music scene. In one instance he reconnected with a former student from Wisconsin, Tracy Nelson, a folk singer who was starting a band called Mother Earth, and gave her about $700 to get off the ground. In return she included him and his son John in a photo of the band on the inside of their first album, “Living with Animals” (1968).

Image

Professor Litwack’s most well-known book, “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Professor Litwack’s most well-known book, “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” dispensed with telling a linear history about the years following emancipation and instead, drawing on years of research in obscure archives, presented thematic stories focused on the way Black Americans experienced their freedom and shaped it.

The book was revolutionary; many historians had assumed that such documents didn’t exist, leaving them to recount the period solely from the white point of view.

“‘Been in the Storm So Long’ was pivotal in giving a detailed Black voice during Reconstruction,” said the historian Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University and himself a leading expert on the period. “He turned around the literature to make Blacks the key actors in that transformation.”

Professor Litwack had his critics, though, especially after the publication of his third and last major book, “Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow” (1998). While it was well-received in some corners, many fellow historians complained that it placed unrelenting emphasis on Black people as victims and failed to tell a more nuanced tale about resistance.

“Litwack implies that African-American institutions function merely in response to white oppression, as though blacks had no existence beyond their connection with whites — Black Southerners as victims rather than Black Southerners as people,” wrote the historian Nell Irvin Painter in The Nation. “For all its picturesque appeal, ‘Trouble in Mind’ is stale.”

Professor Litwack remained a popular figure at Berkeley. In 2005 he took on a minor role in an undergraduate production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical about corruption and greed — he played a pacifist professor whose lines included “I don’t like military training/Military training of any kind/I’m a Tolstoyan.”

He gave his final lecture in May 2007. Thousands of students, current and former, packed the hall, some coming from as far away as New York. Though he had suffered a stroke a few years before, he walked onto the stage bedecked in his leather jacket, the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power” playing on the sound system.

His love of music wasn’t just a hobby. He believed that genres like folk and the blues presented critical perspectives on American history — and offered a possible escape from what he believed was an otherwise grim fate for a country still beleaguered by white supremacy.

Once, a student asked whether he had any hope for America’s future, and why. Professor Litwack paused, then exclaimed, “Rock ‘n’ roll!”

Leave a Reply