Blassingame, John Wesley 1940–2000
John Wesley Blassingame 1940–2000
In public statements, such as those most often accompanying book releases, John Blassingame divulged little about his personal life. He would mention his educational and scholarly achievements, but not say anything about his childhood or his parents; nor would he relate whether or not he enjoyed reading as a small child or if he had experienced racism while he was growing up in Georgia. What is known about his life are the public facts—where he was educated, where he taught, what he wrote, and what he accomplished in his professional academic life—and these paint a picture of academic accomplishment. His efforts to recover individual stories and to correct the historical accounts that recorded black life in nineteenth-century America were sufficient contributions to the scholarly world by themselves. But in addition to his precise research and scholarship, Blassingame’s efforts to help establish effective and legitimate black studies programs at America’s universities played an important role in moving such programs into mainstream white universities. As a result, although he was best known for his studies of slavery, Blassingame’s death at age 59 also created a void in the increasingly important field of African-American studies.
John Wesley Blassingame was born on March 23, 1940, in Covington, Georgia. He was the son of Grady Blassingame. His mother’s name is unknown, but Blassingame did have a sister, Alberta. After completing high school, Blassingame attended Fort Valley State College, a small college near Macon, Georgia. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1960, and moved to Washington, D.C., to enroll at Howard University, where he earned a master’s degree in 1961. Blassingame stayed at Howard for the next several years, teaching in the social science department from 1961 to 1965. After leaving Howard, Blassingame was an associate of curriculum project in American history at the Carnegie-Mellon Foundation from 1965 to 1970. For a brief period, Blassingame was a lecturer at the University of Maryland and an assistant editor of the Booker T. Washington papers from 1968 through 1969. While still at Carnegie-Mellon, Blassingame begin studying for a doctorate at Yale University. While working on his doctorate, he was a lecturer at Yale in the history department from 1970 till 1971. Blassingame completed his Ph.D. in 1971, with the defense of his dissertation, A Social and Economic Study of the Negro in New Orleans, 1860-1880. His dissertation topic reveals Blassingame’s interest in the historical role of black Americans, especially during the period marked by slavery and the Civil War.
At some point during these years, Blassingame married. He and wife, Teasie, had two children in the early 1970s, John Jr. and Tia. During this period, he published three books in quick succession. The first book was an edited text, New Perspectives on Black Studies, which was published in 1971. In the preface to his first book, Blassingame mentioned that he had begun collecting material about black studies in 1968. He said that he began collecting material to try and “clarify” his own thinking on the subject. Blassingame
At a Glance…
Born on March 23, 1940, in Covington, GA; died on February 13, 2000, in New Haven, CT; married Teasie; children: John Jr., Tia. Education: Fort Valley State College, BA, 1960; Howard University, MA, 1961; Yale University, PhD, 1971.
Career: Howard University, instructor, 1961-65; Carnegie-Mellon Foundation, associate in curriculum project, 1965-70; University of Maryland, lecturer, 1968-69; Booker T. Washington Papers, assistant editor, 1968-69; Yale University, lecturer, 1970-71, assistant professor, 1971-72, associate professor, 1972-74, professor, 1974-2000; author, 1971-2000.
not only edited the book, but he also included two of his own essays, “Black Studies: An Intellectual Crisis” and “Black Studies and the Role of the Historian.” He concluded his first book by including a final chapter in which he offered a model for an Afro-American studies program.
As early as 1971, Blassingame was already stating his concerns about the veracity of scholarship that was evolving in the rush to establish black studies programs at universities. In the introduction to New Perspectives on Black Studies, Blassingame worried about “the glorification of the black experience,” which he feared would serve black revolutionaries and detract from real scholarship. Blassingame addressed this issue in more depth in the chapter, “Black Studies and the Role of the Historian,” in which he recounted the dismal state of black scholarship that has existed in America’s colleges and universities. Instead, of glorification and exaggeration, Blassingame called for black scholars to “record the truth,” to base their work on “a dispassionate and rational analysis of the historical causes underlying our contemporary plight.” This call for careful and accurate scholarship would be evident in the books and articles that Blassingame published during the next few years.
