In Memoriam: Prof. James O. Horton, Emeritus Prof. of American Studies

Prof. James O. Horton
February 22, 2017

James Oliver Horton was the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University and Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. He joined the GW faculty in 1977 and was awarded emeritus status in 2008, the year of his retirement. In 2006 Prof. Horton was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. That same year, he received the George Washington University President’s Medal for scholarly achievement and teaching excellence.

In his enormously rich and productive career, Prof. Horton made an indelible mark as a teacher, scholar, public speaker, and public historian.

Jim Horton was born in Newark, New Jersey and studied at SUNY Buffalo (BA) and the University of Hawai’i, Manoa (MA) before receiving his Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University in 1973. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 1964 to 1970, attaining the rank of Captain. He became a GW professor of history and American Civilization (as American Studies was then called) after having served briefly on the faculty at the University of Michigan.

Prof. Horton edited, authored or co-authored ten books, including The Landmarks of African American History (2005) and Slavery and the Making of America (2004) the companion book for the WNET PBS series of the same which aired in February of 2005, With his wife and scholarly collaborator, Lois E. Horton, now Emerita Prof. of History at George Mason University, he edited Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (2006). It was Horton’s first book, Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, co-authored with Lois Horton, which established his reputation as a leading scholar of African American social history. Originally published in 1979, that book came out in a second edition in 2000, and has set the standard for scholarly understandings of free black life in the North.

Over the course of his GW career, Prof. Horton was recognized for his service and teaching excellence, receiving The Carnegie Foundation, CASE Professor of the Year for the District of Columbia, in 1996, and the Trachtenberg Distinguished Teaching Award for George Washington University in 1994.

Prof. Horton’s African American history and social history courses, which he taught with humor, quick wit, and a depth of historical knowledge, disrupted the stereotypes and historical truisms students brought to class. With Emerita Prof. of American Studies Phyllis Palmer, with whom he often co-taught, Prof. Horton introduced lecture classes of students to invisibility issues being raised by black feminists, the masculinity challenges for enslaved and newly-freed black men, and class overlaps and tensions among working-class men and women of various races during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Prof. Horton was a prolific mentor of generations of graduate students, leading the American studies department in rethinking the field of public history as museums grappled with how to present new interpretations at odds with some of the country’s favorite and most persistent racial bromides. Many of his graduate students became lifelong friends, and watching them mature in the profession gave him great satisfaction and filled him with pride. In the public history classes he designed to take advantage of his Smithsonian Institution affiliation, Horton enabled students to bring new interpretations to exhibits and historical sites and documented public reception of new views.  His work on the “tough stuff” of American history, the stories a white majority found unpalatable, grew out of years of graduate teaching that produced a generation of museum staff and curators attuned to making African American history central to the history of the country. 

Prof. Horton’s influence was international. A lecturer throughout Europe and in Thailand and Japan, he was Senior Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Munich, in Germany in1988-89 and the John Adams Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American History at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands in the fall of 2003. In 1991 he assisted the German government in developing American Studies programs in the former East Germany. 

Prof. Horton was a leader in the profession of history. He served as President of the Organization of American Historians from 2004-2005. In 2005 the Afro-American Museum of Boston presented him with its “Living Legend Award” and he received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Wagner College.

He held several presidential or high-level governmental appointments, serving from 1998-2000 on the White House Millennium Council and acting as “historical expert” for then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. He traveled with the First Lady's "Save American Treasures" bus tour of historic places in the summer of 1998 and accompanied her on a tour of historic sites in Boston in the winter of 1998.  In the fall of 2000, he was appointed by President William Clinton to serve on the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which functioned until the end of the Lincoln Bicentennial in 2009. In 1993, he was appointed by Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to serve on the National Park System Advisory Board and in 1996 he was elected board chair. In 1994-5 he served as Senior Advisor on Historical Interpretation and Public Education for the Director of the National Park Service.

Prof. Horton served as historical advisor to several museums in the United States and abroad, including the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, Colonial Williamsburg, and Monticello.  An advocate of public history, he was a historical consultant to numerous film and video productions, including those seen on ABC, PBS, the Discovery Channels, C-Span TV, and the History Channel. For three years during the 1990s he was a regular panelist on The History Channel's weekly program, The History Center, and his historical commentary on the Civil War is included in the DVD version of the movie Glory. In February 2002 he hosted The History Channel special A Fragile Freedom: African American Historic Sites, based on his scholarship. He was also historical advisor for the 2005 History Channel series, Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America, which won the Emmy Award for best nonfiction TV series.

Prof. Horton is survived by his wife and collaborator, Lois E. Horton, and their son Michael. Donations in memory of Prof. Horton may be sent to the Horton-Vlach Fund in American Studies, established in 2014 to honor Prof. Horton and his colleague, Prof. John Vlach. More information about giving is here


Memories of James O. Horton

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