Willie Lee Rose, influential historian of slavery and Reconstruction dies

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Belle Montgomery

Sergeant Major
Oct 25, 2017
by Harrison Smith June 27 at 4:32 PM announced the death but did not give a cause.

Willie Lee Rose, a historian whose short but brilliant career helped steer the study of slavery and Reconstruction away from white slaveholders and toward freed African Americans — and who oversaw a gender discrimination report that spurred her profession to address sexism within its ranks — died June 20 at a retirement community in Baltimore. She was 91.

Johns Hopkins University, where she taught from 1973 until her retirement in 1992, announced the death but did not give a cause.

Dr. Rose suffered a stroke in 1978 that severely curtailed her academic work, limiting her scholarly output to little more than a collection of essays, a compilation of primary-source documents and a single full-length book, “Rehearsal for Reconstruction” (1964). Yet that book, and the scattered works that followed, proved so influential that Dr. Rose was credited with standing at the forefront of a revolution in the field of U.S. history.

Along with scholars such as Kenneth Stampp, Eric McKitrick and LaWanda Cox, she was part of a generation of historians who dismantled the prevailing view of Reconstruction as a “Tragic Era” for the South. Under an interpretation that became known as the Dunning School, radical Republicans were said to have ravaged the former Confederacy in the postwar years, working with ignorant African Americans and corrupt Northern whites to undermine the region’s culture and politics. Black suffrage was seen as a political failure; the system of Jim Crow segregation that followed was justified as a political necessity.

Within the academy, Dr. Rose and her peers all but obliterated that school of thought, spotlighting the efforts of well-intentioned reformers and introducing the perspective of newly freed slaves who sought to exercise their freedom for the first time.

“She introduced real nuance in a subject that has too often been dealt with as a question of black and white, good and evil,” said Eric Foner, a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Dr. Rose, he added, was “one of the very first to look at the former slaves themselves as major actors,” rather than mere victims or passive subjects.

[Dr. Rose died weeks after another leading historian of slavery, Ira Berlin]

Her dissertation and first book, “Rehearsal for Reconstruction,” presented a chronicle of Reconstruction in miniature. It focused entirely on the sweeping changes that occurred after Union forces seized control of South Carolina’s Sea Islands in 1861, freeing some 10,000 slaves.

For the most part, officials left the freedmen’s fate to a group of teachers, preachers, doctors and abolitionists known as Gideon’s Band, a proto-Peace Corps unit that helped the former slaves establish schools and an island economy. A few of the volunteers lined their pockets, Dr. Rose noted, while Sea Islanders became “as self-governing as many a small New England town.”

In a review for the New York Times, Amherst College historian Henry Steele Commager declared that the book was “assuredly a definitive work.” It was a finalist for the National Book Award and received the Allan Nevins Prize for best dissertation and the Francis Parkman Prize for the best work of American history — the first time a book had received both prizes, given by the Society of American Historians.

Partly as a result of her newfound prominence, Dr. Rose was appointed to lead a committee charged with evaluating the status and treatment of women in the field of history. Her findings, presented to the American Historical Association in a 1970 document known as the Rose Report, were a calmly worded indictment of gender inequity.

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