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David Brion Davis, Pulitzer-winning historian who reshaped study of slavery, dies at 92

President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to historian David Brion Davis in 2014.
President Barack Obama presents the National Humanities Medal to historian David Brion Davis in 2014. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

David Brion Davis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar whose three-volume chronicle of international slavery demonstrated its centrality to Western history, laying bare its political, economic and cultural impact through prose that was rich in detail and moral power, died April 14. He was 92.

His death was announced by Yale University, where he was a professor emeritus of American history and the founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. The school did not say where or how he died.

That slavery is now seen as a defining thread of American history — the subject of great literature and art, as well as of a heated political debate over reparations in the 2020 Democratic primary — is in large part the achievement of Dr. Davis, who wrote more than a dozen books and scores of articles in a half-century career.

“No scholar has played a larger role in expanding contemporary understanding of how slavery shaped the history of the United States, the Americas and the world than David Brion Davis,” the late slavery historian Ira Berlin once said.

In a phone interview, Eric Foner, a leading historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction, highlighted “the tremendous range and breadth” of Dr. Davis’s research. “He covered centuries — millennia almost — of the history of slavery and anti-slavery thought,” Foner said. “This enabled him to really put slavery at the center of the rise of the West, where previously historians more or less dealt with slavery as a kind of footnote to American or Western history. After Davis, you could not do that.”

Dr. Davis traced his interest in slavery, and in racial discrimination more broadly, to an incident in 1945, when he was an 18-year-old infantryman sailing toward Germany aboard a segregated Army troopship. A superior handed him a billy club and ordered him belowdecks, where he was charged with keeping black soldiers from gambling.

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“I had never dreamed there were any blacks on the ship,” he later wrote. “But after descending a long winding staircase, I came upon what I imagined a slave ship would have looked like. Hundreds and hundreds of near-naked blacks jammed together, many of them shooting craps. After answering the question ‘What you doin’ down here, white boy?,’ I hid in the shadows for four hours until relieved of ‘duty.’ ”

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Dr. Davis went on to study at Dartmouth and Harvard in an era when most historians espoused the “moonlight and magnolias” myth, in which slavery was viewed as a paternalistic, mutually beneficial relationship between slaves and overseers. The Civil War was largely unrelated to slavery, most scholars said at the time, and the system was inefficient and marginal and would have ended on its own without a war.

By the late 1950s, Dr. Davis had joined historians such as Kenneth Stampp in helping to dismantle those views. Slavery, he demonstrated, was an economic engine no less productive or efficient than a 20th-century Detroit factory line. It was also a horror to enslaved Africans and marked a vexing paradox in American life.

“When teachers tell their students about the forming of ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ ” he wrote in one essay, “how many note that in 1775 the slavery of blacks was legal in all 13 colonies?”

Dr. Davis’s principal scholarly work was the “Problems of Slavery” trilogy. The series included “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture” (1966), which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction over Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”; “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution” (1975), which received a National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize for American history; and “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation” (2014), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

His other major work, “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” (2006), was relatively concise but just as sweeping, hailed as a “tour de force of synthetic scholarship” in a New York Times review by Berlin.

Among historians, Dr. Davis seemed to garner as much respect for his mentorship as his books, teaching legions of students who included the esteemed historians Edward Ayers, Karen Halttunen, T.J. Jackson Lears, Amy Dru Stanley, Christine Stansell, John Stauffer and Sean Wilentz.

“To a really extraordinary extent, David Brion Davis’s students dominate the history profession,” said one former pupil, University of Texas historian Steven Mintz. “David elicited a kind of fondness and affection and loyalty that one rarely sees. He was very humble and very modest and deeply interested in ideas. He had a way of criticizing people’s work that they only viewed as opening up new possibilities.”

Indeed, Dr. Davis viewed his work as a mentor and teacher not as a secondary job in service of his scholarship, but as an essential duty, even a privilege. “Other than the birth of my children,” he told the Connecticut Post in 2014, “I would say that the greatest joy in my life has come from teaching.”

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David Brion Davis was born in Denver on Feb. 16, 1927. His mother, the former Martha Wirt, was an artist and writer of mystery stories; his father, Clyde Brion Davis, was a journalist and novelist. The family moved frequently, and Dr. Davis attended five high schools before being drafted into the Army and trained as an infantryman.

He was serving in the military police in occupied Germany when, in 1946, his interest in history blossomed. In the study of the past, he sensed, lurked an explanation — and perhaps a cure — for the discrimination he witnessed against black soldiers, and for the wreckage of cities that “smelled of death.”

“It strikes me that history, and proper methods of teaching it, are even more important at present than endocrinology and nuclear fission,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. “I believe that the problems that surround us today are not to be blamed on individuals or even groups of individuals, but on the human race as a whole, its collective lack of perspective and knowledge of itself. That is where history comes in.”

Dr. Davis studied at Dartmouth College on the G.I. Bill, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1950. He was working toward his PhD at Harvard, nearing completion on a dissertation about homicide in American fiction, when he met Stampp, a visiting professor who was completing his influential book about slavery “The Peculiar Institution.” Dr. Davis resolved “to do for the neglected subject of American antislavery what Stampp had done for slavery.”

Broadening his interests from the abolition movement to slavery as a whole, he embarked on his “Problem” trilogy and also wrote books including “In the Image of God” (2001) and “Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery” (2006).

Dr. Davis received his doctorate in 1956 and taught at Cornell before joining Yale in 1970. He served as president of the Organization of American Historians, cultivated a long beard that earned him comparisons to philosopher William James, and retired from full-time teaching in 2001.

In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal. Dr. Davis, Obama said, “has shed light on the contradiction of a free nation built by forced labor, and his examinations of slavery and abolitionism drive us to keep making moral progress in our time.”

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His first marriage ended in divorce, and in 1971 he married Toni Hahn, later an associate dean at Yale Law School. She was Jewish, and Dr. Davis — long nonreligious, but influenced by the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr — converted, planning his bar mitzvah at the age of 80.

In addition to his wife, survivors include three children from his first marriage; two sons from his second marriage; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Although Dr. Davis spent much of his life studying one of the darkest chapters of human history, he eschewed cynicism, saying he believed that the study of the past could serve as a balm for the present.

“I have long believed that what most distinguishes us from all other animals is our ability to transcend an illusory sense of now, of an eternal present, and to strive for an understanding of the forces and events that made us what we are,” he wrote in a 2005 article for American Heritage magazine.

“A frank and honest effort in classrooms to face up to the darkest side of our past, to understand the ways in which social evils evolve, should in no way lead to cynicism and despair or to a repudiation of our heritage,” he added. “The development of maturity means a capacity to deal with truth. The more we recognize the limitations and failings of human beings, the more remarkable and even encouraging history can be.”

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