Dr. James W. Loewen, Truth-Teller
I lost a friend when Dr. James W. Loewen passed last week (August 19, 2021). James Loewen was Professor Emeritus from the University of Vermont, a sociologist, a historian, and as the New York Times said, "...a civil rights champion who took high school teachers, college professors, and textbook publishers to task for distorting American history, overlooking Racism, and particularly the struggle of Black people in the South, by oversimplifying their experience and omitting the ugly parts." Dr. Loewen died Thursday August 19, 2021 in Bethesda, Md. He was 79.
“Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat the 11th grade,” Dr. Loewen wrote in “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” (1995), the best known of his dozen books attacking historical misconceptions. According to Loewen himself, the book was aimed to challenge the white, Eurocentric view of the American past. It has sold 2,000,000 copies.
I met Dr. Loewen ---he insisted I call him Jim---a number of years ago. He considered me, and I considered him, a Friend. I brought him to Jacksonville in 2010 for the 50th Commemorative Anniversary of the Jacksonville Youth Council NAACP 1960 Sit-ins and Ax Handle Saturday.
He spoke at the Schultz Center to a packed house of local schoolteachers...he spoke, appropriately, at Bethel Baptist Institutional Church’s Historic Sanctuary ...and he spoke at Florida Community College at Jacksonville, North Campus to a breakfast reception hosted by North Campus President, Dr. Barbara Darby.
I was in Washington DC (2017) for the book signing and the book release of Ta-Nehisi Coates' remarkable book, “We Were Eight Years In Power.” Jim was my guest along with my nephew, Cassius Priestly, and his lovely wife, my niece Jacqulyn, and friends, Mrs. Elaine Ford Jackson, and Mrs. Jackson’s daughter, Mrs. Sherri Edmond Fennell. The release was held at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC. Looking back at that event, it was fitting --for me-- to have attended such an event at historical Metropolitan AME with family, friends, and Dr. Loewen. The following evening, I had dinner at Jim’s home with his wife Susan, and noted historian and Civil War expert, the late Hari Jones (assistant director and curator of the African American Civil War Freedom Foundation and Museum in Washington, D.C.. Hari passed the following year). Talking with Two Legends! You Just Listen!
“History is by far our worst-taught subject in high school,” Dr. Loewen told "The Atlantic" in 2018. “I think we’re stupider in thinking about the past than we are, say, in thinking about Shakespeare, or algebra, or other subjects. Historians tend to make everything so nuanced that the idea of truth almost disappears.”
Jim would remark to me, “American History is full of B.S.” His “B.S” meant “Bad Scholarship.”
Dr. Loewen dismantled a fictionalized American History, exposed towns which historically excluded minorities, admonished teachers and historians for dumbing history lessons down, and as an expert witness, dealt with defendants in 50 class-action lawsuits who, according to his expert testimony, victimized people in civil rights, voting rights and job discrimination cases.
Dr. Loewen began his half-century as a university professor of sociology in 1968 at Tougaloo College, a HBCU in Mississippi. Facing his first freshman class, he posed a seemingly simple question for 17 students: “What is Reconstruction?” “Well,” he recalled them saying, “Reconstruction was the period right after the Civil War when Blacks took over the government of the Southern states. But they were too soon out of slavery, and so they screwed up and white folks had to take control again.”
Dr. Loewen’s heart sank, he told NPR in 2018. It was a glimpse of the enormous task before him: setting the historical record straight for Mississippi’s — and America’s — young students. Patiently, he explained to his class: Black people never took over the Southern states. They all had white governors, and all but one had white legislative majorities. Reconstruction governments did not “screw up.” They created the best constitutions the South had ever had, and better governments than any others in the South in the 19th century. And whites did not put things right by taking control again. The people who took charge were white supremacists, and some were original Ku Klux Klansmen.
Dr. Loewen left Tougaloo College in 1975 and for most of the next 20 years taught sociology, with an emphasis on race relations, at the University of Vermont. He was Professor Emeritus at the University of Vermont. In 1995 he published “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” his study of 12 history textbooks widely used in America. That book, which accused historians of propagating blind patriotism and sanitized optimism, and virulent racism, was acclaimed by critics and won the American Book Award. The book comprises famous chapters like 'The Truth About the First Thanksgiving', 'Gone With the Wind: The Invisibility of American Racism in American Textbooks.' Updated editions were issued in 2005, 2008 and 2018 by the New Press, which has called the book its all-time best seller.
Since 1996, Dr. Loewen had lived in Washington, where he was a visiting professor at the Catholic University of America. He lectured nationally and internationally. His other books include, “Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus: What Your History Books Got Wrong” (1992) and “Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong” (1999). His book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” (2005) documented the stories of thousands of communities from 1890 to 1968 that systematically, and often forcibly, excluded Black people, Jews and others. The word “sundown” referred to signs at city limits that warned Black people not to “let the sun go down on you” there.
"Telling the truth about the past helps cause justice in the present. Achieving justice in the present helps us tell the truth about the past." --Dr. James Loewen
It was not often I got a chance to talk with a White academic--an esteemed White academic--on a regular basis who was not afraid to talk about the Racism of American History. Talking with Dr. James W. Loewen afforded me that opportunity. I will miss our conversations...his dry (very) wit...HIS academic honesty...and I will always admire his never ending mission to correct the wrongs of what I call an Incomplete, Dishonest, and a Racist American History.
Sleep Well, MY Friend. You have earned your rest.
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Rodney. L. Hurst, Sr.