Lawrence Reddick and the Communal Acts of Black History

tags: African American history, intellectual history

Stephen G. Hall is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American intellectual, social and cultural history. He is working on a second book manuscript exploring the scholarly production of Black historians in the Diaspora. He is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American History Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @historianspeaks and see additional work at historianspeaks.org.

African American history has always been a communal act. From its inception in the nineteenth century, Black men and women, ministers, abolitionists, writers, orators, and bibliophiles rooted historical sensibilities in the lived experiences of African Americans. They commemorated and celebrated the Black past in public spaces, collected and preserved the raw material of the Black past, and produced texts chronicling the Black presence from the earliest ages of humankind. They also wrote treatises and commentary on critical moments in the Black present. This expansive nineteenth-century understanding of Black history continued to be the case in the twentieth century. Rather than relegating nineteenth century Black intellectuals to the ranks of “preprofessional” historians and privileging the professionally trained, instead we should conceptualize this tradition as a continuous one that centralizes the communal in historical scholarship. This point is demonstrated in David Varel’s powerful biography, The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power. 

Lawrence Reddick’s life and career spanned the twentieth century. His historical production, like that of his predecessors, was inseparable from the communal realities faced by African Americans. Reddick’s career included stints as a college professor, librarian, journal editor, board member, participant in domestic, transnational and international organizations, community jobs coordinator, and participant in major Civil Rights and Black Power organizations. Rather than being ensconced in the ivory tower, Reddick’s life and work demonstrates that far from distortion, dilution or politicization, Black history’s communal nature has made it the most dynamic, engaged, and visionary project in the academy.  

Reddick was born Jacksonville, Florida in 1912. Trained in the Black academy at Fisk University and later at the University of Chicago, Reddick was among a small cohort of university-trained African American historians in the first half of the twentieth century.  For Black historians, however, professionalization did not mean the separation of academic inquiry or discourse from the lifeblood of the Black community’s contextual spaces and realities. At the outset of his career in Depression era America, Reddick worked as a professor at Kentucky State in Frankfort and later at Dillard University in New Orleans. He used these positions to teach innovative courses on Black Reconstruction and slavery and to collect information on the Black past through his work with the Federal Writers Project and the Slave Oral History Project, which enlisted the participation of the formerly enslaved and employed a cohort of Black interviewers. Reddick worked with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), reviewing books and taking part in the association’s daily work. While at Dillard in the mid-1930s, Reddick worked closely with University of Chicago-trained educator Horace Mann Bond and the cultural anthropologist St Clair Drake. Working toward the completion of his PhD in History at Chicago placed Reddick at the center of challenging stereotypes of Black intellectual capacity and inferiority. His graduate career coincided with the popularity of the “Tragic Era” interpretation of Reconstruction–the idea that Reconstruction was a colossal mistake which foisted federal control onto the South empowered lazy and improvident Blacks to take the reins of government and necessitated white vigilantes and terrorists such as the Klu Klux Klan to right these grievous wrongs. Reddick took every opportunity to challenge these problematic presentations of Black people in history.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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