In Memoriam: August A. Meier
David Levering Lewis, September 2003
From the In Memoriam column of the September 2003 Perspectives
August Meier, University Professor Emeritus at Kent State University, died on March 19, 2003, in New York City in the care of his niece Diane Meier, a geriatric physician, and his brother Paul Meier and wife Louise. Death came after several years of impaired health due to a series of strokes. Born on April 30, 1923, and reared in Newark, New Jersey, Meier and his brother Paul completed undergraduate education at Oberlin College where parentally inculcated civil rights principles impelled both to flout the college's segregated dormitory policy. They resided off campus with African American students.
From friendships formed at Oberlin and summer work experiences at a War Department agency in Newark, where a third of the employees were nonwhite, Meier developed an academic interest in race relations at Columbia University that led to an MA (1949) and PhD (1957) in what was then known as Negro History. His dissertation under Henry Steele Commager, as definitive in scope as it was unprecedented in original length, was published as the foundational Negro Thought in America: 1880–1915 (1963). By the close of the 1960s, Meier had few peers in the field of Black History, an eminence not without controversy because of his demanding standards and well-known abrasiveness.
Meier began his teaching career at Tougaloo College (1945–49), a private institution in Mississippi, followed by three years at Fisk University (1953–56) in Tennessee, and a highly productive tenure at Morgan State College (1957–64) in Maryland-all of which were historically black institutions and where his reputation as an inspiring teacher and eccentric still lingers. In 1967, he departed Chicago's Roosevelt University for a professorship at Kent State University (1967–93). Meier's mentoring of outstanding graduate students, pathbreaking scholarship in partnership with Kent State sociologist Elliott Rudwick, founding editorship of the Atheneum Press series, Studies in American Negro Life, and the prestigious University of Illinois Press series, Blacks in the New World, and strengthening of the library's special collections greatly enhanced the KSU graduate history program.
In addition to his chef d'oeuvre, Negro Thought in America, Meier authored or edited 11 books, several of them in collaboration with his alter ego, Elliott Rudwick. The Meier-Rudwick textbook, From Plantation to Ghetto, (1976), remains a staple of the bibliography, as does their collection of indispensable essays, Along the Color Line: Explorations in the Black Experience (1976), and the ambitious Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980 (1986). One of their institutional histories, the ecumenical CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement (1973), is not likely to be superseded. The incisive analysis of their prizewinning Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW (1979) was recognized as a model of the genre. Another collaboration of enduring utility was the multiauthored collection of essays edited with John Hope Franklin, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1982).
As monographs and editions succeeded one another, along with a plethora of articles, the profession awaited the appearance of Meier and Rudwick's history of the NAACP. A compulsive perfectionism, fruitful sidebar studies, Rudwick's early death, and the onset of neurological complications ultimately deprived the world of what would have been scholarship of a singular achievement. Notwithstanding the diminishing prospects for the completion of the NAACP monograph, Meier retained his commanding presence in the field. His research received fellowship support from Guggenheim (1971–72), NEH (1975–77), and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. A collection of essays, A White Scholar and the Black Community, appeared the year prior to his retirement from KSU in 1993. These essays were, for Meier, surprisingly confessional and prompted his friends to persuade him to begin work on a full-fledged autobiography. It was unfinished at the time of his death.
Meier's career was exceptional for its meld of demanding research scholarship and civil rights activism. In 1951–52, and again in 1956–57, he served as secretary of the Newark branch of the NAACP. He was a member of the Baltimore chapter of SNCC (1960–63) and a member of the Baltimore chapter of CORE (1963–64). He served as faculty adviser to a nonviolent student action organization at Morgan State College, which ultimately led to his arrest for participating in a civil rights demonstration in Baltimore. He ventured to debate Malcolm X in public when the Black Muslim leader appeared on campus at the behest of Morgan students, a moment "Augie," as he was known to his friends, savored the rest of his life. He successfully protested the Southern Historical Association's holding of its annual meetings in segregated hotels.
August Meier was elected president of the SHA in 1992, and he received the AHA's Award for Scholarly Distinction in 1998. After the death of his collaborator and partner, Elliott Rudwick, Meier eventually moved to New York City from his retirement home in Kent. August Meier's intellectual rigor, archival industry, and unstinting involvement in every aspect of African American history were of inestimable value to the evolution of this field during the late 20th century.
—David Levering Lewis, NYU