The American Historian

Those We Honor, and Those We Don’t: The Case for Renaming an OAH Book Award

David Varel

We historians know that struggles over public history—over who and what gets commemorated in monuments, museums, namesakes, and grade school curriculums—are as much about the present as they are the past. We also recognize that these struggles have real-world consequences for how Americans understand themselves and act in the world. 

But we historians also have our blind spots, whether through ignorance, inertia, or otherwise. Given our occupation, we should be especially rigorous in scrutinizing how we commemorate our own profession and its practitioners. As my research has unearthed, there is at least one small way (and by implication many others) in which we are falling short. 

The Organization of American Historians (OAH) should remove Avery O. Craven as the namesake of its book award in Civil War and Reconstruction history. A fitting replacement, as I’ll argue in this essay, is Lawrence Reddick. The change would better honor the OAH’s professed commitment to “the equitable treatment of all practitioners of history” and “excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history.”[1]

Avery Odelle Craven (1885-1980), an Iowa native with family roots in North Carolina, earned his Ph.D. in 1923 from the University of Chicago, where he spent most of his professorial career. Enjoying the immense perks and privileges of his elite position—then reserved almost exclusively for white men—Craven established himself as a leading historian of the Civil War. 

Craven’s most important book, The Coming of the Civil War (1942), reflected his sympathy with the Lost Cause version of history, a viewpoint he carried with him through his long career. Pushing back against progressive school historians who viewed the conflict as rooted in the North and South’s irreconcilable economic systems, Craven maintained that regional differences were more invented than real. He considered the war a tragic mistake, and he laid the blame principally on abolitionists, whom he portrayed as “extremists” who deceptively, if cleverly, caricatured the South and stoked northerners’ anger over slavery. In his terribly inaccurate rendering, slavery was “not a major economic factor in Southern life” and was “almost ready to break down of its own weight.” The slaveholder, meanwhile, was “shaped into a monster,” while “the patient Negro…went on with his tasks generally unconscious of the merits or lack of them in the system under which he toiled.”[2]

Satisfying as it may be, the point is not to tear down a historian of an earlier era from our present consensus viewpoint, which rightly views Craven’s interpretation as little more than racist propaganda. What does still warrant our attention is how Craven’s deeply flawed research did not hinder his career but actually aided his rise in the profession—not simply to promotions at Chicago but even to assuming the presidency of the OAH from 1963 to 1964. His career is a case study in just how racist and exclusionary the mainstream history profession was in the mid-twentieth century, and how much scholarship suffered because of it. 

However, one need not resort to twenty-first-century perspectives to rebuke Craven and his work. His Black contemporaries did that to remarkable effect—only their critiques and complaints were excluded from the mainstream profession and relegated to Black periodicals such as Carter Woodson’s Journal of Negro History.[3]

No one better challenged Craven directly and personally embodied an alternative praxis rooted in truth, justice, and democracy than did Lawrence Dunbar Reddick (1910-1995). Reddick, a Jacksonville, Florida, native and Fisk University alumnus, learned his approach to history from the Black history movement. Reddick was part of Woodson’s inner circle, and he learned early on that—contrary to most white historians’ views—Black people had a rich and vast history upon which to draw. As a history professor at Black colleges in the 1930s, Reddick gathered the testimony of former slaves and was part of the push that eventually convinced the Works Progress Administration to systematically compile such testimony. That work would later help transform the study of slavery in the profession. 

When Reddick enrolled in Chicago’s Ph.D. program in history and was matched with Craven as his adviser, he approached his training more critically than most other students. In letters to Black mentors and friends, he described the racist environment at Chicago generally and under Craven specifically. One remark that Reddick never forgot was when Craven once mused in class, “You know, there is a remarkable parallel between the history of the Negro and the history of the mule.”[4] In an especially revealing letter to Woodson, Reddick recalled:

Dr. A. O. Craven, leading authority on all aspects of Southern History, was lecturing the other day on the ‘Crime of Reconstruction’—his very phrase. Well, after I had stood about thirty minutes of the wrongs done the ‘Southern People’ by carpet baggers, scalawags and Negroes, I took advantage of a pause to ask: ‘Would it be scientific to consider the scalawags and Negroes as ‘Southern People’?’ It was a blow to the short-ribs. The man seemed to grasp his desk for support. He tried to stammer out some sort of an explanation. I did not push the point. I kept thinking of a bull in the bull fight reeling over the arena with the hilt buried in his head. The lecture was ruined. Apparently, his thesis had been predicated upon a certain notion that the planters et al were ‘the Southern people’. He seemed to be so happy when the end of the hour came that I felt a momentary eddy of sympathy for him. Altogether it is hopeful when such simple questions can bring down such high ‘authority’.[5]

The story, besides illuminating Reddick’s irreverent approach to Craven and the classroom, again highlights the sectional biases framing Craven’s entire corpus of scholarship. Unwittingly or not, he identified with the white planter class of the South, and his histories reflected its perspective.

