Celebrating John Vlach

January 15, 2014

After 32 years of service, John Michael Vlach retired from his position on the American Studies Department’s faculty and was named Professor Emeritus of American Studies and of Anthropology by the university. On February 28, 2013, at an event co-sponsored by GW’s Office of Alumni Relations, the department celebrated John’s career and achievements.

A renowned scholar and popular teacher, John not only served four years as department chair but also, at various times in his career, assumed the responsibilities of the department’s director of graduate studies, director of undergraduate studies, and director of the master’s program in folklife. Along the way, he authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited ten books and numerous articles; curated several important museum and library exhibitions; served on the boards of numerous distinguished academic and professional organizations; and mentored a host of American Studies undergraduate and graduate students.

On February 28, 2013, at an event co-sponsored by GW’s Office of Alumni Relations, the department celebrated John’s career and achievements. The evening began with a reception where more than 50 of John’s current and former students, colleagues, and friends gathered to reminisce and thank John for his contributions to their education and careers. This was followed by more formal presentations by four of John’s former doctoral students: James Deutsch (PhD ‘91), Program Curator at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; Marcie Cohen Ferris (PhD ‘03), Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Paul Gardullo (PhD ‘06), Curator at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; and Jurretta Jordan Heckscher (PhD ‘00), Research Specialist at the Library of Congress. John also received congratulatory remarks from Peg Barratt, then Dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.

Jim Deutsch praised John’s scholarly contributions while recalling the enthusiasm John fostered among students involved in the department’s folklife group during the 1980s. He also fondly remembered the many bake sales organized by John and wife Beverly Brannon, a curator in the Division of Prints and Photographs at the Library of Congress, to raise funds for the group’s outings to local folk gatherings. Paul Gardullo spoke movingly about the lessons he learned from John about the importance of material culture in documenting the American past. He recounted the ways these lessons continue to shape his work and daily life as he travels the country collecting materials documenting African-American history and culture.

Jurretta Jordan Heckscher recalled the role that John played in helping to shape her dissertation, which won the American Studies Association’ Ralph Henry Gabriel Prize. She marveled at his “ability upon a moment’s reflection, and with a torrent of words that sorely tested my scribbling hand, to review and synthesize vast areas of relevant literature, to rifle through it as quickly as any computer, and to identify relevant sources and leads that neither I nor anyone else might have recognized or deemed relevant.” Even more importantly, Jurretta remembered, “John never forgot the responsibilities of scholarship….[H]e also never forgot that humanities scholarship is about real people, people whose humanity was too often under assault in their lifetimes. And so he successfully dared me—a privileged late-20th century white woman—to risk developing an informed imagination about the inner and outer expressive lives of early Africans and the early generations of African Americans on this continent, not because I would get it right, because I surely have not, but because those lives, and their expressive creativity, are too important not to attempt to imagine back into being, however imperfectly.”

And, finally, Marcie Cohen Ferris commented on the centrality of John’s scholarship to the field, noting that the course she taught on the material culture of the American South at UNC last spring should have been called “A John Vlach Retrospective.”

“Each week,” Marcie recounted, “as we examine[d] topics ranging from the survival and vibrant material expression of African heritage in southern culture to the contested white-and-black worlds of the plantation landscape; [from] artists such as master blacksmith Philip Simmons and free-black cabinetmaker Thomas Day [to] the enslaved potters of Edgefield, South Carolina, [and] African American quilters; [from] the New Deal-era work of Holger Cahill…to the talented master builders of New Orleans; I…quoted from John’s work and noted his contributions in shaping our core understanding of these worlds. Now, when I introduce a new topic and the sources we’ll examine in class, my students just look at me and say, ‘Vlach, right?’ And I say, ‘Right.’”

Since John’s retirement, accolades from outside GW have also begun to roll in. This past June, at its annual meeting in Gaspé, Quebec, the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF) awarded him its Henry Glassie Award, which recognizes special achievements in and contributions to the field of vernacular architecture studies (and which happens to be named for John’s doctoral advisor at Indiana University). In a citation prepared by architectural historian Dell Upton, the VAF highlighted John’s voluminous scholarship, ranging from his 1975 dissertation on the shotgun house and its African and Caribbean antecedents, to his 1986 co-edited (with Upton) collection, “Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture.”

VAF also praised John’s latest three books: “Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery” (1993), “The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings” (2002), and “Barns” (2003).

“For 40 years,” VAF’s Upton remarked, “[John] has roamed widely through Africa, the Caribbean, and the Southern United States to document the folk material culture of the African diaspora; through galleries to find the painted record of the plantation landscape; and through professional archives to document the history of his primary discipline, folklore…. As a pioneer student of African-American architecture and material culture, John Vlach’s career has been a model of the kind of scholarship that the VAF was created to encourage. And it has been a model, as well, of engagement with a broad audience of the sort likely to spread our message most effectively.”

Our faculty and students will surely miss John’s active involvement in the daily life of the department, not to mention his popular, historical walking tours of our Foggy Bottom neighborhood. We encourage John to make use of the free on-campus parking afforded to emeritus faculty and visit us from time-to-time. 

In 2014, the department established the Horton-Vlach Fund in American Studies to honor Prof. John Vlach and his colleague James Oliver Horton.

Learn More About the Horton-Vlach Fund