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Winthrop Jordan, 75; scholar put race relations in new light

March 12, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Winthrop Jordan, the historian whose groundbreaking investigation of early American attitudes on race shed light on centuries-old roots, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, on Feb. 23 at his home in Oxford, Miss. He was 75.

The panel of judges who in 1969 awarded Jordan a National Book Award for his "White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812" praised the work as a "rare thing: an original contribution to an important subject."

"In helping us understand today's racial crisis," they added, "Jordan has ideally fulfilled the historian's function of investigating the past in order to enlighten the present."

Research for the book began before Rosa Parks' 1955 refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Jordan wrote that in conducting his research, he steered clear of reading much of the literature and even newspaper articles of that time.

Though not intended as a commentary on 20th century race relations, ultimately Jordan's work was important to that discussion because it presented racial attitudes not as immutable and intrinsic, but as developments that happened over time and for a reason.

"The first permanent English settlement on the African coast was at Kormantin in 1631, and the Royal African Company was not chartered for another forty years," he wrote. "Initially therefore, English contact with Africans did not take place primarily in a context which prejudged the Negro as a slave.... Rather, Englishmen met Negroes merely as another sort of men."

The racial attitudes that sustained slavery and other injustices evolved with time, influenced by economic interests, religion, national identity, differences in skin color, fears.

Just as the civil rights movement altered the relationship between racial groups in the United States, Jordan's "White Over Black," published in 1968, changed the discussion about those relationships in academia.

The book also won Columbia University's Bancroft Prize.

"It forever changed our understanding of the roots of racism in the United States," Robert Haws, former chairman of the history department at the University of Mississippi, said in a prepared statement.

Jordan joined the Mississippi faculty in 1982 and was a professor of history and African American studies until his retirement in 2003.

Born Nov. 11, 1931, in Worcester, Mass., Jordan was the son of Harry Donaldson, a professor and dean of history at Clark University. His mother was Lucretia Mott Jordan, a descendant of a well-known Quaker family who were outspoken abolitionists during the era of slavery.

At Harvard College, Jordan majored in social relations and graduated in 1953. But for a time he considered writing insurance policies rather than prize-winning history books. He spent nearly a year in a management training program at Prudential Life Insurance Co., then realized his interests were elsewhere.

He took a job teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy and earned a master's in U.S. history at Clark University in 1957 and a doctorate from Brown University in 1960. From 1963 until 1982, Jordan taught at UC Berkeley.

"What was important to him were his years at Cal and the fact that he was an associate dean of minority affairs," his wife, Cora, said.

Jordan was also proud of the contributions he made at the University of Mississippi. This year he was the recipient of the B.L.C. Wailes Award, the Mississippi Historical Assn.'s highest honor.

"That was as important to him as the National Book Award," Cora Jordan said. "He was so proud that he was receiving it."

In addition to his wife, Jordan is survived by three sons, Joshua of Davis, Calif., Mott of Santa Cruz and Eliot of Berkeley; two stepsons, Michael Reilly of New York and Steven Reilly of Greenville, Tenn.; stepdaughter Mary Beth Conklin of Atlanta; brother Edwin Jordan of Kennett Square, Pa.; and his former wife, Phyllis Jordan.

He once expressed a desire to write about the "modern social and scientific conceptualizations of 'race.' "

"For present purposes I will merely emphasize that human beings constitute a single entity, whether it is called a single species, a breeding population, children of God, or the family of man," he wrote in an essay on the History News Network website. "I personally find great value and aptness in all these designations."

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jocelyn.stewart @latimes.com

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