Ira Berlin, groundbreaking historian of slavery, dies at 77

Ira Berlin, a historian whose research and acclaimed books helped reveal the complexities of American slavery and its aftermath, died on Tuesday in Washington. He was 77.

In books like “Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South” (1974) and “Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America” (1998), Berlin, a longtime professor at the University of Maryland, upended simplistic notions of how slavery was practiced and what happened after it ended.

His masterpiece was “Many Thousands Gone,” Joshua D. Rothman, history department chairman at the University of Alabama, said by email. That book recounted the first two centuries of slavery in North America and stressed “how the institution varied and was experienced differently by enslaved people over time and across space,” Rothman said.

“It’s impossible to finish that book and come away with the same stereotypes and preconceptions about slavery that you began it with,” he continued. “Yet even as Berlin centered the story on the struggles of people in bondage to make their own diverse worlds, he never let the reader lose sight of slavery’s fundamental cruelty. The level of difficulty in holding so much together in a coherent narrative is tremendous, and he managed it with elegant prose to boot.”


Berlin was also instrumental in helping to preserve and disseminate the source material for the history that he wrote about. He was the founding director of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, which since 1976 has studied, transcribed and published thousands of original documents from the Civil War and Reconstruction.

He also edited or helped edit numerous works about the period. One particularly ambitious effort was “Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation” (1998), which he edited with Marc Favreau and Steven F. Miller.

They transcribed recordings of former slaves made by the Works Progress Administration in the early 1930s. The recordings had sat for years in the Library of Congress largely untouched. A hardcover edition of the book came with cassette tapes of the actual recordings and dramatic readings by actors, including Debbie Allen and James Earl Jones.

Renée Graham, reviewing “Remembering Slavery” in The Boston Globe, called it “as vital and necessary a historical document as anyone has ever produced in this country.”

Berlin was born on May 27, 1941, in New York City. His father, Louis, was a grocer, and his mother, Sylvia (Lebwohl) Berlin, was a homemaker and later business manager for Ralph Lauren.


He grew up in the Bronx, where Van Cortlandt Park provided a green haven.

“What I didn’t know was that it was probably once Van Cortlandt plantation and that there were slaves living and working there,” he told The Baltimore Sun years later when he helped organize “Slavery in New York,” a 2005 exhibition by the New-York Historical Society.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in 1959, Berlin received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1963, a master’s in history in 1966 and a doctorate in history in 1970, all from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle and Federal City College in Washington before landing at the University of Maryland in 1974.

In 2005 he was asked how he came to be interested in slavery and African-American history.

“When I was in graduate school in the 1960s,” he said, “for many people involved in the issues of those days, the civil rights movement, there was always a desire to make your work consonant with your politics. I guess that’s where my own interest first came from.


“Probably we all thought that once we’ve figured this all out, this business of race, once we’ve learned something about slavery and its origins, its connection to race, well, we could all go home early that night. The problem would be solved. We were extremely naive.”

Whatever naivete he began with was dispelled by his rigorous research, which showed him, and by extension his students and readers, that slavery had numerous variations and that the experience of African-Americans in the United States was not one story but many.

He showed, for instance, that the North was not as free of slavery as many people thought.

“New York had slave auctions and slave whipping posts and slave rebellions,” he noted. “Everything we connect with slavery in the South was there.”

But that did not mean slavery was the same everywhere, especially once the plantation system took hold in the South. He distinguished between “societies with slaves” — where slavery was just one form of labor — and more brutal “slave societies,” where (as he wrote in “Many Thousands Gone”) “slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations: husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, teacher and student.”


The historian Steven Hahn described the effect of Berlin’s scholarship.

“He forced us to confront the deep histories of slavery and captivity in North America,” he said by email, “the enormous changes that took place as much of the country came to be dominated by slavery and slaveholders, and the central role of slaves and freedpeople in destroying the most formidable slave system in the world and in forging the road of freedom and democracy.”

Hahn singled out a series that the Freedmen and Southern Society Project began publishing in the 1980s called “Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation.” The series established an agenda that is followed by historians to this day, he said.

“His mark on the field of slavery and African-American history stands as one of the most significant since W.E.B. Du Bois,” Hahn said.

Berlin was an advocate for improved teaching of history. He helped establish teacher seminars sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, leading summer seminars on slavery for teachers from across the country, James G. Basker, the institute’s president said.


In addition to his son, Berlin is survived by his wife, Martha Chait Berlin, whom he married in 1963; a daughter, Lisa Berlin Wittenstein; and three grandchildren.

Richard Berlin said his father was particularly proud of his urging the University of Maryland to commemorate the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a Maryland native.

“He felt Douglass’ omission from the university was an incredible injustice and stain on the university that he was pleased to correct,” Richard Berlin said.

The university dedicated Frederick Douglass Square, a plaza featuring a statue of Douglass, in 2015.

That same year, Berlin published his final book, “The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States.” Edward E. Baptist, a history professor at Cornell, reviewed the book for The Times.


“Like the participants in today’s Black Lives Matter movement,” he wrote, “Berlin has not forgotten that the history of slavery in the United States — especially the history of how slavery ended — is never far away when contemporary Americans debate whether their nation needs to change.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

NEIL GENZLINGER © 2018 The New York Times


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