His Life-Changing Moment Came at Age 5: An Interview with Historian Peter H. Wood


Tiffany April Griffin is an HNN intern with a bachelor's degree in history. 

Peter H. Wood is professor emeritus of history at Duke University. He was educated at Oxford and Harvard, where he earned a PhD in 1972.   He is the author of many books including Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion, which Edmund Morgan said had "gone beyond any previous study of the history of slavery in the colonial period."

Why did you choose history as your career?

Both my parents were scientists, but I faint at the sight of blood, so medicine was out. They nurtured a love of fact over fiction, so even though I wrote lots of poems, I was not going to be a novelist. Also, I was a lefthander who could never hit curve balls very well, so I gave up my dreams of being the next Stan Musial for the St. Louis Cardinals. I guess that was fact triumphing over fiction!

I fell in love with history early, because it allowed me to roam widely. Most careers address some slice of life, while history allows you to go anywhere. Not just any place or time, but bringing any tools you wish and can manage. If you are fascinated by economics or astronomy, feminism or religion, literature or cooking, you can probably bring that interest to bear. Our own strengths and weaknesses, personal interests and blind spots tend to shape our work as much as any “availability of sources.”

Who was your favorite history teacher?

Reaching college, I found that many classmates had endured scores of mediocre teachers and had encountered few, if any inspiring ones. I was amazed, since my own experience had been the opposite. From the start, I was lucky—maybe privileged is a better word—to have a huge range of terrific teachers at every stage, and certainly half a dozen stand out when it comes to being inspired to study history.

In St. Louis, a legendary fifth-grade teacher named Ruth Ferris made life on the Mississippi River central to everything we did. I moved to Baltimore after the seventh grade, and the next year Ludlow Baldwin, a would-be archaeologist, infused me with his enthusiasm for the ancient Mediterranean world. Another teacher and coach, Nick Schloeder, went out of his way to help me see beyond the narrowness of our small private school, still thoroughly segregated in the 1950s by class, race and gender.

In my first college semester, a lecture class on American social history with Professor Oscar Handlin introduced me to a broad interdisciplinary world that I hardly knew existed. After graduation, time at Oxford’s Merton College kept my string of marvelous mentors intact. When I returned to Harvard for graduate school, J. H. Parry stirred my interest in oceanic and intercultural history, and Bernard Bailyn showed me the endless vitality of the early American field. He taught me, and many others, that there’s no limit to difficult and rewarding primary research, and no substitute for clear and engaging prose.

Which history museums are your favorites? Why?

Ten years ago I had the good luck to visit the Corinium Museum in Cirencester, a market town in east Gloustershire that was the site of a Roman town. I love archaeology, so I was fascinated by their artifacts from ancient Britain. But what intrigued me most was seeing how creatively they had made this history museum accessible and exciting for young people. Below the wall copy for adults, they had simple large-print explanations for children, posted at their eye level but not dumbed down.

For me, art museums are also history museums, and I grew up with the idea that good history and good art belong together. That’s certainly the conviction behind three books that I have written over the years about the powerful images of African Americans created by the great artist Winslow Homer. One museum in particular nurtured this conviction, and I had a wonderful guide. Seventy years ago, I would visit the St. Louis Art Museum regularly with my mother. I still recall the imposing equestrian statue of King Louis IX of France (Saint Louis) that stands out front. Inside, the changing displays of objects made art and history come alive in ways that have shaped my life. What a gift.

Early in 1949, an exhibition touring the U.S. to raise funds for the Marshall Plan came to St. Louis. It was called “Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums.” I had the chance to stand in front of Rembrandt’s Man with a Golden Helmet. It seemed both awesome and accessible. If you can have life-changing moments at age five, that was one for me. Another came that fall, when the museum staged a show about the Mississippi River, full of captivating 19th-century images by George Catlin, George Caleb Bingham, Seth Eastman and others. (I had already ridden one of the river’s last stern wheelers, when our family took an excursion from St. Louis to Mark Twain’s Hannibal on the steamboat Gordon C. Greene.) 

The exhibit’s centerpiece was a century-old panorama, painted in 1850 on a huge strip of muslin sheeting, seven and half feet high and nearly 350 feet long. This giant scroll unwrapped between two bobbins, conveying a chronological history of the river. I recall seeing “DeSoto’s Nighttime Burial” as the painted scenes spooled by in a darkened room. Generations earlier, other children had watched this primitive “moving picture” flow past them at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

Ever since, I’ve loved the history of rivers, and of that river in particular. Indeed, I am sure this helps to explain why I wrote an essay about the French explorer La Salle for the American Historical Review in 1984, and why in retirement I have been researching dugout canoes on the ancient Mississippi. After lots of paddling, my piece on dugouts will appear in the journal Early American Studies this spring.

What was your favorite historic site trip? Why?

Starting with that childhood trip to Hannibal, I have done my share of historical tourism over the years. I still enjoy seeing historic locations that I have read about, or even written about. But now I am also trying to give back a bit. Last June I had a chance to accompany half a dozen Boulder public school teachers on their first trip to the South Carolina Lowcountry. They are eager to teach more African American history in their school district, so we formed a group called AT LAST: Alliance for Teaching the Legacies of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Lucky for me, they chose to focus on South Carolina.

Our visit started at Sullivan’s Island overlooking Charleston harbor, where tens of thousands of captured Africans caught their first glimpse of the “strange new land” where they would be forced to work on huge plantations. Thanks to expertise brought from Africa, they would grow rice and indigo in these swampy slave labor camps, contributing generations of unpaid labor. At the basketry pavilion in nearby Mount Pleasant, we met with Gullah basket makers, still carrying on another tradition tied to Africa, and at Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum we gathered information to take back to Colorado. 

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