Yale Bulletin and Calendar

February 25, 2000Volume 28, Number 22

John Blassingame

Historian John Blassingame,
pioneer in study of slavery, dies

John Blassingame, 59, a Yale historian renowned for his studies of slavery and former chair of the University's African American Studies Program, died Feb. 13 after a long illness.

A memorial service was held at the Divinity School's Marquand Chapel on Feb. 19.

Professor Blassingame's career advanced rapidly at Yale. He first joined the faculty in 1970 as a lecturer, and was made a tenured associate professor of history in 1973. A year later, he was promoted to full professorship.

Professor Blassingame was noted for his industrious scholarship. He published three books almost simultaneously: an edited book, "New Perspectives on Black Studies" (1971); "The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South" (1972); and "Black New Orleans, 1860-1880" (1973).

These books broke new ground in the emerging field of African American studies and were hailed by critics for replacing erroneous and highly stereotypical histories with rich, complex portraits of emerging African-American societies before and after the Civil War.

Professor Blassingame also became a major force in the recovery of the African-American documentary heritage. He assumed editorship of the "Papers of Frederick Douglass" in the mid-1970s and published six volumes of Douglass' papers and manuscripts between 1979 and 1999. He also pioneered the recovery of autobiographical materials by former slaves, which he collected in his massive and highly acclaimed collection "Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies," published in 1977.

His Yale colleagues credit Professor Blassingame's mentorship 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. He was an early member of Yale's then fledgling African American Studies Program, where he served as acting chair in 1971-72 and in 1976-77 and then as chair between 1981 and 1989. He held these posts while continuing an active affiliation with both the Department of History and the American Studies Program.

"John Blassingame's personal warmth and elegance of scholarship transformed African-American history and American history generally," said Jon Butler, chair of the history department. "His achievements at Yale and in the historical profession will live on in the vigor of his original scholarship, in the legacy of his pioneering documentary publishing, and in the strong focus on African-American history that for more than 30 years he brought to Yale's history department, the American Studies Program and the African American Studies Program."

Among Professor Blassingame's greatest scholarly contributions were his works that provide accounts of slaves' lives, says David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History.

"Beginning in 1970 he was one of the leading pioneers in the study of American slavery," Davis commented. "His books, such as 'The Slave Community' and 'Slave Testimony,' were among the first works to provide us with the perspective of slaves themselves. For the latter work, Professor Blassingame collected an unparalleled assortment of slave letters, interviews and other materials that convey what it really meant to be a slave.

"Professor Blassingame also launched the Frederick Douglass Papers project, illuminating the life of the most important and influential African American of the 19th century," Davis adds.

Mr. Blassingame was born in Covington, Georgia, in 1940. He received his B.A. at Fort Valley State College in 1960, an M.A. at Howard University in 1961, and his Ph.D. at Yale in 1971. He served as an instructor at Howard University from 1961 to 1965 and then was an associate at the Carnegie-Mellon Foundation until he began his doctoral studies at Yale.

Professor Blassingame is survived by his wife, Teasie; a daughter, Tia; a son, John; and his father, Grady Blassingame. Memorial contributions may be made to the Fort Valley State University Foundation, 1005 State University Drive, Fort Valley, GA 31030.


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