Our Board Members Speak

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The latest on Lincoln: Our Board Members Speak

ALBF Vice Chairman Orville Vernon Burton recently ended his term as President of the Southern Historical Association (SHA).  The following is based on his formal farewell address.  For more on the SHA visit sha.uga.edu.

The South as “Other,” the Southerner as “Stranger” by Orville Vernon Burton

In another recent appearance, Professor Burton paid tribute to James Oliver Horton, leading Civil War historian and longtime member of the ALBF predecessor organization, The U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.  Following is his tribute to Prof. Horton at an ALBF-sponsored Lincoln Conference in Hilo, Hawaii.

First say thank to you all who made this possible.  And especially to Prof. Jeffrey Smith who has worked tirelessly and unselfishly, sometimes against all odds, to make this important event happen.  Thank you, Jeff.

It is my great honor to speak a few moments about my good friend Jim Horton, for whom this symposium on Abraham Lincoln is named.  Jim Horton has many accomplishments and awards, but the best thing he ever did was to marry Lois Elaine Berry, a brilliant historical sociologist and often his co-author.

I think Jim could have been successful in show-biz.  His rich baritone had a range wide enough to soar up into the tenor range when needed.  He and his sister were in the “Stars of Tomorrow” television program when they were children.  He soloed at Carnegie Hall when he was thirteen. In high school, Jim Horton had some gigs singing duets with another student, a girl named Diane.  When they graduated, Diane asked him to turn pro with her when their manager asked both Diane and Jim to sign with him.  The same agent managed her successful career introducing songs Burt Bacharach wrote for her after Jim and Diane’s agent changed her name to Dionne Warwick.

Fortunately for our profession, Jim wanted to go to college and decided to pursue higher education.   But he had a really good band in college and earned date money for Lois and him.  For one summer he even sang with Count Basie on the Jersey Shore.  At the end of college, Columbia Records offered him a record deal, but he decided that was no profession for a soon-to-be married man, another great decision for the History profession.  At least three times I heard Jim Horton sing at History conventions, accompanied on piano by Charles Joyner; all three times they received standing ovations.

James Oliver Horton is the Emeritus Benjamin Banneker Professor Emeritus of American Studies and History at George Washington University.  He taught at the university for 31 years before retiring in 2008.  He is also Historian Emeritus at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.  He received his B.A. at the University of Buffalo in 1964, as did Lois Horton, and Jim received his Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University in 1973 (and Lois Horton received her Ph.D. in social policy there as well).  Jim Horton taught at the University of Michigan from 1973 until 1977 when he moved to George Washington University.  He has also lectured throughout Europe and in Thailand and Japan.  In 1991 he assisted the German government in developing American Studies programs in the former East Germany.  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.  Jim Horton built bridges between the Organization of American Historians and the National Park Service that have become sturdy passageways between public and academic history.  Jim Horton helped the Park Service see itself as an educational institution that could work with academics.  More people learn history from monuments and museums than they do reading history books, so Horton’s work with the National Park Service has done much to show that accurate history is more than a one-dimensional portrait of American triumph.

From 1998 to 2000 Professor Horton worked with the White House Millennium Council, 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 1998.  In 2006 Professor Horton was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In the spring of 2009, the University of Hawaii presented him with its “Distinguished Alumni Award.”  Jim has a very special relationship with Hawaii.  It was at the University of Hawaii that he was first introduced to African American History.  In fact, the only course he ever took in Black History was at the University of Hawaii, with Idus Newby, a white historian from Georgia, who got his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina.   In college Jim did ROTC, then a month at Newport News for Officer Training and then three years in Maine.  Then the Air Force gave Jim a choice:  He could do one year in Hawaii without his family or three years with his family in Hawaii.  Jim chose his family and an extra two years.  It was the right decision:  his time stationed in Hawaii changed his life and started him on the path to becoming a historian.  While in Hawaii, he mostly supervised the joint services police force, stationed at Fort DeRussey in Waikiki.  He worked every third night and could sleep if nothing happened that needed his attention.  Jim claimed the Air Force provided him the best graduate fellowship he had ever heard of.  Once he did have to rescue his class notes when a fellow student who had borrowed them was being dragged away during a protest against the Vietnam War.  Jim and Lois loved Hawaii, and they planned to come back and teach at the University of Hawaii, but after Jim got his PhD, the university was not hiring any historians.  It took 30 years, but Jim Horton did make it back to the University of Hawaii faculty.  For years he would teach the winter term in Hawaii, travelling across the waters each semester.  He loved Hawaii for lots of reasons but mostly I think because he felt so comfortable here and so welcomed by the people at the University of Hawaii.  Jim always appreciated genuine emotions: laughter, debate, tennis competition.  I think Hawaii elicited all those ‘real’ emotions for him.

