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How David Brion Davis came to study slavery

Now, in 2014, David Brion Davis, age eighty-six, has published the final volume in the trilogy he inaugurated with The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (PSWC) and continued with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (PSAR) in 1975. In the years since, he also has written or edited twelve other books, and he has published in these pages a continuing account of slavery scholarship, contributing some three dozen essays since the 1970s. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which he began in 1980, completes the trilogy and is, he writes, “the fulfillment of a career.” This career has produced not just extraordinary scholarship and numbers of graduate students who are now leading historians in their own right. Davis has also been dedicated to extending and disseminating a true understanding of the place of slavery in American history by founding and then leading the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale and by offering a course on slavery for high school teachers each summer for nearly a decade.

Davis came somewhat indirectly to slavery studies. An undergraduate philosophy major at Dartmouth and then a graduate student in Harvard’s program in the History of American Civilization, he was interested in how ideas are refracted through real human problems in the everyday world. History, Davis believed, could serve as a “source for disciplined moral reflection.” In his dissertation and first book, the problem he chose to consider was homicide—how a human being can come to deny and obliterate the humanity of others. But his inquiry into the nature of dehumanization soon shifted its focus to the injustices of race and slavery that had been under increasing academic and public discussion in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Davis had himself experienced something of an epiphany on these issues during his military service at the end of World War II. A peripatetic childhood had taken him to five high schools across the North, yet he had never shared a classroom with an African-American. A training camp in Georgia introduced him to the injustices of southern segregation, but an incident on a troop ship carrying him to Germany at the very conclusion of the war made an even more forceful and lasting impression. Ordered to descend into the hold and enforce the prohibition against gambling among those quartered below deck, Davis discovered with dismay hundreds of black soldiers—whom he had not even known were on board—segregated in conditions he believed not unlike those of a slave ship. Davis’s experiences in the army introduced him to the realities of racial prejudice and cruelty that he had never imagined existed in America’s twentieth-century democracy. The shock of recognition rendered these impressions indelible, but it was a chance circumstance of his graduate school years that seems to have transformed them into a scholarly commitment.

In his time at Dartmouth and Harvard, slavery and race occupied almost no place in the curriculum. The work of the great scholar W.E.B. DuBois, for example, Harvard’s first black Ph.D., was not a part of the historical training offered by his own alma mater. But during Davis’s last spring in Cambridge, as he was finishing his dissertation, he encountered Kenneth Stampp, a visiting scholar on the verge of publishing The Peculiar Institution. Davis came to see that slavery and its abolition offered an extraordinary vehicle for examining how humans shape and are shaped by moral dilemmas and how their ideas come to influence the world.

Read entire article at NY Review of Books