Lawrence Reddick and the Communal Acts of Black History

Lawrence D. Reddick discussing a map of Africa with four visiting City College of New York students, 1942. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

African American history has always been a communal act. From its inception in the nineteenth century, Black men and women, ministers, abolitionists, writers, orators, and bibliophiles rooted historical sensibilities in the lived experiences of African Americans. They commemorated and celebrated the Black past in public spaces, collected and preserved the raw material of the Black past, and produced texts chronicling the Black presence from the earliest ages of humankind. They also wrote treatises and commentary on critical moments in the Black present. This expansive nineteenth-century understanding of Black history continued to be the case in the twentieth century. Rather than relegating nineteenth century Black intellectuals to the ranks of “preprofessional” historians and privileging the professionally trained, instead we should conceptualize this tradition as a continuous one that centralizes the communal in historical scholarship. This point is demonstrated in David Varel’s powerful biography, The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power. 

Lawrence Reddick’s life and career spanned the twentieth century. His historical production, like that of his predecessors, was inseparable from the communal realities faced by African Americans. Reddick’s career included stints as a college professor, librarian, journal editor, board member, participant in domestic, transnational and international organizations, community jobs coordinator, and participant in major Civil Rights and Black Power organizations. Rather than being ensconced in the ivory tower, Reddick’s life and work demonstrates that far from distortion, dilution or politicization, Black history’s communal nature has made it the most dynamic, engaged, and visionary project in the academy.  

Reddick was born Jacksonville, Florida in 1912. Trained in the Black academy at Fisk University and later at the University of Chicago, Reddick was among a small cohort of university-trained African American historians in the first half of the twentieth century.  For Black historians, however, professionalization did not mean the separation of academic inquiry or discourse from the lifeblood of the Black community’s contextual spaces and realities. At the outset of his career in Depression era America, Reddick worked as a professor at Kentucky State in Frankfort and later at Dillard University in New Orleans. He used these positions to teach innovative courses on Black Reconstruction and slavery and to collect information on the Black past through his work with the Federal Writers Project and the Slave Oral History Project, which enlisted the participation of the formerly enslaved and employed a cohort of Black interviewers. Reddick worked with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASALH), reviewing books and taking part in the association’s daily work. While at Dillard in the mid-1930s, Reddick worked closely with University of Chicago-trained educator Horace Mann Bond and the cultural anthropologist St Clair Drake. Working toward the completion of his PhD in History at Chicago placed Reddick at the center of challenging stereotypes of Black intellectual capacity and inferiority. His graduate career coincided with the popularity of the “Tragic Era” interpretation of Reconstruction–the idea that Reconstruction was a colossal mistake which foisted federal control onto the South empowered lazy and improvident Blacks to take the reins of government and necessitated white vigilantes and terrorists such as the Klu Klux Klan to right these grievous wrongs. Reddick took every opportunity to challenge these problematic presentations of Black people in history.

Reddick extended his communal projects after completing his doctorate at Chicago and assuming the directorship of the Schomburg in 1939.  Building on a long tradition of Black bibliophiles, Reddick used the Schomburg to extend his reach to African students in New York, strengthen the Schomburg’s collections in Diasporic history, and document the Black experience in the West.  He also worked as a lecturer at City College and the New School. He also focused his attention on the groundswell for change in Africa. He worked closely with Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe to deepen ties to the Pan African community and challenge colonialism. Reddick collected Black GI letters and wrote a study of Black involvement in the war: The Negro in the United States Navy during World War II (1945).  He recognized the importance of the Atlantic Charter in 1941. Reddick organized an exhibit entitled “The War and the Whole People.” It featured fourteen of the most important documents related to the war. He also convened a conference for Blacks in the colonial world.  In 1945, the Colonial Conference drew attendees from a wide swath of the colonized world.

Reddick’s tenure at the Schomburg was followed by a return to the South in 1945.  In Atlanta, he became head librarian at the Trevor Arnett Library at Atlanta University Center (AUC) and later a Professor of History at Alabama State College in Montgomery.  In Atlanta, he thwarted efforts of a white zoning commission to relocate Auburn Ave., the thriving Black business district. His civic work became the pretext for his dismissal from Atlanta University. Reddick’s dismissal came at an opportune moment. He arrived in Montgomery just as the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) was taking shape. Reddick would play a role as participant in, advisor to, and historian of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). He co-authored with Martin Luther King Jr. the story of the MIA in Stride Toward Freedom (1958) and penned the first biography of King, Crusader without Violence (1959). Reddick became a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and traveled with King to India. His career at Alabama State came to an unceremonious end after the school’s president succumbed to pressure to fire those involved in Civil Rights activism. 

In the 1960, Reddick traveled to Africa for the “Year of Africa.” He witnessed the inauguration of Nkrumah as President in June and Azikiwe as Governor General of Nigeria in November. Stateside, Reddick published Worth Fighting For: A History of the Negro in the United States during the Civil War and Reconstruction (1965) and  Blacks and U.S. Wars (1976). After a brief stint at Coppin State College in Baltimore (1961-1967), Reddick also continued to promote community empowerment issues and more equitable inclusion of Black history in the white academy. From 1966-1968, he served as Executive Director of a self-help organization, Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC). OIC was a vocational program founded by Philadelphia minister Reverend Leon Sullivan. Under Reddick’s leadership, affiliates grew domestically and an international affiliate was established in Ghana. 

Reddick also played an important founding and planning role in the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (BAAL) in 1970. Although defunct by 1973, BAAL represented an attempt to create an independent institution to promote Black cultural achievement. The group was based on the American Negro Academy and C. Eric Lincoln was its president. It had 27 members and a steering committee. 

Reddick was also involved in institutional work in the white academy. He became a full professor at Temple University in 1970. He created courses in African American Studies and improved the library’s holdings He attended the Gary Political Convention in 1972 and reported on the occurrences there. He pushed to make the white press more responsive to Black history books and insisted that Temple do more to recruit and retain Black faculty and students. His outspoken demeanor led to his eventual departure from Temple and return to Dillard, where he ended his teaching career. 

David Varel’s biography of Lawrence Reddick shows that the scholar-activist model permeated his life and career. We see at every juncture of Reddick’s intellectual project its direct linkages to the contextual, domestic and Diasporic engagements of Black people.  Reddick’s work challenged one-dimensional and stereotypical presentations of the Black past.  This model of engaged scholarship is closely linked to the lived historical experiences of Black life, which is not anomalous. Rather, it animates many aspects of African American intellectual life and scholarly production. Varel’s work illuminates a larger understanding about the African American historical project. The discipline draws upon the raw and kinetic power of the community to create a history, methodology and trajectory that has revolutionized historical thinking. It has created new interpretations of important history moments in slavery, reconstruction, transnational and international history, thus broadening the subjects of consideration and the materials available to study the past.  Black history’s communal origins, then, are what gives it form and meaning. They provide both the intellectual tools and foundational base to understand the Black past and present. Lawrence Reddick’s scholarship and career provide one of the best windows into this transformative intellectual project. 

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Stephen G. Hall

Stephen G. Hall is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American intellectual, social and cultural history. He is working on a second book manuscript exploring the scholarly production of Black historians in the Diaspora. He is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American History Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (UNC Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @historianspeaks and see additional work at historianspeaks.org.

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