Leon F. Litwack: Historian of the American People and the African American Experience, Professor at Berkeley, 1964-2007

Photo of Leon Litwack

Leon F. Litwack: Historian of the American People and the African American Experience, Professor at Berkeley, 1964-2007

Conducted by Ann Lage in 2001 and 2002, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2014.

A celebrated teacher and scholar of the history of the American people and of the African American experience, Leon Litwack has been a Berkeley campus fixture and self-described ?disturber of the peace? for most of the sixty-six years since he arrived as an undergraduate in 1948. His oral history documents and reflects on his personal background, education, teaching, and research and writing. It explores his lifelong quest to uncover and to teach the history of race relations in America and the experiences of people long absent from the historical narrative. He has authored four major books and countless articles, including North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (1961); Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979); Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998); and How Free is Free: the Long Death of Jim Crow(Nathan Huggins lectures, 2009).  He has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history (1980), the National Book Award for history (1981), and the Francis Parkman prize awarded by the Society of American Historians (1980).

As his oral history reveals, Litwack?s focus on the lives of ordinary men and women and his sensitivity to race and racism grew out of his family roots and boyhood experiences. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century. They met each other in San Francisco, as members of an anarchist-socialist-Jewish-vegetarian-hiking club. Litwack describes them both as avid readers, lovers of nature, and philosophical radicals. Raised in a largely Mexican neighborhood of the seaside community of Santa Barbara in southern California, young Leon soon began to challenge the prevailing attitudes and historical interpretations about race and labor he encountered in high school. In these years he also developed his love of books and reading; he worked in the public library, read widely, and began to collect books in black literature and history, a collection which is now one of the finest private libraries of its kind.

Documenting his long connection to Berkeley, his oral history gives a picture of the campus and the Department of History during six decades. Litwack came to Berkeley as a history major in his sophomore year. He was active in campus politics, presided over Henry Wallace?s 1949 campus visit, and had a role as a student in the loyalty oath controversy that embroiled the campus in those years. After graduation, he spent the summer as a seaman on a ship to the Far East before returning to Berkeley to begin graduate studies in history in 1951 under Kenneth Stampp. With a break for a stint in army, he received his PhD in 1958 and accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin. In 1964, during the tumultuous year of the Free Speech Movement, he returned to Berkeley as a visiting professor, and that year was hired as associate professor for fall 1965. He retired in 2007 as the Alexander F. and May T. Morrison professor of history after forty-three years as an acclaimed teacher and engaged citizen of the campus. Still an active lecturer and scholar, he is now working on the experience of African Americans during and after World War II.

Leon Litwack is known as a scholar who enjoys and excels at teaching; he is equally at home in large lecture classes as in graduate seminars and estimates that he has taught more than 30,000 undergraduates.  He taught the introductory class in American history throughout his career, with carefully constructed, eloquent lectures which often introduced film, music, and other media as interpretive documents.  He initiated, with Winthrop Jordan, the first course on African American history at Berkeley and always included the history of often overlooked Americans in his US history classes. He received two Distinguished Teaching Awards granted by the campus and the Golden Apple Award for distinguished teaching awarded by the Associated Students. An influential mentor of generations of graduate students, he inserted brief comments on each of his PhD students as he reviewed the transcript of his oral history.

Our nine interview sessions were audiotaped from August 2001 through January 2002, the first four in his Dwinelle Hall office on the Berkeley campus, the last five in the library of his North Berkeley home. The transcript was lightly edited and sent to him in April 2002. A stroke in July 2002, along with his teaching commitments and work on the Nathan Huggins lectures and other writings, delayed his review of the transcript for several years. Given his careful attention to style in his books and in the composition of his lectures, it was not surprising that he reviewed the transcript with the same concerns for clarity and precision. He edited the initial several sessions carefully, clarifying his language, correcting facts, adding pertinent details, and removing repetitive language. As we discussed with him our wish to keep the transcript as a faithful record of the taped interviews, he reviewed the later sessions with a lighter hand. His changes throughout were primarily for clarity and style rather than substantive meaning. Additions to the transcript are bracketed.

This oral history is one of twenty-two in-depth interviews on the Department of History at Berkeley; the list of completed oral histories in the series is included in this volume. Most of the interviews can be found online with our oral history series on the Department of History at Berkeley. Copies of all interviews and the audio or video recordings are available for research use in The Bancroft Library. The Regional Oral History Office is a division of The Bancroft Library and is under the direction of Neil Henry. Special thanks are owed to Esther Ehrlich for her initial editing of the transcript, to Linda Norton for shepherding the interview through the production process, and to former University Archivist James R.K. Kantor for his careful proofreading of the final transcript.

Ann Lage
Interviewer, Project Director
Berkeley, California
April 2014