George M. Fredrickson is Edgar E. Robinson Professor of US History Emeritus at Stanford. His recent books include Racism: A Short History and Not Just Black and White, a collection co-edited with Nancy Foner.

Redcoat Liberation

Popular views of the American Revolution usually overlook one aspect of it that sharply contradicts the idealized image of a struggle for liberty against oppression. For the one fifth of the population that was African-American, freedom meant escape from slavery but not independence from Britain; those seeking emancipation were more …

They’ll Take Their Stand

For nearly half a century two historians have dominated the field of slavery studies, broadly conceived. David Brion Davis has been the preeminent historian of ideas about slavery in the Western world since the early modern period and has completed two volumes of a projected trilogy: The Problem of Slavery …

Still Separate & Unequal

Affirmative action, the policy of giving preferences for jobs, university admissions, or government contracts to members of designated racial and ethnic groups, has never been popular, and it could soon be abolished. In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down an undergraduate admissions policy at the University of Michigan that provided …

The Long Trek to Freedom

Before the middle of the eighteenth century, slavery was generally accepted in Europe and its colonies as a divinely ordained punishment for original sin or simply as a natural part of the eternal order of things. Yet by then Europeans had stopped enslaving one another for centuries; slavery was a …

Is There Hope for the South?

Among the regions of the United States, the South has long stood out as the most distinctive, and, in the minds of many, the one that has deviated the most from the norms accepted by the rest of the country. This sense of difference and peculiarity goes back to the …

America’s Original Sin

The institution of slavery has had a profound and lasting effect on American history. Virtually all historians now agree that sectional differences on the slavery issue caused the Civil War. Until the eve of that conflict the slaveholding interest was so economically and politically powerful as to appear virtually impregnable.

Wise Man

Specialization on increasingly narrow subjects is the dominant trend in American historical scholarship. Rarer and rarer, at least in the academy, are generalists dealing with broad stretches of the past or souls who work in more than one of the usual specialties or move readily from one to another. The …

The Double Life of W.E.B. Du Bois

One sign that there has been at least some progress in black–white relations during the past half-century is the admission of a small number of African-Americans to the pantheon of national heroes and exemplary leaders. Frederick Douglass is no longer just an escaped slave who became a follower of William …

The Skeleton in the Closet

One hundred and thirty-five years after its abolition, slavery is still the skeleton in the American closet. Among the African-American descendants of its victims there is a difference of opinion about whether the memory of it should be suppressed as unpleasant and dispiriting or commemorated in the ways that Jews …

The Strange Death of Segregation

During his visit to South Africa in 1966, Senator Robert Kennedy addressed a student audience at the University of Cape Town. I come here today, because of my deep interest in and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, a land taken over by the …

America’s Caste System: Will It Change?

President Clinton’s recent call for a “national conversation on race” and his appointment of a commission headed by the historian John Hope Franklin to report on the current state of race relations are strong indications that there is once again an upsurge of concern about America’s oldest and most persistent …

Far from the Promised Land

A growing conviction that the United States faces a crisis in black-white relations has inspired several writers to revisit the race question in search of new perspectives and solutions. One of these, the Princeton political scientist Jennifer Hochschild, has written a major study of current public opinion that offers some …

Land of Opportunity?

From the founding of the nation to the present, American democracy has been tested, and has usually been found wanting whenever the question of justice and equality for Americans of African descent has been raised. After the Civil War, the newly freed slaves were granted citizenship rights by constitutional amendment, …

Demonizing the American Dilemma

More than thirty years have passed since the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 freed African Americans from legalized segregation, denial of voting rights through the biased enforcement of registration laws, and blatant discrimination in the labor market. These were great and lasting achievements. Jim Crow laws are as …

Red, Black, and White

Historians of the American South have devoted relatively little attention to the 1930s and 1940s. They have mostly concentrated on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which witnessed the rise of legalized segregation and the disenfranchisement of most African Americans, and then tended to skip ahead to the eventful …

Pioneer

John Hope Franklin, now in his late seventies and a professor emeritus at Duke University, is one of the most respected historians of the United States. Indeed to judge by the numbers of honorary degrees, presidencies of professional associations, distinguished lectureships, and other forms of special recognition he has received, …

The Old New Order

For some observers, the election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore signified the coming to power of a new generation of white southerners who are more cosmopolitan, racially tolerant, and forward-looking than their predecessors. Inevitably the phrase “the New South” has been used to describe the change that has allegedly …

African Americans & African Africans

Close comparisons of the “freedom struggles” of African Americans and of black South Africans are difficult to make because of the great differences in the situation and the prospects of people of color in the two societies. One fundamental difference was brought home to me in the spring of 1989 …

The Making of Mandela

In Nelson Mandela’s speech in Cape Town immediately after his release from prison in February was the key statement, “I am a disciplined member of the ANC.” His constant use of the imperial “we” in the public addresses and statements that he made during his recent US tour did not …

Can South Africa Change?

In the spring of 1989 I visited South Africa for the first time in fifteen years. When I had been there in 1974, apartheid was flourishing. Signs designating facilities for “whites only” or “non-whites only” were omnipresent, and I had the unforgettable experience of riding in unproud isolation on the …

Down on the Farm

American social historians are, figuratively speaking, moving to the country. After a period when they heavily concentrated on cities and industrial workers, they are now turning some of their attention to the rural settings in which most Americans lived before the twentieth century. To the “new rural history” they are …

Redemption Through Violence

During the years immediately after World War II, a cross-disciplinary field called “American Studies” or “American Civilization” gained a place in the curriculum of many universities. The leaders of this movement were for the most part professors and students of American literature who felt constrained by the ahistorical “new criticism” …

Self-Made Hero

Frederick Douglass was not only the most famous Afro-American of the nineteenth century; when he died in 1895 he was one of the best-known Americans of any race. A eulogist plausibly compared his international reputation to Lincoln’s. No other black spokesman before Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to appeal …

Panic in the South

When Henry Ford made his famous pronouncement that “history is bunk,” he spoke for many Americans. Compared with the citizens of most other countries, Americans have been little inclined to dwell on the triumphs or tragedies of the past or to recognize that contemporary problems and concerns may have roots …

Birth of a Nation

During the 1960s and 1970s, historians of the American South concentrated on the institution of slavery. Debates on the economic performance of the plantation, the relations between masters and slaves, and the results of slave efforts to create a culture and community of their own were vigorous and sharply defined.

Class Act

From all sides we hear that historical scholarship is in a state of crisis. The basic premise of historical investigation—that significant knowledge can be gained from studying the past in a sequential way—has come under heavy attack. Fashionable schools of thought in fields like psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and literary criticism …