One of the great honors of being managing editor of Perspectives has been editing the In Memoriam section. Over three years and nearly 100 tributes to historians, I have worked with dozens of authors to write reflections on their friends and colleagues who have passed away. In editing these short essays, it has always struck me what a wide impact each historian has had. Whether they have taught thousands of students; published books and articles widely read in their field; curated exhibitions; or served as department chairs, association officers, journal editors, or in other leadership roles, these historians’ work has not been forgotten.
The AHA has acknowledged and honored historians over the last 128 years through these tributes and obituaries in our publications. But obituaries also say something about how communities are defined, who is included and who is left out. Starting with the first issue of the American Historical Review in 1895 and moving to Perspectives on History in 1980, AHA obituaries offer insight into who was considered a member of the community of professional historians—and omissions suggest who was not. Along with publication of scholarship and participation in the annual meeting, obituaries are yet another site where people of color, white women, and other marginalized people were unwelcome in the AHA membership and the discipline.
As part of the Racist Histories and the AHA initiative, this month we launch Long Overdue. Inspired by the New York Times’ Overlooked series, Long Overdue is a series of In Memoriam essays for historians of color whose passing the AHA did not mark. We hope to highlight the many historians of color whose research, teaching, and service helped to shape the discipline, and to honor those excluded by AHA practices and culture in the past.
An immense data collection effort led to this project launch. In the summer of 2022, graduate intern Mohammed Ali (Duke Univ.) completed a database of AHR obituaries published between 1900 and 1980. In the fall, our staff filled in the gaps from 1895–1900 and 1980–present. This searchable database of more than 3,000 obituaries enables us to identify which historians received an obituary and which did not—including some surprising (and glaring) omissions.
We’re launching Long Overdue with a titan of the field: W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963). Du Bois’s work shaped the field of US and African American history through books like The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Negro (1915), The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (1924), and Black Reconstruction in America (1935), yet his death was noted with just one sentence in the AHR. David Levering Lewis (New York Univ.), winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his two-volume Du Bois biography, has written this Long Overdue obituary. Our colleagues at the AHR are also taking another look at Du Bois’s work. Black Reconstruction was egregiously ignored by the AHR at the time of its publication; Elizabeth Hinton (Yale Univ.) reviews it in the journal’s December 2022 issue.
As with all problems of exclusion and omission, we often don’t know what we don’t know. Therefore, we need your help. At historians.org/Long-Overdue, you’ll find a form where you can suggest historians of color for a Long Overdue obituary. With a crowdsourced list of subjects, we can expand our net as widely as possible, compare suggestions against the database of existing obituaries, and commission authors to write tributes. With your help, we hope to publish Long Overdue obituaries in every issue of Perspectives, just one small step in mitigating the harm done by racism in our publications and ensuring that the work of historians of color is not forgotten.
Laura Ansley is managing editor at the AHA. She tweets @lmansley.
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