Loewen, James W. 1942–

views updated

Loewen, James W. 1942–

(James Lyons)

PERSONAL: Born February 6, 1942, in Decatur, IL; son of David Frank (a physician) and Winifred (a librarian) Loewen; divorced; children: Bruce Nicholas, Lucy Catherine. Education: Carleton College, B.A. (cum laude), 1964; Harvard University, M.A., 1967, Ph.D., 1968. Politics: Independent. Religion: Unitarian Universalist.

ADDRESSES: Home—Washington, DC. Office—c/o Department of Sociology, University of Vermont, 31 Prospect St., Burlington, VT 05405. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, MS, assistant professor, 1968–70, associate professor of sociology, 1970–75, chairperson of Sociology and Anthropology Department, 1969–73, chairperson of Division of Social Science, 1972–74; University of Vermont, Burlington, associate professor, 1975–83, professor of sociology, 1984–96, professor emeritus; Smithsonian Institution, senior research fellow, 1997–2000; Catholic University, adjunct professor, 1997–. Center for National Policy Review, Washington, DC, director of research, 1978–80; served as an expert witness in civil rights cases for U.S. Department of Justice, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and others; lectured and presented papers to various professional organizations.

MEMBER: American Sociological Association, American Studies Association, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians (distinguished lecturer).

AWARDS, HONORS: Distinguished Teacher Award, Tougaloo College, 1970–71 and 1972–73; National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, 1975; Lillian Smith Award for Southern nonfiction, 1975, for Mississippi: Conflict and Change; First Annual Sidney Spiv-ack Award, American Sociological Association, 1978; Fulbright scholarship for Australia, 1981; Smithsonian Institution fellow, 1990–91 and 1993; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1996, Critics Choice Award, American Educational Studies Association, and Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship, all for Lies My Teacher Told Me; Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism was named a Distinguished Book of 2005 by the Gustavus Myers Foundation.


The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1971.

(With Charles Sallis and others) Mississippi: Conflict and Change, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1974, revised edition, 1980.

Social Science in the Courtroom: Statistical Techniques and Research Methods for Winning Class-Action Suits, Lexington Books (Lexington, MA), 1982.

Social Science in the Courtroom, Heath (Lexington, MA), 1983.

The Truth about Columbus: A Subversively True Poster Book for a Dubiously Celebration Occasion, New Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, New Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Rethinking Our Past: Recognizing the Facts, Fictions, and Lies in American History (sound recording; seven CDs), Recorded Books (Prince Frederick, MD), 2004.

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, New Press (New York, NY), 2005.

Author of introduction, We are the People: Voices from the Other Side of American History, edited by Nathaniel May and Clint Willis, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2003; author of short works, including Sociology at Vermont (How, Maybe Even Why, to Major in It) (booklet), 1977; If Your State History Is Dull and Boring, Here's How to Fix It (resource packet), 1977; a script for the documentary film The Spirit of Kake Walk, 1978; and Revising State and Local History Books (booklet), 1980. Contributor to books, including Rethinking Columbus, edited by Bill Bigelow and others, and The Oxford Companion to Military History; contributor to national journals and professional publications, including Monthly Review, including under pseudonym James Lyons; editor of Clearinghouse for Civil Rights Research, 1978–80.

ADAPTATIONS: The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White was adapted as a motion picture and produced under the title Mississippi Triangle by Third World Newsreel, 1984.

SIDELIGHTS: James W. Loewen told CA: "One of my most vivid memories is of a freshman social science seminar at predominantly black Tougaloo College one morning in the early 1970s. Afro-American history was the subject of the semester, and I needed to find out what my students already knew about it. 'What was Reconstruction?' I asked. 'What images come to your mind about that era?' The class consensus, with but one exception, went like this: Reconstruction was the time when blacks took over the governing of several Southern states, including Mississippi, but they were too soon out of slavery, so they messed up, and the whites had to take back control of the state governments themselves.

"So many misconceptions of fact mar that statement that it's hard to know where to start rebutting it. But the crucial question is: Why would a group of black Americans believe a myth about the past that connoted such tragic incapability about their own people? (And whites who believe this myth conclude erroneously that it is only right that blacks be governed by whites, unless the colored races can be helped along toward citizenship via the elixir of education.)

"Their answers were programmed, of course, by their prior 'education.' Any history book that celebrates, rather than examines, our heritage has the byproduct, intended or not, of alienating all those in the 'out group,' those who have not become affluent, and denies them a tool for understanding their own group's lack of success. Seems as though, incredible as it sounds, the old cliche is correct: the truth will make you free. It's this truth that social science, including history, is hopefully about, and that I've tried to capture in my own writing. 'Performance,' as a previous writer on the South observed, 'is another matter.'"

