OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Adriane Lentz-Smith

Portrait of Adriane Lentz-Smith

Adriane Lentz-Smith is Associate Professor of History and African & African American Studies at Duke University where she teaches courses on Black Lives, modern U. S. history, and histories of the Black Freedom Struggle. The author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (Harvard, 2009), Lentz-Smith researches and writes about African Americans’ entanglements with U.S. power in the long twentieth century. Her current project, “The Slow Death of Sagon Penn: State Violence and the Twilight of Civil Rights,” traces the devastating aftermath of one young man’s encounter with the police in 1980s San Diego to explore how state violence and white supremacy reconstituted each other in the wake of the civil rights gains of the 1960s. Lentz-Smith works to bring scholars into conversation with broad publics. Her work has been featured on various radio programs and podcasts as well as in a number of documentaries, including prize-winning The Jazz Ambassadors and the American Experience documentary, The Great War. As a senior fellow in Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, she hosts the community conversations series, “The Ethics of Now,” which brings authors, journalists, policy makers, and scholars to Durham to discuss matters of pressing importance to the North Carolina community and beyond. Lentz-Smith sits on the editorial boards of Modern American History and Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism. She holds a BA in History from Harvard-Radcliffe and a PhD in History from Yale University and lives in Durham, North Carolina with her family.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Some Americans, particularly those unschooled in the rich history of the black freedom struggle, expect black saintliness and martyrdom when it comes to civil rights protest. And indeed, some of the most morally mobilizing images to come out of the protests of the 1960s involve civil rights activists weathering the blows and punches of state authorities run amok. Yet many African Americans felt it should not require black folks walking undefended into the maelstrom to stir white Americans’ conscience; martyrdom should not be the price for justice. Focusing on the experience of Mississippian Henrietta Wright, this talk examines how African Americans – and black women, especially – drew on their encoutners with violence and violation to articulate their vision for resisting and rolling back white supremacy.
The 386,000 African Americans who served in the military during the Great War served as symbols and agents of the black freedom struggle. In a period when the system of political and economic exploitation known as Jim Crow seemed triumphant in the U.S. and poised to spread its wings, the “War for Democracy” seemed a powerful opportunity to disrupt Jim Crow’s ascendancy. This talk explores how African Americans battled white supremacy during World War I —and what the war for democracy abroad meant for civil and human rights at home.
When African-American youth Sagon Penn shot two white policemen who were beating him on the streets of San Diego in spring 1985, his defense attorney argued that it was self-defense, and members of the jury agreed. This talk explores the afterlives of the Penn case, a case that did not see Penn convicted but did see him destroyed. Tracing the reaction of many white San Diegans and the ongoing fury of the local police, the talk examines how critiques of racism in policing begat revanchism rather than reform.