Louis R. Harlan, 87

Louis R. Harlan, 87; Pulitzer-winning historian of race relations

Dr. Harlan wrote a widely admired two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington.
Dr. Harlan wrote a widely admired two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington. (Bob Burchette/the Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010

Louis R. Harlan, 87, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at the University of Maryland whose two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington made him one of the nation's foremost scholars of the history of race relations, died Jan. 22 at a nursing facility in Lexington, Va. He had Crohn's disease, a chronic digestive disorder.

Dr. Harlan, who taught at Maryland for more than 25 years, devoted much of his scholarly career to Washington, who was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856, led the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and was perhaps the country's most prominent black leader at the start of the 20th century.

The first volume of Dr. Harlan's biography, "Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856-1901," came out in 1972 and was awarded the Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious annual honor in the field of American history. After the second volume, "Booker T. Washington: The Wizard of Tuskegee, 1901-1915" was published in 1983, Dr. Harlan won the Pulitzer Prize for biography, a second Bancroft Prize and the Albert J. Beveridge Award for the best book on American history.

His monumental study covered more than just the life of a single man, albeit a significant and complex one. Historians saw the two-part biography as a beautifully written portrait of black American life during the nation's darkest days of segregation.

C. Vann Woodward, who was often called the dean of Southern history and who taught Dr. Harlan in graduate school, wrote in the New York Times in 1983: "In a review of the first volume of this superb work of scholarship more than 10 years ago, I wrote, 'If the second volume measures up to the first, Harlan's biography of Booker Washington will be the best study we have of a black American.' It is."

Dr. Harlan delved into more than 1 million archival items in the Library of Congress to compile his biography and the 14-volume "Booker T. Washington Papers" (1972-1988). Raymond W. Smock, who helped edit the papers and last year published a short biography of Washington, said of his onetime mentor: "By any definition of the term, he was one of the leading historians of the 20th century."

During the early years of the civil rights movement, when Dr. Harlan began his research, the study of Booker T. Washington was not a popular subject. When Jim Crow laws were prevalent and lynchings were common, Washington championed a non-confrontational approach to race relations, maintaining that hard work and self-reliance would improve the lot of black Americans. He fell into disfavor among a later generation of black leaders, many of whom thought he was too willing make accommodations with white authority.

Dr. Harlan made the case that Washington was a deeply complicated man. "Washington's life and thought were layered into public, private, and secret," Dr. Harlan wrote, "and also segmented according to which subgroup of black or white he confronted. For each role, he wore a different mask."

Among Washington's 14 volumes of writings, Dr. Harlan wrote, there was "not a single love letter, not a cry of joy."

Louis Rudolph Harlan was born July 13, 1922, in West Point, Miss., and grew up in Decatur, Ga. He was on the swimming team at Atlanta's Emory University, from which he graduated in 1943.

During World War II, he was a Navy officer aboard a landing craft that transported troops to Omaha Beach on D-Day. He wrote a memoir of his Navy years in 1996, "All at Sea: Coming of Age in World War II."

He received a master's degree in history in 1948 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville and a doctorate in history in 1955 from Johns Hopkins University, where his mentor was Woodward.

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