In Memoriam: David Montgomery (OAH President 1999-2000)

February 19, 2012

The Organization of American Historians notes with sadness the passing of OAH Past President David Montgomery, Farnam Professor of History emeritus at Yale University, on December 2, 2011. Montgomery was 84 years of age.

The following remembrance of David Montgomery appeared in OAH Outlook (February 2012) and was written by Michael Honey, University of Washington, Tacoma.

David Montgomery died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage on December 2, 2011, one day after his 84th birthday. Remembrances on thewebsites of the Labor and Working Class History Association (LAWCHA), the Sidney Hillman Foundation, and the OAH provide an inkling of his impact on many lives. The OAH will remember and celebrate David’s life and legacy on Friday, April 20, at the 2012 OAH/NCPH Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

David was the North Star of the history profession—an eminent scholar, an exciting and profound teacher, and a wonderful human being. Through his writing, teaching, and personal behavior, David modeled a meaningful life. There was no better friend and mentor, no more magnanimous scholar, no more humorous observer of life’s follies. He was forthright in his opinions but always with a grace note; his infectious laugh gave implicit recognition that no one has a monopoly on truth. His “legendary generosity,” as Eileen Boris put it, helped not only legions of his own graduate students but also many others find their footing. His outreach and concern for others made it an honor to be a historian. “I have scarcely met a person of his stature who radiated such kindness, sweetness, and humility,” wrote Kitty Krupat. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall remembered him as “a great, great soul” and marked his passing as an “overwhelming loss.”

David demonstrated that one could be both a scholar and a committed radical. David’s combination of humanism, socialist politics, picket-line action, and equal rights philosophy won over many of us to the study, and what we came to see as a practice, of labor history. In his early life, he had worked as a farm laborer, army staff sergeant, radio announcer, and a machinist. As a shop-floor activist in labor’s left in the 1950s, he organized workers into machinist, electrical, and teamster unions until firings and anticommunist blacklisting forced him out of the trades and into graduate school.

Montgomery received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and taught at the University of Pittsburgh (1963 to 1979), and as Farnam Professor and as professor emeritus at Yale University (1979 to 2011). He helped create the “new labor history” through six pathbreaking books and more than eighty-five book chapters and articles. David edited scores of books (including my first one) and the journal International Labor and Working-Class History, lectured at the University of Warwick and Oxford University in England, and in Europe, Canada, and Latin America. He helped establish labor history as an international field.

David’s writings explicate diverse struggles of workers for dignity and a better life, and offer massive documentation and nuanced analysis of primary and secondary sources. They help us see history through the eyes of workers and place their activities at the core, and to better understand the intersections of class and race on the shop floor and in the exercise of state power. David’s experiences within labor’s left helped him understand class as more than an academic category and class consciousness as an experience of resistance to oppression and to regard the struggle against racism as fundamental to all other struggles. His last book, coedited with Horace Huntley, provides a rich collection of black worker oral testimonies on the freedom movement in Birmingham, Alabama. David’s introduction, typically, does not generalize but rather takes us step-by-step through the harsh postslavery imposition of Jim Crow and then into the outpouring black freedom struggle—showing, rather than just theorizing, how it is all connected.

In his writing and in his life, David stressed the importance of unions: “whatever their political outlook, [unions] were for Montgomery places of labor solidarity,” wrote Eric Foner. He regularly walked picket lines, spoke at union conventions, and his steadfast solidarity gave heart to many during the tumultuous clerical strike at Yale in 1984. He also spoke at antiwar teach-ins during the Vietnam War era and in the George W. Bush years; fought for academic freedom and for better conditions for adjunct professors through the OAH and the American Association of University Professors; and more. As OAH President, David led us in refusing to abide the racism and antiunionism of a corporate hotel chain at our St. Louis convention, despite the significant monetary cost.

The legacy of David’s scholarship and teaching will require a book in itself. To graduate students, wrote Shelton Stromquist, “he was gracious, thoughtful, while at the same time challenging.” He helped turn “a backwater of labor economics into an innovative, core subject of study in American history,” and salted academia “with a grand cadre of labor historians,” wrote David Brody. His work as a teacher has proven as important as his work as a writer. Those who have witnessed him in high gear are not likely to forget it. His animated, humorous, and supercharged lectures drew many students into history and labor studies. At the same time, his judgments remained ecumenical, his insights capacious, his concern for all people—not just those defined as “workers”—real and steadfast.

David and Martel Wilcher married in 1952, a time when their interracial marriage was illegal in some states. Together, they provided a haven for students and activists, helping us think anew about the past and how to take a stand in the present. In an interview, one of their two sons, Claude, commented, “He felt that studying the way workers and their movements operated in fact led to a greater understanding of what people should be doing today, both in work places and in their lives.”

Michael Honey is Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and past president of LAWCHA.