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Nathan Irvin Huggins Biography

Early Life Marked by Racial Prejudice, Educated Amidst Civil Rights Strife



In the New York Times obituary of his death, a fellow historian called Nathan Irvin Huggins, "an extraordinary teacher who cared deeply about his students." Huggins not only spent a quarter of a century imparting knowledge to budding American historians, he also helped define the emerging field of African-American studies. Reared and educated against the backdrop of a changing America—World War II, Civil Rights—Huggins witnessed firsthand the impact of history on the present. He turned his critical eye to the study of African slaves in America as a way to understand the social fabric of modern American society. He then distilled that knowledge into a body of work that was literary, passionate, and accessible to the general public.

Early Life Marked by
Racial Prejudice

Nathan Irvin Huggins was born on January 14, 1927, in Chicago, Illinois, to Winston J. Huggins, a black waiter and railroad worker, and Marie Warsaw Huggins, a white Jewish immigrant of Polish descent. Huggins's mixed racial heritage gave him up-close, early exposure to the implications of race. When Huggins was 12, his father abandoned the family and Marie moved Huggins and his older sister Kathryn to San Francisco, California. Barely two years later, she died, leaving the two teenagers own their own. Howard Thurman, an African-American minister and scholar of black spirituals, and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman, later adopted them.

Huggins dropped out of high school to work a variety of menial jobs—porter, longshoreman, warehouse worker. At 18, near the end of World War II, Huggins was drafted into the U.S. Army. His experiences in the black corps gave him further insight into the realities of racism. He was assigned a guard post at a German prisoner-of-war facility. Despite his position of authority, Huggins was denied the right to eat in the same mess hall as the prisoners. Though they were the enemy, they were white and therefore accorded privileges that Huggins was not. Historian David Blight, writing in Reviews in American History, noted that incidents like this did not make Huggins angry. Known for his good-natured sense of humor, Huggins explored, "the bitterness of racial ironies in America, processed through metaphors of humor."

After earning his high school diploma in the Army, Huggins returned to civilian life with his GI Bill and enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley to study history. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1954 and a master's in 1955. At Berkeley Huggins studied under historian Kenneth Stampp, one of the first scholars to turn the probing light of historical research on the subject of slavery. Prior to the 1950s, slavery had been deemed unworthy of serious study. The research that had been done generally concluded that slavery was a natural system of labor, based on the inferiority of blacks and their need to be controlled by white masters—an arrangement that was both paternalistic and harmless. Huggins recalled that as a schoolboy he was taught a "rather sunny picture of slavery …about darkies sitting on a plantation, eating watermelons and singing songs," Blight noted. Stampp refuted that image, calling slavery a highly profitable economic system based on exploitation, cruelty, and fear. Stampp's analyses, coupled with the burgeoning civil rights movement, greatly influenced Huggins own way of thinking about slavery and race in America.

Educated Amidst Civil Rights Strife

In 1957 Huggins older sister Kathryn was killed in a car accident. After this tragedy, Huggins transferred to Harvard University, where three decades later he would establish the Kathryn Huggins Prize to honor outstanding undergraduate work in the field of African-American studies. At Harvard, Huggins earned a second master's degree in 1959 and a doctorate in 1962. After a cross-country maze of brief teaching posts at Long Beach State College in California, Lake Forest College in Illinois, and University of Massachusetts at Boston, Huggins landed a full professorship in the department of history at Columbia University in 1970.

Huggins's academic progress was set against the unfolding civil rightsmovement. Throughout his academic training, Huggins was legally considered a second-class citizen in much of the country. "Whites Only" signs blanketed the American South, and the North, while more liberal, was riddled by racial divisions stemming mainly from economic imbalance. He was an undergraduate when the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education declared segregated schooling to be unconstitutional. Two years after he earned his doctorate, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, criminalizing discrimination in education, employment, and public facilities. While activists from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Jr., to Malcolm X, took to the streets spurring sit-ins, protest marches, and boycotts, Huggins and other black historians, turned to the past understand the present plight of African Americans.

Huggins helped build the field of African-American history as it was happening. "Huggins entered the field of Afro-American history with, not before, the crest of revolutions in society and scholarship through which that field found extraordinary new growth," noted Blight. Huggins had a personal, passionate commitment to his field, not just as an African-American scholar, but as an African American. For this reason, much of his published work, though academically grounded, is accessible to the average reader.

Began a Decade of
Intense Academic Activity

Starting in 1971 Huggins launched a decade of intense activity. In July he married Brenda Carlita Smith, an actress and writer who in later years would co-author and edit many of Huggins works. That same year he published Protestants Against Poverty: Boston's Charities, a reworking of his doctoral thesis which analyzed the social impulses behind late 19th century poverty relief programs aimed at immigrants. The book also highlighted the role of society as a major factor in poverty, a theme that fed the civil rightsmovement, and has continued into the 21st century as a tenant of American social welfare policy.

Later that year, Huggins published Harlem Renaissance, a cultural history of the African-American arts scene that emerged in New York City's Harlem during the 1920s. Writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, musicians Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington, and painters Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence were all products of the movement. Huggins examined the Renaissance within a greater framework of American history and culture. Thirty years after its publication, Harlem Renaissance was still considered essential reading for students of this fascinating era.

At a Glance …

Born on January 14, 1927, in Chicago, IL; died on December 5, 1989; married Brenda Smith, 1971. Education : University of California, Berkeley, BA, 1954; University of California, Berkeley, MA, 1955; Harvard University, MA, history, 1959; Harvard University, PhD, history, 1962. Military : US Army, 1945-46.

