Alumni Highlight: Dr. John Wesley Blassingame, ’60

Alumnus and Yale Scholar rewrote history--literally

May. 9, 2018

Dr. John Wesley Blassingame graduated from Fort Valley State College in 1960, and then went on to fundamentally recast the story of Africans in America. He is perhaps most well known for uncovering and amplifying the personal narratives of slaves, bringing attention to their perspectives like never before. Published in 1972, four years before Alex Haley’s Roots, Blassingame’s seminal work, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, used stories conveyed by fugitive slaves to disprove stereotypes of slaves as meek, complacent, and content with their plight in service of paternalistic masters, and instead showed their complexity, defiance, dignity, and courage. Prevailing American history at the time was based on the accounts of slave owners, and portrayed slaves as dithering, childlike ignoramuses. Blassingame instead proved that, despite the oppression of the owners, the slaves themselves retained African culture and traditions, developed music and art, maintained family ties and social structures, and found ways to exercise a semblance of control over their own lives even while on the plantation. In these ways, Blassingame showed, slaves were able to resist complete mental and spiritual subjugation and endure until escape or emancipation by refusing to relinquish their free will. His book forever changed the way the world views African-American history and heritage.

Other books by Blassingame include Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 and Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies.  He edited six volumes of the Papers of Frederick Douglas, and his books, New Perspectives on Black Studies and Long Memory: The Black Experience in America are standard textbooks in African-American studies classes.

Blassingame was chair of the African-American Studies Program at Yale University from 1981-89. Born in Covington, GA, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State College in 1960, a master’s degree from Howard University, and a master’s degree and a doctorate from Yale University. In 2004, the Southern Historical Association established an award in his name that recognizes African-American scholarship and the mentoring of minority students. His papers are housed at the The John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African-American History and Culture at Duke University.

Watch: A panel discusses Blassingame’s book, Black New Orleans
Read: Learn more about Blassingame through the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

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