In Memoriam

James Oliver Horton (1943–2017)

Raymond Arsenault | Nov 1, 2017

Historian of African Americans

James Oliver Horton. Courtesy the George Washington UniversityJim Horton, a leading interpreter of antebellum African American community life and one of our discipline’s most influential public historians, died in February. Working closely with his wife, Lois E. Horton—a gifted interdisciplinary social scientist and professor emerita of history at George Mason University—he produced many important works of collaborative scholarship.

Multitalented and versatile, Jim was blessed with a beautiful singing voice, a near-perfect topspin backhand, and an uncommon flair for teaching and mentorship. His personal heroes were John Hope Franklin and Arthur Ashe, and following their lead, he enjoyed a multifaceted career that transcended the traditional boundaries of his craft.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 28, 1943, Jim first achieved success as a singer, appearing with Count Basie’s Orchestra at age 15 and later sharing a manager (and sometimes a stage) with future pop star Dionne Warwick. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Buffalo, where he met Lois Berry in 1961. They married three years later. Buffalo was also where he received ROTC training, leading to six years as an Air Force officer stationed in northern Maine (1964–67) and Hawaii (1967–70). While serving as a military policeman, he earned an MA in American studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

From 1970 to 1973, Jim pursued a history of American civilization PhD at Brandeis University, where Lois was enrolled in a PhD program at the Heller School for Social Policy. He worked with the Jacksonian scholar Marvin Meyers, who directed his dissertation on Boston’s antebellum free black community. In 1973, Jim accepted a position at the University of Michigan. He moved to the George Washington University (GWU) in 1977 and remained there until his retirement in 2008.

During Jim’s time at GWU, he and Lois produced several important books: his revised dissertation, Black Bostonians (1979); the highly influential In Hope of Liberty (1997); A History of the African American People (1997); Hard Road to Freedom (2002); Slavery and the Making of America (2005), the companion volume to a PBS documentary; and Slavery and Public History (2006).

The Hortons’ scholarship became the backdrop for a remarkable parallel career in public history. From the 1980s on, Jim probably did more than any other American historian to foster links between the academy and public history institutions. His far-flung activities included work with historical museums and government agencies, and forays into educational television, documentary film projects, and international education. His first such venture was the creation of the Afro-American Communities Project (AACP) at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in 1981. As director of the AACP for two decades, Jim mentored scores of young historians, blending archival work with public history as he deepened the relationship between African American studies and the Smithsonian. One noteworthy product of this linkage was the NMAH’s acclaimed exhibit Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration, 1915–1940 (co-curated with Spencer Crew).

In 1997, GWU named Jim the Benjamin Banneker Professor of History and American Studies. By this point, he was seemingly everywhere in the public history domain, consulting for a variety of museums and making weekly appearances on the History Channel’s History Center. He also took a year’s leave to serve as the historian-in-residence for the National Park Service (NPS), later conducting annual summer workshops for NPS park rangers. Extending his activities internationally, he delivered lectures across Europe as a visiting Fulbright professor and participated in numerous Salzburg Center seminars in Austria.

In 2004–05, Jim served as president of the Organization of American Historians. (The OAH later established the Stanton-Horton Award for Excellence in National Park Service History.) He also held several visiting appointments at the University of Hawai‘i (2006–09) and as a Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society (2010–11). Along the way, he helped his close friend Lonnie Bunch conduct the early planning for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Most important, despite contracting a rare brain disorder that pushed him into dementia during the last years of his life, he remained close to his family, spending cherished time with Lois, their son Michael and daughter-in-law Kelly, and their beloved grandsons Dana and Alex. An uncommonly humane scholar and teacher, Jim left an empowering legacy of hope, liberty, and engaged scholarship.

Raymond Arsenault
University of South Florida, St. Petersburg

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