Reddick, Lawrence Dunbar 1910–1995
Lawrence Dunbar Reddick 1910–1995
Professor, historian, writer
Lawrence Dunbar Reddick was a pioneer in the discipline of African American history. During his lifetime, he taught at several prestigious universities, including Harvard and the New School for Social Research, and was curator of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Collection. Among his many publications was the 1959 book Crusader Without Violence: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Reddick was born in 1910 in Jacksonville, Florida. Following his graduation from high school he attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee, where he earned a BA in 1932 and an MA in 1933. Reddick then went on to pursue advanced graduate work at the University of Chicago.
One of Reddick’s main concerns in his academic research involved the ways that historians write about history, particularly African American history. In 1936, he delivered a lecture entitled “A New Interpretation for Negro History,” at a conference in Petersburg, Virginia. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Reddick used his speech to challenge historians to draw up a new “catalog of the determinative influences affecting Negro life.”
In an article published soon afterward, Reddick discussed the interpretation of history by African American historians, which he believed came from a particular political viewpoint. “The whole group has written under the influence of the prevailing spirit permeating the American mind. This ideology may be labeled liberalism,’” he wrote (quoted in the New York Times.) While he was not anti-liberal, Reddick claimed that “It doesn’t answer the questions why and under what circumstances things happened.”
In 1938, Reddick married Ella Ruth Thomas and he received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1939. That same year, he was named curator of what was then the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, held at the West 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Reddick succeeded the late Arthur A. Schomburg, the Puerto Rican-born African American scholar and bibliophile who had amassed the material and then donated it to the library. Renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 1972, the West 135th Street library now contains over five million items, and is considered one of the world’s most comprehensive collections on black history, literature, and culture.
During Reddick’s tenure as curator, however, he was continually frustrated by what he considered to be inadequate facilities and staff. After nine years, he resigned the post. “The major responsibility for the discouraging conditions confronting the Schomburg
At a Glance…
Born Lawrence Dunbar Reddick, 1910, Jackson ville, FL;died August 2, 1995, in New Orleans, LA; married Ella Ruth Thomas Reddick, 1938. Education: Fisk University, BA, 1932, MA, 1933; University of Chicago, PhD, 1939.
Career: Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, curator, 1939–48; University of Atlanta, history professor and chief librarian, 1948–55; Alabama State College, Montgomery, history department chair, 1956–60; Cop-pin State Teacher’s College, Baltimore, professor of history and politics, 1960s; Temple University, Philadelphia, history professor, beginning in 1967; Harvard University, visiting professor of African American studies, 1977–78; Dillard University, New Orleans, professor of African American history, 1978–87.
Selected writings: Author, Our Cause Speeds On (1957), Crusader Against Violence: A Biography of Martin Luther King, fr (1959), The Southerner as American (1960), Worth Fighting For: A History of the Negro in the United States During the Civil War and Reconstruction (1965).
Awards: Lawrence Dunbar Reddick Memorial Scholarship Award established by the Association of Third World Studies, 1995.
Collection rests with the city fathers,” he said at the time (quoted in Reddick’s obituary in the New York Times).
In addition to his work in African American history, Reddick was also interested in depictions of African Americans in popular culture. In 1944, long before film studies was considered a serious academic pursuit, Reddick identified a list of nineteen stereotypical movie roles that African American actors were allowed to play. These roles ranged from “the savage African,” “the happy slave,” and “the devoted servant,” to “the vicious criminal,” “the sexual superman,” and “the unhappy non-white.” Reddick’s pioneering work is still frequently quoted by critics writing about film portrayals of African Americans. He was also a staunch critic of openly racist films such as Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film directed by D.W. Griffith, which Reddick considered a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. According to film historian Donald Bogle, “Reddick added that the film’s immense success was at least one factor contributing to the great and growing popularity the organization enjoyed during this period.”
From 1948 to 1955, Reddick was a professor of history and chief librarian at the University of Atlanta. The following year, he became chair of the history department at Alabama State College in Montgomery. He arrived in the city during the height of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During the 1960s, as the civil rights movement spread across the United States, Reddick worked closely with King. In 1959, he travelled with King and his wife, Coretta, to India where King paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi, the man who had inspired his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. Reddick also accompanied the couple to Oslo, Norway in 1964, when King received the Nobel Peace Prize.
During his five years at Alabama State, Reddick wrote several books on African American history and politics, including Our Cause Speeds On (1957) and The Southerner as American (1960), which he co-authored. In 1959, he published Crusader Without Violence: A Biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Reddick concluded the book with optimistic words about King’s future, a future that would be brutally ended only nine years later by an assassin’s bullet. “At 30, with international recognition, he should have decades of usefulness ahead. We should all want this promise to be realized, for perhaps he and others like him may be able to help us survive the days of anguish that are upon us. Even in a mad world, the spirit of man may yet prevail.”
In 1960, Reddick was dismissed from Alabama State upon the insistence of Governor John Patterson, who claimed that Reddick was a Communist sympathizer. Reddick denied the charge, asserting that the governor had deliberately generated the controversy to distract the public from his own financial and political problems. He then accepted a position as professor of history and politics at Baltimore’s Coppin State Teachers College. During this time, Reddick co-wrote Worth Fighting For. A History of the Negro in the United States During the Civil War and Reconstruction, which was published in 1965. Unlike his previous works, this book was designed to appeal to youngsters. “Today, Negroes have taken up the battle again,” Reddick wrote in the book’s conclusion. “They fight not with sword and bayonet, but with the full force of Federal law behind them. For this time the fight is not to win freedom. It was won a hundred years ago. The fight now is to insure that every person can get the rights of full citizenship promised by the Constitution.”
In 1967, Reddick joined the history department at Temple University in Philadelphia, and eventually became a full professor. From 1977 to 1978, he was a visiting professor of African American studies at Harvard University, where he taught a course entitled “Black Revolution, 1955–1975” as well as a course on the state of African American families in the United States. Reddick moved to New Orleans in 1978, where he taught African American history at Dillard University.
Reddick retired in 1987, after more than forty years of teaching. He died on August 2, 1995 in New Orleans at the age of 85. That same year, the Association of Third World Studies honored his innumerable academic contributions by establishing the Lawrence Dunbar Reddick Memorial Scholarship Award.
Jet, October 30, 1995, p. 52.
New York Times, August 16, 1995, p. D20.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Continuum, 1994.
Mapp, Edward, Blacks in American Films: Today and Yesterday, Scarecrow Press, 1972.
McCarthy, Agnes, and Lawrence Reddick, Worth Fighting For: A History of the Negro in the United States During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Zenith Books, 1965.
Website for the Association of Third World Studies. URL:www.ecnet.net/users/mfmbk/atws/assoc.htm Website, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
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