Louis R. Harlan, biographer of Booker T. Washington, dies

Historians in the News

[Ray Smock is the former Historian of the U. S. House of Representatives (1983-95). He is a graduate of Roosevelt University in Chicago and holds the Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland at College Park. He was co-editor of the 14-volume documentary series The Booker T. Washington Papers. His latest book is Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow (2009).]

Louis R. Harlan, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, one of the leading American historians of his generation, died on January 22, 2010, after a long illness. He was 87. Born in West Point, Mississippi and reared in Atlanta and Decatur, Georgia, Harlan earned his Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins in 1955, where he was a student of C. Vann Woodward.

Harlan is best known for his work on Booker T. Washington, which included coediting
the fourteen-volume The Booker T. Washington Papers (1972-89) and writing a two-volume biography of Washington Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901 (1972 ) and Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915 (1983). Both volumes won Bancroft Prizes and the second volume received the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1984. Harlan’s many scholarly articles on Washington were collected in Booker T. Washington in Perspective: Essays of Louis R. Harlan (1988), edited by Raymond W. Smock. Harlan’s first book Separate and Unequal: Public School Campaigns and Racism in the Southern Seaboard States (1958) was a seminal study of black education in the South.

His service to the historical community included the presidency of the three major professional associations, The Southern Historical Association, The Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association. At the time only four other historians had served as president of all three associations: John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, Carl Degler, and Arthur S. Link.

Harlan enlisted in the Navy in 1942 but completed a B.A. degree at Emory University before entering midshipman school in 1943. He served as an officer on an LCI, which ferried troops during the Normandy invasion. When Japan surrendered, his ship was at Eniwetok atoll, preparing for the invasion of Japan. Harlan’s last book length publication was an account of his wartime experiences All at Sea: Coming of Age in World War II (1996).

Harlan is survived by his wife of 61 years, Sadie, of Lexington, VA and two sons. Sadie Harlan was a long-time editorial assistant and researcher on the Booker T. Washington papers project and is known to many historians who frequented the main reading room of the Library of Congress from the late 1960s through the 1970s as the project staff poured though the voluminous files that composed the Booker T. Washington collection

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