The study of the lengthy and, perhaps, never-ending struggle of the African American people in the United States led University of Maryland Professor Ira Berlin to receive the W. E. B. Dubois Medal for 2014 from Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies.
Berlin, a professor at the University of Maryland’s history department, is a leading expert in African American studies. His interest in African American studies grew out of a tumultuous time in American history.
“It was during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and I was involved in a modest way,’’ Berlin said. “I was pleased to be able to make my work congruent with my politics and my beliefs.”
While at the University of Wisconsin, where he received his PhD, Berlin published his first book called Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South.
“Once you get interested in a subject, you find the more and more you know, you actually know less and less, and you want to know more and more,’’ Berlin said. “ I was drawn into the subject.”
Eventually, Berlin went to the University of Maryland, where he was the director of the Freedman and Southern Society Project, a documentary on the history of emancipation first produced in 1982 and which is now in its seventh volume.
Today Berlin is working on an exploration of correspondence that were discovered in the National Archives written by slaves, describing their lives at the moment of their emancipation.
“These are extraordinary letters’’ Berlin said. “It is the largest collection of letters of newly freed people from the 19th and 20th centuries. If I was a historian of other enslaved people, I would want to read what other slaves had to say about labor, politics, religion, about the other aspects of their social life. This gives us a notion of what black people were thinking during this revolutionary moment.”
Berlin said a topic that has not yet been fully studied is the nature of the economy that was created upon emancipation. “It was the advent of share-cropping as a kind of compromise between the freed slaves and those who were still enslaved,’’ he said. ‘From our investigation, it is much more complicated than that. I’m thinking that is an area people will continue to investigate.”
Berlin said his extensive study into the lives of African-Americans is in no way hindered by the fact that he is Caucasian ( although he prefers the term “white’’ because he has no relation to the people of Caucasia in southern Russia, where the term came from).
“It might have been a problem once,’’ Berlin admitted, “but I don’t know that it is a problem now. I think everybody who is interested in the study of African American life realizes it is a serious issue. You would not expect only Greeks to write about Greek history, and there are no more ancient Greeks around to write about it. I think it is recognition of the seriousness of the subject. People now say this is a topic worthy of study and it requires a lot of work. Whoever does the work puts their efforts and ideas into it, regardless of race.”