Although Craven hampered Reddick, obstructed his efforts to win fellowships, and steered him away from his original thesis topic, Reddick nevertheless completed a dissertation that was a stinging rejoinder to his adviser. While Craven portrayed abolitionists as extremists and propagandists, Reddick did the same for white southern journalists and newspapermen. His project focused on the New Orleans press in the runup to the Civil War from 1850 to 1860, a decade which “saw desperate efforts toward ‘sectional nationalism’ on the part of the South in resistance to the world sweep of the forces of urban industrialism and anti-slavery.” The key theme was the stunning rise of anti-Black propaganda in these years. For example, Reddick identified “fifty-one terms derogatory to the Negro such as ‘cuffee,’ ‘Sambo,’ ‘free buck,’ and ‘wooly heads,’ while no such comparable terms of eulogy were discovered.” The reasons for this assault, Reddick explained, stemmed from the newspapermen’s role as “functionaries in a social system” that was built upon slavery. In other words, self-interest informed their commitment to slavery’s preservation in the face of internal and external threats.[6]

Reddick’s close scrutiny of New Orleans newspapers revealed a remarkably complex and conflicted society, a finding that debunked the romantic mythology of the Lost Cause at every turn. Instead of a peaceful, bucolic antebellum South, there was “great tension in ante-bellum Negro-white relations” all along. And slaves were not generally contented and compliant, but rather “the Negro slave resisted his reduction, fought back and ran away.” “Many of those who did not seek to break the system through insurrection and flight,” he continued, “sought to maintain their personalities within the system through verbal and physical assaults and the destruction of property.” Against the trope of white slaveowners and powerbrokers being a benevolent, genteel group, he offered up “the power and depth of the tremendous effort to eliminate the free Negro from the South, to drive him out of the land or into slavery,” which was not unlike “the oppressions of ethnic minorities in modern Europe.”[7]

Reddick never published his dissertation as a book, so his landmark study was all but ignored. It nevertheless laid out a set of ideas about slavery and the war that would not become common wisdom within the mainstream history profession for another half century.  

Reddick would go on to become the second curator of the Schomburg Library from 1939 to 1948, the chief librarian at Atlanta University from 1948 to 1955, and a history professor at Alabama State College from 1955 to 1960, where he participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, became a close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., and served as a founding board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a friend and Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brother of Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe, Reddick was also a leader in the Pan-African and decolonization struggle. He later helped form a Black Studies program at Temple University, served as a visiting professor at Harvard, and headed up the Opportunities Industrialization Center Institute in Philadelphia. Throughout these years he compiled primary sources about Black people to counteract the racism built into archives and allow Americans to tell a more complete and accurate version of their history. It was a radical investment in the future that continues to pay dividends.

As I show in my forthcoming book, The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power (UNC Press, 2020), Reddick was a one-of-a-kind activist, historian, librarian, documentarian, Pan-Africanist, and public scholar. By almost any measure, he was a more impressive and important intellectual than was Craven, and one closer in line with contemporary historians’ commitment to multiculturalism, truth, and democracy. Beyond his dissertation, he, too, wrote about the Civil War and Reconstruction, if in forms intended chiefly to reach a wide public audience. For instance, his book Worth Fighting For (1965) targeted young people, but it nevertheless conveyed much about the era—above all, about the central role played by African Americans—that Craven proved either unable or unwilling to accept.[8]

Therefore, the time to act is now. Rename the Avery O. Craven book award as the Lawrence D. Reddick book award. Craven had a nice, long run. Now let’s honor a figure more worthy of our admiration.

Author

David A. Varel is an affiliate faculty member at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of two books, including The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power (forthcoming, 2020), and The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (2018).

Notes

[1]Organization of American Historians, “About the OAH,” https://www.oah.org/about/.

[2]Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (1942), 118, 18, 118.

[3]See E. R. Thomas, review of The Repressible Conflict, 1830–1861, by Avery Craven, Journal of Negro History, 24 (July 1939), 345–48. Reddick was the author of this scathing review. Publishing it was not without risk for Reddick or the Journal, which is why Reddick used a pen name.

[4]L. D. Reddick, “Is the White College Better—for Blacks?,” circa 1980, box 25, Lawrence D. Reddick Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

[5]Reddick to Carter Woodson, April 19, 1937, box 10, Lawrence D. Reddick Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

[6]Lawrence Dunbar Reddick, “The Negro in the New Orleans Press, 1850–1860: A Study in Attitudes and Propaganda” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1939), 1, 2, 6.

[7]Ibid., 5. Reddick elaborated on these ideas in a prescient historiographical essay: L. D. Reddick, “A New Interpretation for Negro History,” Journal of Negro History, 22 (Jan. 1937), 17-28.

[8]Agnes McCarthy and Lawrence Reddick, Worth Fighting For: The History of the Negro in the United States During the Civil War and Reconstruction (1965).