Blassingame was offered a tenure track position at Yale and became an assistant professor in the history department in 1971. The following year, in 1972, he published two books, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South and a short pamphlet for the Howard University History department, Sambos and Rebels: The Character of the Southern Slave. By this time, Blassingame was the acting chairman of Afro-American studies, a position he held for two years, from 1971 to 1972. Within a year of beginning his teaching career at Yale, Blassingame was granted tenure and was promoted to associate professor of history in 1972. The following year, he published his fourth book, his dissertation, Black New Orleans, 1860-1880. With his first four books, Blassingame established himself as an important figure in the newly emerging field of African-American studies that was occurring on college campuses. The following year, in 1974, Blassingame was promoted to full professor. Then, in 1976, Blassingame published his first text on Frederick Douglass, a book for the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass, the Clarion Voice. Also, in 1976, he was once again appointed acting chairman of the African-American studies department, a position he would hold until 1977.
Through the many books that he edited, Blassingame took black history away from the stereotypes of the past and substituted authentic accounts in their stead. His next book, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, was published in 1977. According to the obituary printed in the Yale Herald, this book proved to be “an invaluable treasure trove on the slave experience.” Yale’s Sterling Professor of History, David Brion Davis, said of Blassingame’s book that, “without a doubt, it is the best collection of primary sources about the slave experience in a single volume.” Blassingame continued his work on slave narratives and began compiling a record of the black newspapers that had been published in the nineteenth century. An annotated index of these newspapers, titled Antislavery Newspapers and Periodicals would be published in a series of five volumes over the next five years.
Several additional books followed, even as Blassingame was helping to establish Yale’s African-American studies department and even as he worked on the black newspaper index project. Of particular importance was the scholarly reputation that Blassingame earned for his continued work on Frederick Douglass. He served as editor of The Frederick Douglass Papers; Series 1: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, 1841-1846, volume one, which was published in 1979. Two years later, in 1981, Blassingame was finally given a long-term appointment as chairman of the African-American studies department, where he helped to establish the department’s reputation for scholarship. In a 2002 interview with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, Henry Louis Gates Jr. described Yale as having “the best Afro-American studies program in the country” during the 1970s and 1980s. Much of this success was attributable to Blassingame.
However, even with administrative and teaching duties, Blassingame continued to work on the Douglass papers. Finally, in 1982, a second volume of The Frederick Douglass Papers; Series 1, 1847-1854, was published, as well as a book that Blassingame wrote with Mary Berg, Long Memory: Black Experience in America. Volume three of The Frederick Douglass Papers; Series 1, 1855-1863, was published in 1985. In the next few years, volumes four and five would also be published, completing Series 1. Blassingame continued his work on Douglass for the next several years, receiving several National Endowments for the Humanities grants to help defray the cost. In 1999 the second series of the Douglass papers, The Frederick Douglass Papers; Series 2: Autobiographical Writings, volume one, was published.
In April of 1999 Blassingame became ill and was taken to the hospital by his son. There has been a great deal of controversy about what happened next. In an article published in the Yale Daily News, reporter Ben Trachtenberg recounted the differing stories concerning Blassingame’s illness. Doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital reported that Blassingame arrived in a coma, that he had been having difficulty breathing, and due to oxygen deprivation, the professor was in a vegetative state from which he would not recover. However, Blassingame’s family disputed those claims, arguing that the professor was speaking and moving when admitted. Trachtenberg noted that the professor’s family had distributed emails to colleagues and friends that “accused the University and the Yale-New Haven Hospital of misconduct ranging from inconsiderate treatment of family members to misdiagnosis by doctors.” In the same article of the Yale Daily News, the African-American studies department director of undergraduate studies, Robert Stepto, noted that the department had hired people who “have succeeded Blassingame in the classroom, but they cannot replace him.” He stated that “John Blassingame is an eminent historian who has been part of the program from the beginning.” Stepto went on to call him, “our elder statesman.” Blassingame’s illness would mark the end of his professional career. He would not return to the classroom again.
In August of 1999 Blassingame was moved to Gaylord Hospital where he remained until he returned home on December 14. After his return to his home, Blassingame began a regimen of physical and speech therapy but later died on February 13, 2000, at his home in New Haven, Connecticut. In the article announcing his death, reporter Tim R. A. Cooper of the Yale Daily News quoted Blassingame’s son as say that his father “had made tremendous strides in recovering from his condition.” Blassingame’s family had remained devoted to his recovery and as his son noted, his father “was never without somebody that loved him” in the struggle to regain his health. A memorial service was held at the Yale University Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel on February 19.
