James Rawley: A Rich Career in American History
Lee W. Formwalt
In the last decade and a half, the Organization of American Historians has awarded the James A. Rawley Prize to nineteen historians who have produced some of the most significant works dealing with the history of race relations in the
Since James A. Rawley did not begin his career in American history by studying race, I was interested in finding out about his earlier work and what led to his interest in understanding the history of race relations and eventually to the establishment of a prize for the best book in that field. Jim Rawley has been a member of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association and OAH for close to sixty years and has attended almost every annual meeting in the last half-century. He and his wife Ann flew to the West Coast in March to attend the 98th annual meeting in
Shortly before we left for
With the war’s close, returning G.I.s swarmed the
Rawley went on to teach at Hunter College and Sweet Briar College before landing at his permanent academic home, the University of Nebraska, in 1964. Once in Lincoln, he taught and wrote and became involved in the work of the Nebraska State Historical Society, where he served on the executive board and as president. Lincoln was also the home of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association and Rawley became its resident agent, an officer that OAH, as a Nebraska nonprofit incorporated association, is required to have. He continues to serve in this position today.
I asked Professor Rawley how he came to be interested in race as a subject of historical inquiry. He replied that in the 1960s J.B. Lippincott Company “was doing a series of books, and I was asked to do a book on Bleeding Kansas, so I thought, well, this is going to be pretty much a political story, political parties, elections and so on.” Then as he got into the material it became very clear to him just how powerful a role race played in the events of the 1850s. When the book appeared in 1969, it was entitled, Race and Politics: Bleeding Kansas and the Coming of the Civil War. In his teaching, Rawley began to focus more on race, offering upper division courses on race relations. He then became interested in the relations between English and U.S. abolitionists, when an English economic historian asked him to write a book on the transatlantic slave trade. In 1981 Norton published his The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. Since then, he has also published works on secession and the Civil War. His ten scholarly books “have stood the test of time,” according to Kenneth J. Winkle, University of Nebraska history department chair, “and most have achieved the status of classics in their fields.”
Although Professor Rawley has been retired for eighteen years, you will still find him on most days in his office in Oldfather Hall on the Nebraska campus. He has completed a revision of his Transatlantic Slave Trade that the University of Nebraska Press will publish later this year. He is also working on a chapter for a book on Stephen A. Douglas that emerged from an anniversary commemoration of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Professor Rawley continues his work for OAH and is serving on the 2006 Midwestern Regional Conference Committee. That conference, scheduled for July 6-8, 2006, will take place in Lincoln.
Professor Rawley’s continued work as an American historian and his support of his professional organization through the Rawley Prize and other contributions is an inspiration to many of us. He is a reminder that one’s connection with one’s professional organization is as important as the ties with his university, college, or other place of employment. His work demonstrates just how important OAH is in his career and I suspect we would find that is true for most of our nine thousand members.