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James Horton bio
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  Historically Correct

For James Horton, B.A. ’64, scholarship means storytelling in museums, books, television and film—and just about everywhere else people go to learn

Story by Pat Pollock

Photo by Nicholas McIntosh

photo: Nicolas McIntosh

James Horton at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

In the 1989 movie Glory, characters played by Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher—together with their comrades—were heroic members of the first unit of northern African Americans to fight for the U.S. in the Civil War. The Union volunteers in that unit—the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the most celebrated in the war—included both educated free blacks and runaway slaves. Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Broderick in the film) was their leader, the son of wealthy Boston abolitionists.

The 54th brought dignity and honor to the regiment despite a crushing defeat at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863. As word of their bravery spread, Congress authorized the raising of black troops in the Union army and 180,000 volunteered. President Lincoln credited these men of color with helping turn the tide of the war.

Fast forward to the currently available Glory DVD, which includes Voices of Glory, a featurette with historical commentary provided by James Oliver Horton, B.A. ’64, who 15 years earlier had also introduced Glory at its premiere in Washington, D.C. It was Horton’s essay, “Defending the Manhood of Race,” in the book, Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, and accounts of many of the men he wrote about in a 1997 book, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700–1860, which formed the basis of his DVD feature.

Horton, a member of the faculty at George Washington University since 1977, is currently GWU Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University and his M.A. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, while stationed in Honolulu as an Air Force captain. He joined the military after earning his undergraduate degree in history from UB.

Horton’s impressive academic credentials are only part of what makes him tick. He is passionate about history, specializing in race relations and 19th-century African American social history. He describes himself as a scholar and teacher of history and considers history so important it needs to be taught in a variety of places, not simply in the schools. That’s why he’s become involved in so many highly visible projects.

“It allows me to teach,” he says, “and I’ll do that wherever people are willing to learn.”

Wherever is the key. In addition to his responsibilities at the university, Horton’s outreach as an advisor, consultant and teacher takes him to National Park Service historical sites and meetings with the professionals who run them; summer seminars that bring high school teachers and curators of cultural institutions together for collaborative projects; museums and exhibits in the United States and abroad; companies like Disney that might be considering creating a history theme park; and numerous film, television and video projects for PBS, the History Channel, Discovery Channels, C-Span and others. Whispers of Angels, a film about the underground railroad on which Horton worked as a historical advisor and appeared on camera, won the World Gold Medal for History Programming at the 2002 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. He can even be found in streaming online lectures on the WGBH Forum Network.

An animated storyteller, Horton has a gift for transforming dates, places and events into verbal mini-movies. This trait has kept him in continual demand.

“My goal is to bring the information to where the people are learning,” Horton explains. “If they’re in a theme park, I want to be there teaching. If they’re in a museum, that’s where I want to be teaching. I want to help make good history available in the places where the general American public goes to learn.”

In 1981, Horton was appointed director of the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. He continues his association with the Smithsonian to this day; his studies on communities resulted in the book, Free People of Color: Inside the African American Community.

The GWU Center for Public History and Public Culture, a new program that Horton directs, is a training center for graduate students who are the next generation of historians. His generation of scholars was committed to social history, he says. As a result of their work, today’s classroom history is much more than a general historical survey of industrialists, businessmen and politicians at the top of society who were, in fact, a minority of Americans.

“Now we learn about the people of history: women, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrant Americans and working-class Americans,” he says. “In recent generations we have really broadened our understanding of the American experience. The charge for the coming generation is to make that information more widely available.”

Context is also a continuing theme for Horton. “There’s no way to understand American history without understanding African American history,” he says. “The two are integral—you cannot separate them. African American history is American history. It was made by Americans in America. When you talk about slavery you’re talking about American political history, you’re talking about American economic, social and cultural history. Everything that America is, was involved with slavery before the Civil War.”

Horton’s new book, tentatively entitled Slavery and the Making of America, will be out in the fall of 2004; it’s a companion to a four-part PBS series on slavery in which he was deeply involved. Another recent book linked to the media is Landmarks of African American History, the basis for a History Channel television special, “A Fragile Freedom: African American Historic Sites” for which he was the on-camera host and guide.

