Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,269

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,269


This is the grave of Winthrop Jordan.

Born in 1931 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Jordan came out of the old liberal elite of Massachusetts, including having Lucretia Mott and Edward Hallowell, one of the white commanding officers of the 54th Massachusetts, as his ancestors. He went to Phillips Academy and then onto Harvard. He majored in something called “Social Relations” after failing to get the grades necessary to become a doctor. He graduated and got a job in an insurance company, which he hated. So he took a teaching job back at Phillips. Finally, he decided to go into history. He got a master’s at Clark, and then went to Brown for his PhD in 1960. He decided on colonial history, which was quite popular at the time. And he made his specific inquiry the history of slavery. This was only just becoming something historians were rethinking. For decades, the Dunning School had excused slavery, said that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, and damned Reconstruction as a liberal disaster of race mixing. The Holocaust and the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement had begun to get historians to think about this in new ways. But it would people like Jordan who would blow the old paradigm out of the water and center slavery as one of the foundational issues of American history.

Soon, he was one of the foundational scholars of modern slavery studies. He first taught at William and Mary and then went to the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught until 1982. He then went to the University of Mississippi, where he taught the rest of his career and where he lived until his death. But this is less important than the work itself. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 is one of the most important books on the foundations of slavery ever written, and that was true from the moment of its publication in 1968. This explored in detail the ways in which Europeans used racism to justify slavery, the development of the one-drop rule, the legal machinations to create slavery, and the commonality of rape and sexual assault in slavery.

This last point is worth noting for a few reasons. First, this was before gender history was really a thing. Women’s history would not be taken seriously in a misogynist academy and society until well into the 1970s and really the early 80s. We are still at a point in time where the first women hired by history departments are usually still alive and often even still teaching. And boy do they have stories. My own PhD advisor for instance tells stories of being the first woman in the department to demand maternity leave and the outrage that caused the men. Moreover, when Annette Gordon-Reed first wrote Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the book that made her famous, she made a legal-based case for the fact that Jefferson was the father of all those children attributed to him by rumor. This was before the development of DNA testing, which finally put the point to rest. In part, she built on Jordan’s work that demonstrated that Jefferson was in fact at Monticello nine months before each child was born. But my god, the outrage that book caused. NOT JEFFERSON! his defenders cried. In short, despite the evidence of just looking at Black people in America, many Americans simply did not want to admit the level of sexual assault at the heart of slavery and it took the development of DNA evidence to drive the point home. So Jordan suggesting this as an assistant professor in the 1960s was not an easy move career wise.

White over Black won nearly every major award historians can give, including the illustrious Bancroft Prize. It made him a superstar and it turbocharged the study of slavery in American history. He was not a huge publisher after this. In 1974, he published The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States. He was in on some textbook stuff. Then in 1996 came Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy, which won another Bancroft, partly just at the marvel of Jordan publishing another book at this stage of his august career.

Really, he was more a service guy than anything else for much of his career. Most importantly in this realm, he was the associate dean of minority group affairs in the graduate school at Berkeley. This might sound minor, but this was also the period of Black Power and there were lots of students deeply involved in political change. What that meant is that Jordan routinely bailed out students who were arrested for their activities. He was an ally in the academy for them. More amusingly, Jordan thought that service was a central part of the academic experience and famously chaired the University of Mississippi Faculty Traffic Ticket Appeals Committee. I do have to say though that in this era, service was a pain and perhaps seemingly pointless, yes, but it’s different than today. Today’s academic service mostly means you are either a servant of the corporatization of the university or engaging in tiring rearguard actions against the corporatization of the university that are always lost. It’s extremely frustrating, especially when you see colleagues from affected departments damning their own departments forever for personal gain. In my view, this kind of service is not really worth the time and I mostly don’t do it, preferring to use my time to be on committees that have some kind of positive end game.

Anyway, Jordan’s life ended in a pretty rough way. Although he was much older than the average age of someone diagnosed with ALS (sadly, I’ve had to learn this since a friend of mine was diagnosed with this horrible disease last year ugh ugh ugh), that’s what killed him. He died in 2007, at the age of 75.

Winthrop Jordan is buried in Quaker Meeting House Cemetery, South Yarmouth, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other winners of the Bancroft Prize, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Incidentally, one of the other winners in 1969 was Rexford Guy Tugwell for his memoir of the New Deal and I’ve covered the great New Dealer in the series here. Henry Allen Bullock, won in 1968 for A History of Negro Education in the South, from 1619 to the Present and was the first permanent Black faculty member at the University of Texas, is in Houston. Roberta Wohlstetter, who won in 1963 for Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, is in Los Angeles. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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