In Memoriam

Ira Berlin (1941–2018)

Historian of Slavery and Freedom

Julie Greene | Oct 1, 2018

Ira Berlin

Courtesy of John T. Consoli

A towering historian of the African American experience, Ira Berlin, distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland, passed away on June 5, 2018, at the age of 77. Stretching over five decades, Berlin’s scholarship transformed understandings of African American history and made struggles over slavery and freedom central to North American history. Known for his generous and spirited camaraderie with faculty, staff, and students alike, Berlin made an inestimable impact through his scholarship and teaching and in service to his profession and university.

Born on May 27, 1941, Berlin grew up in the Bronx, the son of Louis and Sylvia Berlin. He attended the University of Wisconsin, receiving a BA in chemistry (1963), then a PhD in history (1970). His dissertation became his first book, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (1974). It articulated themes that would remain central to his work: that African American history differed greatly depending on geography and economic status, and that understandings—and experiences—of freedom and slavery changed over time. In the early 1970s, he taught at Federal City College in Washington, DC (where his colleagues included C.L.R. James), before taking an appointment at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1974. In 1976, Berlin founded the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, serving as its director until 1991. That project has analyzed, annotated, and published thousands of primary documents that profoundly reshaped interpretations of African American history during the Civil War and early Reconstruction.

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998) proved to be Berlin’s most influential book, winning the Bancroft Prize, the Frederick Douglass Prize, and many others. This magisterial study demonstrated the complexity of slavery and the ways it, and constructions of race more broadly, changed over time as both slaves and masters shaped the institution. Berlin approached the history of slavery and emancipation as a labor historian—insisting often that slavery must be included as a central part of American labor history—yet his capacious approach expanded to explore the history of culture, kinship, and social relations. He also grew increasingly interested in migration, as seen notably in his books Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (2003; winner of the AHA’s Albert J. Beveridge Award) and The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations (2010).

Through his scholarship and teaching, Berlin shaped the intellectual development of many generations of scholars. As adviser or via the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, he mentored many of the most influential historians working in the United States today. He served the University of Maryland as dean of undergraduate studies and dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. In 2011, he co-founded at the University of Maryland (with the present author) the Center for Global Migration Studies, to advance knowledge of migration from a global perspective. Berlin’s work on this center reflected his determination that historical knowledge be deployed to address contemporary social problems. In 2012, he observed that nowhere on campus was there a representation of the life of Frederick Douglass, whom Berlin characterized as “surely the most important person ever to walk the earth of our state.” Berlin began an initiative to honor Douglass, leading to the inauguration in 2015 of Frederick Douglass Square, a plaza featuring an inspiring statue of the fiery abolitionist as a young man. To Berlin’s joy, the plaza immediately became the rallying place for Black Lives Matter protests on campus.

His friends, colleagues, and students remember Ira Berlin as a man with a capacious intellect, a warm heart, a fine sense of humor, tremendous energy, and an egalitarian spirit. His many collaborations speak to his love of intellectual community. Berlin’s accomplishments led him to receive innumerable grants, honors, and awards. In 2002–3, he served as president of the Organization of American Historians, and in 2004, he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2014, Harvard University awarded him the W.E.B. DuBois Medal. And in 2016, the American Historical Association presented Berlin with its Award for Scholarly Distinction.

Berlin is survived by his wife, Martha Chait Berlin; his son, Richard Berlin; his daughter, Lisa Berlin Wittenstein; and three grandchildren.


Julie Greene
University of Maryland, College Park


Tags: In Memoriam African American history


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