Leon Litwack: 1929-2021In Memoriam | Thu Sep 09, 2021 | 9:45am
American historian Leon Litwack died on August 5 at the age of 91, after a teaching career at UC Berkeley and a Pulitzer Prize for Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. He got his start in Santa Barbara and returned in 2013 to give a talk, which Indy staffer Brandon Fastman previewed. We run it here again in remembrance of a remarkable man.
Before giving birth to Santa Barbara’s most celebrated purveyor of Mexican-style street food, the plot where La Super-Rica Taquería now stands housed one of our generation’s brightest chroniclers of African-American history. Growing up with working-class immigrant parents at 622 North Milpas Street and attending Franklin Elementary School in the midst of what he calls the barrio and we call the Eastside, Leon Litwack — Pulitzer Prize–winning author and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley — early on found a place in his heart for the underdog.
It was at the public library where he formed a political consciousness and at Santa Barbara High School in the 1940s where he began to express his social progressivism, much to the dismay of his teachers and administrators. The principal — along with the American Legion, Kiwanis, and Lions Club — balked when, as editor of The Forge (the school’s student newspaper) he wrote a front-page editorial asking that Reader’s Digest no longer be distributed in school, arguing that the publication was a Trojan Horse for right-wing indoctrination.
It was also at the high school where he first became interested in African-American history. “When I was taking my history course at Santa Barbara High School, I didn’t like the interpretation of slavery or Reconstruction in the textbook,” he said. “I thought they were wrong because I’d read other things. So I asked the teacher for permission to respond to the textbook, and she was very gracious — Ms. Ethel Moss was her name — and she provided permission. I went on to the public library. I checked out W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, and I came in with my own interpretation. And I said, ‘This is what the textbook should be saying.’ The class heard me out. The teacher heard me out. Then she turned to the class, and she said, ‘Now class, you must understand that Leon is very pro-labor.’ And I wondered, ‘What does that have to do with my talk?’”
Despite his reputation as an agitator, Litwack’s portrait now adorns the school’s Wall of Fame — the first entry, at that — for a career in which he reaffirmed Du Bois’s argument that Reconstruction did not fail on the backs of black folks. Like Du Bois, Litwack has made it his mission to resurrect the black voices that had, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, been neglected in official American histories. His award-winning book Been in the Storm So Long drew on primary sources, including interviews of over 2,000 ex-slaves transcribed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, one of FDR’s New Deal programs.
Litwack will continue in that same vein when he addresses the Santa Barbara Genealogical Society on February 23 with a talk titled Lincoln, the Slaves, and Freedom: How Free Is Free? A fan of the Oscar-contending biopic of the president who ended slavery, Litwack still critiques it for omitting the role that slaves themselves played in bringing about emancipation. “One would think from the film,” said Litwack, “that slaves didn’t have to lift a finger to free themselves. As soon as war started, they began running away in the hundreds of thousands. That put tremendous pressure on Lincoln to do something for those who escaped to the union lines.”
The historian did enjoy the favorable light in which Lincoln presented Senator Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film). “He had been regarded as one of the great villains of American history, but Stevens was always one of my heroes,” said Litwack. Aside from being the architect of Reconstruction, Stevens, as a state legislator in Pennsylvania, defended a state law establishing free public education. According to Litwack, the persistent inequality between whites and blacks starts with schools. In his typically provocative fashion, Litwack does not just defend the institution of public school, but he calls for the abolition of private schools. “I think that as long as there are private schools, there will be an escape for people who can afford private school, and they will leave the rest of the students with an inferior educational system.”
Perhaps his perspective is shaded by growing up in a Santa Barbara with only one high school, where he hung out with an enviably overachieving and diverse cohort. His classmates included Otey Scruggs — track star, Harvard-trained historian, and cofounder of UCSB’s Department of Black Studies — as well as James Denton, the first nonwhite tenured professor at Amherst College. Litwack said that while he took to the humanities, his success in algebra depended on the tutelage of Denton, who went on to become a statistician.
And if Litwack’s views on education are radical, he puts his money where his mouth is. Throughout his 43 years teaching at Berkeley (after seven at the University of Wisconsin), he was famous for leading the 600-700 student survey course in American History, a class typically instructed by the most junior faculty member in the department, and then only kicking and screaming. But Litwack enjoyed the opportunity to touch the largest cross-section of students possible, majors and nonmajors alike. Like Du Bois, he punctuated his lectures with references to popular music, early on realizing the import of hip-hop artists like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy speaking “the voice of the streets,” but at the same time insisting on history as a rigorous discipline, determined not to let his lectures devolve into superficial demonstrations of his own hipness. “I like the mix of history and literature and music. They all do fit together and complement each other. They’re all part of the American experience.”
Margie Baragona, a childhood friend of Litwack’s who has sat in on many of his lectures, said his best have brought her to tears. If that effect wasn’t due to the pathos of Litwack’s delivery, it may have been due to the soul-stomping passages in American history it is his duty to impart to his audiences: for instance, the 1918 lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia. She was hung upside down from a tree, and her unborn baby cut out of her abdomen with a hog-splitting knife. The baby’s head was crushed by a mobster’s heel, and Turner shot.
Shortly after detailing that lynching in High Water Everywhere, a lecture adapted for his most recent book, Litwack wrote, “This is not an easy history to absorb. The images and details can numb the mind, deaden the senses; they tax our sense of who we are and who we have been. No wonder lynchings occupy such a small place in our historical literature and textbooks.”
At the age of 83, Litwack is still contributing to that literature. He is currently working on a book called Pearl Harbor Blues about the conflicted feelings of black Americans about the country’s participation in World War II, where our fight against racism abroad put into relief our racism at home. Since retiring in 2007, Litwack has continued to teach the survey course but has added to his repertoire adult education classes where his pupils include children of his former students. Meanwhile, he’s still crisscrossing the country, giving lectures and visiting Santa Barbara a few times a year, where you can likely find him somewhere near the vicinity of his childhood bedroom, munching on a taco.