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Herbert Aptheker, 87; Scholar of Slave History, Quit U.S. Communist Party

March 21, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Herbert Aptheker, a pioneering historian who helped establish the foundation for modern African American scholarship and for decades was an influential leader of the American Communist Party, has died. He was 87.

Aptheker, who suffered the latest in a series of strokes last week, died Monday of complications of pneumonia in a private residence near his home in San Jose, where he had lived since 1977.

The Brooklyn-born Aptheker (pronounced ap-take-er), whose Russian-immigrant father was a successful manufacturer of ladies underwear, wrote and edited more than 80 volumes of scholarly writing over the past seven decades and lectured widely at universities all over the world on Marxism, civil rights and U.S. and African American history.

At the same time, he frequently generated headlines and was the subject of FBI surveillance as well as hate mail and bomb threats for his Communist Party affiliation.

Before resigning from the American Communist Party in 1991, he was one of its leading Marxist theoreticians. From the mid-1960s to the early-1980s, he served as director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies in New York City.

His daughter, Bettina Aptheker, now a professor of women's studies at UC Santa Cruz, was a leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. And Angela Davis, the Black Panther and onetime UCLA professor, was a close family friend.

In 1966 during the Vietnam War, Aptheker made a controversial fact-finding trip to Hanoi with Tom Hayden, then leader of Students for a Democratic Society, and Yale history professor Staughton Lynd to look into the possibility of a negotiated end to the war.

The same year, Aptheker ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.

A slim man of medium build and curly black hair, which turned white in his 40s, Aptheker never lost his Brooklyn accent -- or his strong beliefs.

"He could be fiercely polemical, and he also could be soft-spoken and quite humorous," said his daughter, who attributes her own radicalism to both her father and her mother, Fay, who was also a Communist.

Aptheker established his reputation in African American scholarship with the publication of his 1943 book "American Negro Slave Revolts," an expansion of his doctoral dissertation at Columbia University. The book demonstrated that, contrary to prevailing scholarship at the time, slaves in America were not acquiescent to slavery but had a long history of rebellion.

"He was writing things that were against the grain of the mainstream of American scholarship on African Americans," said history professor Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. papers project at Stanford University and a longtime friend of Aptheker's.

"When he came into the field in the 1930s, most of the slavery scholarship was dominated by apologists for the Southern segregation system," Carson said.

Aptheker's book, he said, "shifted the debate from the notion of slavery being a civilizing institution -- that slavery in a way benefited African slaves -- to the notion that it was a harsh, exploitative institution and that slaves resisted in whatever way they could. It seems like that's obvious now, but at the time it was a radical reinterpretation."

To arrive at that, Carson said, Aptheker "simply went back and looked at the sources."

"He used a lot of newspaper records from the period that talked a lot about slave rebelliousness," Carson said. "I think that when he came up with more than 300 accounts of slave revolts, that seemed to suggest that there was another pattern at work and that you couldn't interpret slavery with the old framework."

Aptheker was part of a younger generation of scholars who were influenced by W.E.B. DuBois, the distinguished African American scholar, sociologist, political activist and co-founder of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1946, DuBois asked Aptheker to edit his personal papers and correspondence.

Aptheker and his wife, who died in 1999, later edited three volumes of DuBois' correspondence, more than 30 volumes of his writings and an 800-page annotated DuBois bibliography, which is considered the standard reference work.

Over the last year, Carson was helping Aptheker edit the eighth volume of "A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States," the first major collection of historical documents by African Americans.

The first volume, published in 1951, spanned the colonial period through the founding of the NAACP in 1909. The seventh volume, published in 1994, ended with the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

"We're bringing it up to the 21st century," said Carson. "To me, it is just as important as Herbert's groundbreaking work on slavery because no one had really put together such a comprehensive collection of African American documents."

Aptheker's reputation as a champion of civil rights and his lifelong interest in African American history were rooted in the Depression.

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