Publication Date

January 25, 2010

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, News

Louis R. HarlanLouis R. Harlan, historian, former AHA president, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, passed away this past Friday, January 22, 2010 after a long illness. He was 87. Below we reprint the biography marking his presidential address from the 1989 AHA General Meeting booklet. Look to a future issue of Perspectives on History for an expanded remembrance.

Louis R. Harlan, president of the American Historical Association, has the distinct honor of serving as president or president-elect of the three major historical associations in the United States, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Southern Historical Association. Professor Harlan becomes the fifth president of the American Historical Association to achieve this special honor. The others were John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, Carl N. Degler, and Arthur S. Link. He is, however, the only individual to hold all three positions at the same time.

Harlan was born in West Point, Mississippi, in 1922 and grew up in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942, but was able to complete his B.A. degree at Emory University before entering midshipman’s school in 1943. He took part in the invasions of Normandy and southern France, as an officer on an infantry landing craft. When the war in Europe ended Harlan was at Eniwetok poised for the invasion of Japan.

After the war he attended graduate school at Vanderbilt University, earning a Master’s degree in 1948. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1955 at The Johns Hopkins University, where he studied under a brilliant young scholar, C. Vann Woodward, who at the time had one book to his credit, his biography of Tom Watson. At one of Woodward’s seminars the guest lecturer was a young scholar from Howard University, John Hope Franklin, who influenced Harlan’s decision to devote his career to race relations and southern history. During his years at Hopkins, Louis Harlan discovered Booker T. Washington. While researching his doctoral dissertation Separate and Unequal: Public School Campaigns and Racism in the Southern Seaboard States, 1901-1915, he was among the first to use the vast collection of Washington’s papers at the Library of Congress. But it would be a decade before he returned to the Washington manuscripts. From 1950 to 1959 he taught at East Texas State College then moved to the University of Cincinnati, where he taught from 1959 to 1965.

In 1966 he accepted a full professorship at the University of Maryland and began systematically researching and writing about the career of Booker T. Washington. His prodigious scholarship as a historian, documentary editor, and biographer resulted in numerous articles on aspects of Washington’s career in the major historical journals, a fourteen-volume documentary series, coedited with Raymond W. Smock, The Booker T. Washington Papers (1972-88), and a two-volume biography Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 (1972) and Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (1983). The fIrst volume of the biography won the prestigious Bancroft Award. The second volume won another Bancroft Award, the Albert J. Beveridge Award in American History of the American Historical Association, and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1984. Harlan’s essays on Washington, spanning twenty-five years of research, have been published as Booker T. Washington in Perspective: The Essays of Louis R. Harlan (1989).

During his career Louis Harlan has been the recipient of many honors and awards including an ACLS fellowship (1964) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1975). He was a Fellow in Residence at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California, in 1980-81. His public service includes board membership on chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union in Cincinnati and Montgomery County, Maryland. He was a member of the Maryland State Commission on Afro-American History and Culture from 1968 to 1985. He was one of the Organization of American Historians’ appointees to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission from 1984 to 1988.

Since 1985 Louis Harlan has held the title of Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. The distinguished professor designation at Maryland is held by five faculty members in all departments. He is currently writing a memoir of his experiences aboard ship during World War II.

Biography from the 1989 AHA General Meeting booklet, when Louis R. Harlan gave his presidential address.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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