James O. Horton, PhD’73: Historian of Black America

Brandeis’ pint-size graduate program in American history has produced a disproportionate share of Pulitzer Prize and Allan Nevins Prize winners, as well as presidents of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). These eminent historians include James O. Horton, PhD’73, a past president of OAH, who died on Feb. 20.

Jim began his career with a dissertation on blacks in antebellum Boston, then extended his research to cover free blacks throughout the North (“In Hope of Liberty”). Usually in collaboration with his wife, Lois E. Horton, Heller PhD’77, Jim went on to publish a series of books, such as “Hard Road to Freedom,” that embraced the entire arc of African-American history. His scholarship earned him the recognition of his peers, capped with the OAH presidency.

But Jim also championed the dissemination of knowledge beyond the academy. A familiar face on television, Jim lectured widely to lay audiences (Black History Month left him particularly breathless). To keep Europeans up-to-date on the research of American historians, as a Fulbrighter he taught at universities in Munich and Leiden. He devoted himself to strengthening the mandate of the National Park System and the Smithsonian Institution. In all these endeavors, Lois — sociologist by training, historian by aptitude — served as his indispensable, inseparable partner.

Jim’s academic career did not seem predestined. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey, where the neighborhood bully, he recalled, was future poet and militant LeRoi Jones (who became Amiri Baraka). Jim exhibited such promise as a singer that he nearly joined forces with a vocalist named Dionne Warwick. Instead, he studied at the University of Buffalo, where he met Lois, then joined the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of captain.

After earning a master’s degree at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, he arrived in fall 1970 at Brandeis, where I had the pleasure of forming a lifelong friendship with him, initiated with parties fueled by a concoction called Horton Punch; sets of tennis; nonstop discussions about history; and, for me, the chance to babysit Jim and Lois’ son, Michael, as well. Jim raced through the graduate program in three years, working primarily with Professor Marvin Meyers, a specialist in Jacksonian America and, as it happens, another son of Newark.

For more than three decades, until he retired in 2008, Jim taught at George Washington University, where he became the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History. At GW, he mentored both undergraduate and graduate students; one index of how indelibly he inspired them is that he became the first recipient of the university’s teaching prize. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006.

Jim lived his life with grace and decency. Left in his wake are many mourners, acutely aware of the loss of so exemplary a teacher, scholar, colleague and friend.

— Stephen Whitfield, PhD