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David Brion Davis, Prizewinning Historian of Slavery, Dies at 92

Category: Art & Culture,Books

“After descending a long winding staircase, I came upon what I imagined a slave ship would have looked like,” he recalled. “Hundreds and hundreds of near-naked blacks jammed together, many of them shooting craps.”

In Germany, as an Army security policeman, he was exposed to racist occupying troops and encountered concentration camp survivors. Writing home in 1946, he told his parents that he wanted to study history because he hoped that a knowledge of the past might “make people stop and think before blindly following some bigoted group to make the world safe for Aryans, Democrats or Mississippians.”

So many of Professor Davis’s perceptions are now part of the accepted historical narrative that it is possible to forget how groundbreaking they were. The Haitian slave rebellion (1791-1804), the successful campaign against the slaveholding colonial French, is familiar today, but it was eye-opening when Professor Davis wrote about it in “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution.”

He was also a powerfully influential teacher, though he was modest in demeanor, almost shy. He reached out to high school teachers through professional development workshops and lectures, exposing them to the finest scholarship. Over the years he taught thousands of undergraduates and directed some 60 dissertations. His students now populate many faculties on American campuses.

This “Davis diaspora,” as Marc Parry called it in The Chronicle of Higher Education, even extends to the students of the students of Professor Davis.

Professor Davis’s first marriage ended in divorce. He married Toni Hahn in 1971. Ms. Hahn Davis, a former associate dean for alumni and public affairs at the Yale Law School, survives him. In addition to her and their son Adam, Professor Davis is survived by another son from his second marriage, Noah; three children from his first marriage, Martha Davis Beck, Sarah Brion Davis and Jeremiah Davis; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

His other books include “Homicide in American Fiction, 1798-1860: A Study in Social Values (1957), “Slavery and Human Progress” (1984) and “In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery (2001).

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