Loewen has devoted much of his life and most of his career to righting what he believes are the wrongs of American historiography. His 1974 textbook (with coauthors) Mississippi: Conflict and Change has been called the first "integrated" history of a state. Although the volume was awarded the Lillian Smith Award for southern nonfiction, the work was not universally accepted. The state of Mississippi refused to allow the use of the book in public school classrooms, and this led to Loewen et al. v. Turnipseed et al., a lawsuit based on First Amendment rights.

Nearly twenty years later Loewen published Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. This award-winning book distinguished the author as "a one-man historical truth squad," as Eric Foner reported in the Nation. His objective was to correct, not just the obvious lies that American schoolchildren had been reading for decades, but the misleading information, no matter how well intended. He also sought to redress the omission of historical achievements by marginalized Americans whose stories rarely surfaced in the public schools.

Loewen followed this work with a study of the less formal history lessons that assail Americans of all ages and walks of life. Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong evaluated the messages and often subtle implications of public monuments and historical markers. Loewen, then retired from university teaching, visited historic sites and monuments in every state and found remarkable errors and oversights. He particularly noted commemorations to geographical "discoveries" that completely ignore indigenous populations and earlier explorers. He also observed a dearth of testaments to the accomplishments of controversial figures such as social activists or political radical idealists. He found that war memorials are notoriously one-sided about glorifying victory and overlooking its cost and consequences. In his book, though, Loewen's greatest concern is the same one that he voiced in earlier writings. "For Loewen," Foner commented, "the great scandal of our public history is the treatment of slavery, the Civil War and the country's long history of racial injustice." This treatment may be particularly visible in the American South, but Loewen found similar evidence in all of the fifty states he visited.

While many history books have been corrected and updated, America's historical landmarks—the public history—continue to propagate the errors and biases of the times in which they were established. Not surprisingly, Loewen acknowledges, the people who erect monuments are those with the power to sway public opinion and the financial backing to implement their wishes; the downtrodden, the victims, and the underdogs are not likely to have the resources necessary for such an effort. Moreover, the same people generally want to glorify their achievements, not immortalize their weaknesses or celebrate their defeats. He also identifies a few of the many efforts in recent years to redress the imbalances. Lies across America represents a demand, Foner explained, "that existing historical sites must be revised to convey a more complex and honest view of our past," and new memorials must be created to cover a broader spectrum of achievements, particularly of those individuals who have been disenfranchised until now.

Foner praised this "lively and informative" book as "a devastating portrait of how American history is commemorated." Likewise, in the Library Journal Joseph Toschik recommended Lies across America as "an often amusing look at the strange and sometimes sinister motivation" of the builders of America's monuments to history.

In Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Loewen provides histories of towns that successfully blocked residency by blacks and Jews. In his home state of Illinois, Loewen found 472 of these towns, while in Mississippi, he was able to identify only half a dozen. In an interview with Michael Causey for the Washington Independent Writers Web site, he commented that in his six years of research, he was surprised to discover that instead of the approximately fifty he expected to find nationwide, he found thousands. Loewen focuses on the period from 1890 to 1968 and speculates as to why it took so long for some of these towns to become integrated. The title is taken from a warning given to blacks who were advised to be out of town by sundown. In reviewing the book for the Washington Post Book World, Laura Wexler concluded that, "for its meticulous research and passionate chronicling of the complex and often shocking history of whites-only communities, Sundown Towns deserves to become an instant classic in the fields of American race relations, urban studies and cultural geography."



American Prospect, May 8, 2000, Edward Cohn, review of Lies across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong.

Booklist, October 1, 2005, Vanessa Bush, review of Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, p. 10.

Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7, 2005, Jennifer Howard, "'Ethnic Cleansing' in the United States," interview with Loewen.

Educational Leadership, April, 1997, Bill Johnson, review of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, p. 90.

Historian, fall, 2002, Spencer R. Crew, review of Lies across America, p. 173.

History: Review of New Books, spring, 1997, Whitaker T. Seininger, review of Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 100.

Library Journal, October 1, 1999, Joseph Toschik, review of Lies across America, p. 110; October 1, 2005, A.O. Edmonds, review of Sundown Towns, p. 94.

Nation, spring, 1997, Jon Wiener, review of Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 458; November 8, 1999, Eric Foner, review of Lies across America, p. 29.

New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1999, review of Lies across America, p. 41.

Publishers Weekly, July 25, 2005, review of Sundown Towns, p. 55.

Reference & Research Book News, November, 2005, review of Sundown Towns.

Washington Post Book World, October 23, 2005, Laura Wexler, review of Sundown Towns, p. 3.


Dallas Morning News Online, http://www.dallasnews.com/ (November 7, 2005), Jerome Weeks, review of Sundown Towns.

University of Vermont Web site, http://www.uvm.edu/ (October 16, 2006), biography.

Washington Independent Writers Web site, http://www.washwriter.org/ (October 16, 2006), Michael Causey, "Q&A with James W. Loewen."