Jim and I were asked in 2009 to be on a special panel on Lincoln and the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  Jim Horton placed Lincoln in a global context.  Using Hawaii, a sovereign nation at the time of the Civil War, Horton discussed what Lincoln meant to Hawaiians.  He was very popular in Hawaii then.  Lincoln did better in mock elections at Honolulu in 1860 and 1864 than he did in most of the United States.  And, as you can attest to today, Jim argued that Lincoln is still popular today in Hawaii (not true for where I live).  Jim told us that on anniversaries of his birthday people place leis on his statue.  With an emphasis on Lincoln in a transnational setting, Horton looked at Lincoln’s correspondence with King Kamehameha IV and King Kamehameha V.  Lincoln addressed each as “My good and great friend” and signed the letters as “Your good friend.”   Many are surprised to learn that a number of Hawaiians served the Union cause in the army and navy, some serving in African American regiments.  (For more detail, see James Horton’s article at   http://hnn.us/articles/64503.html)

Professor Horton was elected President of the Organization of American Historians, serving 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 was a Senior Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Munich in Germany in 1988-89.  (While he was away that year, I rented his home in Washington, DC, and at year’s end I discovered that my five children had accidentally put a hole in the front of his home.  He was also a great landlord!).  Horton was Fulbright Distinguished John Adams Chair in American Studies, University of Leiden, in the Netherlands in the fall 2003.  He has held several presidential appointments, including President Clinton’s appointment to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission in 2000.  The official successor organization, despite my accent, not the secessionist organization, is the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, of which I am vice-chair and which is especially proud to sponsor this conference named in honor of ALBC member Jim Horton.

Professor Horton has been recognized for teaching excellence, receiving the Trachtenberg Distinguished Teaching Award for George Washington University in 1994 and the Carnegie Foundation, CASE Professor of the Year Award for the District of Columbia, in 1996.

In 2006 he received the George Washington University President’s Medal.  Past recipients of this award include Mikhail Gorbachev, Walter Cronkite, Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres, and United States Senators William First and Joe Lieberman.

Jim Horton has published ten books , most recently The Landmarks of African American History in 2005, Slavery and the Making of America (Oxford University Press, 2004) the companion book for the WNET PBS series of the same which aired in February of 2005, coauthored with Lois E. Horton and Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, edited in 2006 with Lois E. Horton.

Professor Horton has also 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 has been 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.  He also appears in the DVD version of the movie “Glory.” and was a historical consultant for and appeared in the 2004 PBS series, “Slavery and the Making of America.”  In February, 2002, he hosted The History Channel TV Special, “A Fragile Freedom: African American Historic Sites,” based on his Oxford University Press book, The Landmarks of African American History.  Professor Horton was also historical advisor for the 2005 History Channel series, “Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America,” which won the 2006 Emmy Award for best nonfiction TV series.  As he did with the National Park Service, Jim Horton guided the History Channel to understand its role in educating the general public and as a host on the History Channel had an important venue as a public intellectual.

Jim Horton and I share a passion for tennis.  One thing he especially enjoyed, which happened frequently when he was playing on public tennis courts, was being mistaken for Arthur Ashe.

Jim Horton is a model for us all.  No one who had more fun being a historian than Jim Horton.

Orville Vernon Burton, Clemson University