Career: Columbia University, New York, NY, professor of history, 1970-80; Fulbright Foundation, Grenoble, France, senior lecturer, 1974-75; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, professor of history, 1980-89; Harvard University, Afro-American Studies, chair, 1980-89; Harvard University, W. E. B. Dubois Institute for Afro-American Research, director, 1980-89; Black Americans of Achievement, Chelsea House, New York, NY, senior consulting editor, 1980s.

Memberships: American Museum of Negro History, founding president, 1966-69; Children's TV Workshop, board of advisors, 1970s; Smithsonian Institution, council member, 1974-89; Library of America, director, 1978-89; Radcliffe College, trustee, 1984-89.

Awards: Guggenheim, fellowship, 1971-72; Ford Foundation, research grant, 1971-72; US State Department, American Specialist Award, 1976; Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences, fellowship, 1979-80.

During his ten-year tenure at Columbia, Huggins maintained an active life as an academic, becoming a noted authority in African-American studies. He was awarded several fellowships and grants from prestigious institutions such as the Guggenheim, the Ford Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences. As a Fulbright scholar he was sent to lecture in France. He served on the boards of several educational organizations including the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Council on the Humanities, the Library of America (of which he was also a director), and the Organization of American Historians. During this decade, Huggins also taught history, published scholarly papers, and traveled in Africa.

Published Seminal Work
on American Slavery

In 1977 Huggins published his third, and most acclaimed, book. At 250 pages, Black Odyssey: The Afro-American's Ordeal in Slavery was a brief tome with an expansive goal—to explain how African Americans rose up from the wreckage of slavery to build their own unique, dynamic culture. "Nowhere are the psychological dynamics of this ordeal and triumph more clearly, gracefully, or economically set forth," than in Black Odyssey, wrote Willie Lee Rose for The New York Review of Books.

The lingering impact of Black Odyssey—still required reading in African-American history courses—was Huggins's recreation of the slave experience, a task he accomplished by blurring the boundaries between academic scholarship and literary art. Though based on solid ethnographic and historical research, Black Odyssey was rooted in literature. "The prose is moving and provocative; sometimes it almost sings, and sometimes it is abstract," Blight wrote. By exploring the inner thoughts and emotions of a slave ripped from his land, chained in the dank hull of a creaking ship, and whipped bloody into servitude in a hostile world, Huggins forced readers to face hard questions. Rose noted some of those questions: "What was it really like to have been a slave? What emotions and feelings would we have had, had we been there?"

Black Odyssey was also notable for its unflinching look at the ugly realities of slavery. He blatantly called the founding of America on the backs of slaves nothing short of tyranny. He also refuted the common opinion that white Europeans were the sole architects of the slave trade, pointing out that Africans were also active participants, capturing and selling members of rival tribes in order to obtain Western luxuries such as guns, pots and pans, and clothing. Even as Huggins pointed out these hard facts of slavery, he made no grand conclusions about them. As Blight noted, "[the book] offers no ultimate resolution or happy ending." Rather it evoked reflection and feeling.

Led African-American
Studies at Harvard

In 1980 Huggins published Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, an overview of the 19th century abolitionist's life. That same year, Huggins returned to Harvard as a professor of history and chair of the Afro-American studies department. He was also appointed director of the school's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research (since renamed the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research). At the time the field of African-American studies was considered more an instrument of activism rather than of academia, and it lacked the scholarly respect of other fields. This was particularly evident at Harvard where the department had been created in reaction to student protests. In the 1970s it was isolated from the rest of the university and had trouble attracting quality professors. Hiring Huggins, with his esteemed background, was a coup for Harvard.

"Huggins opened up the Du Bois Institute to attract more interest from the undergraduate community," a Harvard historian told The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. In 1981 he established the W. E. B. Du Bois Lectureship in Afro-American life, history, and culture. The program brought black scholars from around the world to study at Harvard, including Czech scholar Dr. Josef Jarab who studied there in the late 1980s. Later Jarab helped found the Nathan Irvin Huggins Library for American Studies at Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic.

In addition to running the Harvard programs, Huggins gave lectures, wrote for scholarly and general publications, and served as a consultant to television and radio programs about the black experience. He was also the senior consulting editor for the book series, Black Americans of Achievement. He kept up this pace until his untimely death on December 5, 1989, from pancreatic cancer. He left behind him a body of work that not only shaped the course of African-American scholarship but changed the study of American history. "I find in the study of history the special discipline which forces me to consider peoples and ages, not my own," Blight quoted Huggins as saying in 1982. "It is the most humane of disciplines, and in ways the most humbling. For one cannot ignore those historians of the future who will look back on us in the same way." With a Harvard lecture series named after him, the 1995 posthumous publication of his essays as Revelations: American History, American Myths, and the continued inclusion of his works on university curriculums, Huggins was poised to fulfill his own prophecy.

Selected writings

Protestants against Poverty: Boston's Charities, 1870-1900, Greenwood Press, 1971.

Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Black Odyssey: The Afro-American Ordeal in Slavery, Pantheon, 1977.

Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Little, Brown, 1980.

Revelations: American History, American Myths, Oxford University Press, 1995.



The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, September 30, 1995.

The New York Review of Books, January 26, 1978.

New York Times, December 7, 1989.

Reviews in American History, March 1994.

—Candace LaBalle

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