When interviewed from his office at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., while on sabbatical in early 2004, Horton was excited about two events. In 2003, he had been elected to the presidency of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). This hundred-year-old professional association, the largest learned society of its kind, promotes excellence in the scholarship, teaching and presentation of American history, with member-scholars from around the world. His term begins this year.

The other event takes place in 2009—he is one of only two historians appointed by President Clinton in 2000 to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission that is planning the celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Both the OAH and the bicentennial, according to Horton, are opportunities to teach yet again.

A highly respected lecturer and captivating speaker, Horton has traveled the world sharing his expertise. He has been awarded two Fulbright awards: in 1988, he was Senior Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Munich in Germany, and in 2003, he held the John Adams Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In addition, he recently served on the board of directors of the Salzburg Seminar in Salzburg, Austria. He has lectured at American Studies seminar sessions at Salzburg on such topics as “Ethnicity, Race, Religion and American Identity” and will do so again in September 2004, with “America in Our Time.”

In April 2002, Horton returned to UB to accept a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Alumni Association. At that time, the Undergraduate Library hosted “Free at Last: A History of the Abolition of Slavery,” a traveling exhibit curated by Horton for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He also spoke to students on the topic of his book on slavery, in a lecture entitled “The Tough Stuff: Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites.”

“I was surprised to be honored in this way by UB,” he says. “It was a great honor and I was personally moved by it. Getting the award brought back many memories of UB and of the turbulent times of the 1960s. Many of those memories have worked their way into my professional writing.” It was in 2002 that he and his wife, Lois E. Horton, B.A. ’64, were finishing the book, Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America: Volume I: African Roots Through the Civil War, which explored the history of race in America.

“It was the early 1960s, a period when the civil rights movement was really starting to make news,” Horton recalls. “I felt a part of it. In the summers I was involved in various kinds of civil rights activities; Malcolm X came to speak on campus in ’62 or ’63 and the ‘new’ student union was so crowded I had to listen with others from outside.”

When he started at UB after graduating early from Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey, it was February 1961. He remembers the late UB history professor Milton Plesur asking him that first day in Buffalo about his intended major. “He said he was a historian. I hadn’t thought about a major until that point, but I had visions of becoming a civil rights lawyer,” Horton says. “Dr. Plesur told me that history and government was a good prelaw major so I signed up for that.”

At the time, the Montgomery bus boycott had occurred only a few years before and the nation’s education system was still feeling the effects of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which struck down school segregation, he recalls. UB was not segregated in those years, but when Horton arrived in the early ’60s, he notes, “there were very few African American students there.” He was one of only five black students living on campus at the time, though there were other black students who were enrolled at UB.

He enjoyed his time at UB, living away from home for the first time and making lifelong friends, including Penny (Samuels) Zeplowitz and his bandmates—Horton was the singer—Rocky Lucci on piano and Jerry Nywood on sax, the latter going on to play with Chuck Mangione’s band.

Over dessert at lunch in the student cafeteria, he met Lois Berry, a UB cheerleader from West Seneca. They fell in love and married just before graduation. He applied for law school but decided to join the Air Force instead. While stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, he began classes again, eventually earning his master’s in American studies and history; Lois got her masters in social psychology, as well. After earning parallel Ph.D.s in Boston, then teaching in Michigan, they moved to the Washington, D.C., area, where they continue to reside.

Lois E. Horton is professor of history at George Mason University. A noted scholar, lecturer and writer, in 2003 she also received the John Adams Fulbright Chair award. Her expertise addresses African American social and cultural life, focusing particularly on race, gender and social change. She’s been her husband’s coauthor, coeditor and/or collaborator on eight books, including Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North; A History of the African American People; In Hope of Liberty; Hard Road to Freedom (volumes one and two) and a German title.

When his GWU students come in to talk about what they should do after they graduate, Horton smiles and tells them, “You should find the thing that you would do for free if you were independently wealthy and didn’t need to get paid. Then find a job that will pay you for doing that thing. That’s the job you should take.” If he could afford to, he would do his job for free any day.

Pat Pollock is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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