After his death, Blassingame was remembered in the Yale Bulletin & Calendar as “a major force in the recovery of the African-American documentary heritage.” His colleagues at Yale also credited Blassingame with “energizing scores of undergraduate and graduate students in his years at Yale, many of whom are now teaching in colleges and universities across the nation.” The accolades bestowed on Blassingame at his death were, indeed, impressive. The chair of the Yale history department, Jon Butler, noted “Blassingame’s personal warmth and elegance of scholarship” which according to Butler, “transformed African-American history and American history generally.” Butler also observed that Blassingame’s “achievements at Yale and in the historical profession will live on in the vigor of his original scholarship.” Butler’s remarks mentioned Blassingame’s “legacy of his pioneering documentary publishing,” as well as his “strong focus on African-American history,” which benefited Yale’s history department, their American studies program, and the African-American studies program.
Additional accolades came from Yale colleague Davis, who noted that beginning in 1970, Blassingame “was one of the leading pioneers in the study of American slavery.” According to Davis, Blassingame’s books, “such as The Slave Community and Slave Testimony, were among the first works to provide us with the perspective of slaves themselves.” With Blassingame’s scholarship and his willingness to search out personal letters and testimonies, he helped to establish the study of slave narratives and African-American history as legitimate fields of university study. His reliance on solid research replaced speculation and exaggeration and substituted authenticity in their place.
Blassingame was also remembered by Harvard scholar, professor, and critic, Henry Louis Gates Jr., who in an interview with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, spoke about Blassingame’s contributions to the growth of African-American studies in America. Gates listed Blassingame as one of “two fantastic black professors” who had inspired his own studies in college, and whom Gates labeled as one of a “rainbow coalition of mentors” whose presence in his life had been a blessing. In particular, Gates cited Blassingame’s “role in the creation of the Frederick Douglass papers” as “very influential in shaping my understanding of the agenda for Afro-American studies as we sought to move it from a feel-good politically based, ethnic cheerleading orientation to a real academic discipline.” Gates credited Blassingame and other like him with the survival of African-American studies on college campuses.
Gates also recalled that Blassingame “was the king of archivists.” According to Gates, Blassingame “believed that historical reality has actually been preserved on a reel and that reel was in a cave somewhere, and if you were a diligent enough historian, you could cut through the wilderness and climb the mountain, you would find that.” This relentless search for history, with its emphasis on thorough research was what good historians did to record history.
At his death, Blassingame left behind a significant legacy of work that depicted the history of black Americans in the nineteenth century. He also left two additional books on Douglass’ life unpublished. In 2001 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave was finally published, and in November of 2003, My Bondage and My Freedom, volume two of the Frederick Douglass Paper: Autobiographical Writings, Series Two will be published. While Blassingame’s death was a tragedy for his family, his prodigious work on Frederick Douglass indicated that the loss of his research and scholarship was also a significant tragedy to African-American studies.
New Perspectives on Black Studies, University of Illinois Press, 1971.
The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Oxford University Press, 1972, reissued in 1979.
Sambos and Rebels: the Character of the Southern Slave, Howard University, Dept. of History, 1972.
Frederick Douglass, the Clarion Voice, National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1976.
Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letter, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
(With Mary F. Berry) Long Memory: the Black Experience in America, Oxford University Press, 1982.
(With Mae Henderson and Jessica M. Dunn) Antislavery Newspapers and Periodicals, five volumes, G.K. Hall, 1980-1984.
(With John R. McKivigan and Peter P. Hinks) The Frederick Douglass Papers; Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews, five volumes, Yale University Press, 1979-1992.
(With John R. McKivigan and Peter P. Hinks) The Frederick Douglass Papers; Series Two: Autobiographical Writings, two volumes, Yale University Press, 1999-2003.
(With John R. McKivigan and Peter P. Hinks) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Yale University Press, 2001.
Blassingame, John, ed., New Perspectives on Black Studies, Urbana, 1971.
New York Times, February 29, 2000, p. B-9.
“Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interview,” National Endowment for the Humanities, www.neh.gov/whoweare/gates/interview.html (April 2, 2003).
“Historian John Blassingame, Pioneer in Study of Slavery, dies,” Yale Bulletin & Calendar, www.yale.edu/opa/v28.n22/story13.html (April 2, 2003).
“In Memoriam: John Blassingame, GRD ‘71,” Yale Herald, www.yaleherald.com/archive/xxix/2000.02.18/news/briefs.html (April 2, 2003).
“Professor John Blassingame in hospital since late April,” Yale Daily News, www.yaledailynews.com/article.asp?AID=2201 (May 27, 2003).
“Professor John Blassingame, 1940-2000,” Yale Daily News, www.yaledailynews.com/article.asp?AID=4602 (April 2, 2003).
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
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