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Otto H. Olsen

Otto H. Olsen, a scholar of Reconstruction, African American and civil rights history, passed away at age eighty-nine on December 4, 2014, in Gainesville, Florida. A graduate student of C. Vann Woodward, he wrote a pathbreaking study of Albion W. Tourgée, the "carpetbagger" lawyer civil rights advocate who organized bi-racial coalitions and fought for black civil rights during Reconstruction in North Carolina (Carpetbagger's Crusade, 1965); edited an important collection of documents, titled The Thin Disguise (1967), on the monumental 1896 Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson; and authored influential articles on the incidence of slave ownership and on various aspects of Reconstruction in North Carolina. His edited collection Reconsruction and Redemption in the South (Louisiana State University Press, 1980) surveyed Reconstruction in the various southern states. Otto earned a bachelor's degree from Columbia University and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins. He taught at various universities before accepting a position at Northern Illinois University, where he spent the majority of his faculty years.

His students remember Otto as much for his sterling personal qualities as his scholarship. Otto had provided dangerous service in the merchant marine during World War II. As a graduate student at Columbia he resisted conformity and worked for labor rights and black equality during the McCarthy era. Of Norwegian descent and of humble, working-class origins, he championed social justice issues throughout his life. In his retirement years he wrote a critique of Cold War mythology but also put the legacy of Presidency of John F. Kennedy in a positive light. To us and his other graduate students, Otto modeled a politically engaged intellectual who was a master of the craft of historical research and writing. He remained a supportive mentor and friend throughout his life. Otto combined humanism, humility, and humor with challenging political insights. He is sorely missed. Otto Olsen is survived by his wife Corrine M. Olsen and two children and grandchildren and a sister.

Michael K. Honey, University of Washington Tacoma
Joseph P. Reidy, Howard University

Posted: February 17, 2015
Tagged: In Memoriam