Three Historians Awarded Bancroft Prizes

AHA Staff, April 2005

The authors of three acclaimed books—one on constitutional law, one on the intellectual history of the American South and one on the history of Israel Hill, a free black community built in Virginia—have been awarded the Bancroft Prize for 2005.

The winners are Melvin Patrick Ely for Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf); Michael J. Klarman for From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (Oxford University Press); and Michael O'Brien for Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810–1860 (University of North Carolina Press).

One of the most coveted honors in the field of history, the Bancroft Prize (which includes an award of $10,000 to each author) is awarded annually by the Trustees of Columbia University to the authors of books of exceptional merit in the fields of American history, biography and diplomacy. The 2005 awards are for books published in 2004.

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger will present the awards to the recipients on April 27.

"Over 200 books were nominated for consideration by the Bancroft jury this year," noted James Neal, vice president for Information Services and University Librarian, who administers the prizes. "Once again, we were very impressed by the number of excellent submissions covering a broad range of themes, and are proud to announce this year's winners."

Melvin P. ElyMelvin Patrick Ely is professor of history and black studies at the College of William and Mary and is a long-time member of the AHA. He is the author of The Adventures of Amos ‘n' Andy: A Social History of an American Phenomenon. Israel on the Appomattox reconstructs the experiences of a free black community established in Virginia in the early 1800s. According to the Bancroft jury, "This model work of local history succeeds in illuminating both individual lives and large structures, both limits and possibilities, and the result is a complex and arresting story that will make us all think harder about the history of race relations in the antebellum South."

Ely got interested in the Israel Hill community, he told William and Mary News, when, as a middle-school student, he stumbled on a reference in his history textbook to Richard Randolph, who had freed his slaves and granted them land in a place named Israel Hill. When he followed up the story much later, Ely did his research the old-fashioned way, he said, poring through grit-covered documents, and making several trips to track descendants of the original settlers of Israel Hill.

Michael KlarmanEly, who received his BA, MA, and PhD from Princeton University, also holds a master's degree in linguistics from the University of Texas. He taught at Yale University before moving to the College of William and Mary.

The author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, Michael Klarman is the James Monroe Distinguished Professor of Law and professor of history at the University of Virginia. Bancroft jurors noted that "Klarman's examination of this classic problem in American constitutional history is not only our best account of Brown, its antecedents and consequences, but also goes well beyond that important story to make a larger set of arguments about the role of the Supreme Court in helping to bring about social change."

Klarman, the author of numerous articles on history and law, received his BA and MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and his D Phil from Oxford University. He also holds a JD from Stanford University's Law School.

Michael O'BrienMichael O'Brien is reader in American history at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Jesus College. Commenting on O'Brien's two-volume study, Conjectures of Order, Bancroft jurors stated, "In what can only be described as magisterial fashion, O'Brien has chronicled the lives and works of antebellum Southern writers and thinkers—from dissenters like the Grimke sisters to the man Richard Hofstadter called ‘the Marx of the Master Class,' John C. Calhoun and almost everyone in between."

O'Brien, who received his PhD from Cambridge University, is particularly interested in the history of the American South in the 19th and 20th centuries. He was previously the Phillip R. Shriver Professor of History at Miami University (Ohio). Author and editor of several other books, O'Brien is currently writing a book on Henry Adams.

The Bancroft Prizes were established at Columbia in 1948 with a bequest from Frederic Bancroft, the historian, author and librarian of the Department of State, to provide steady development of library resources, to support instruction and research in American history and diplomacy, and to recognize exceptional books in the field.

— Based on reports and information in Columbia University News, William and Mary News, and university web sites.