Your memoir is titled The Making of a Racist. But it’s the unmaking that has made you who you are.
You arrived as a student in 1954 from a world of privilege and segregation. You’ve said the plane ride from Florida to Massachusetts was your first time in proximity to a black person.
In those early days the college’s student body, was almost entirely white and affluent. Since then, you and Williams have both evolved, often in similar ways. Your ability to recount your personal version of that journey, and to unpack its historical significance, has attracted generations of students to your Southern history courses. Many have gone on as alumni to counsel their own children and grandchildren: Take his classes. In so many settings—from projects with your late colleague and friend Leslie Brown to a conversation with the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson—you’ve openly explored the ways that racism can lead to fundamentally different life experiences for people.
Your books, including Apostles of Disunion and Ironmaker to the Confederacy, demonstrate how slavery and racism were woven into Confederate ideology. They continue to be widely taught, due to their deep historical research, powerfully-organized arguments and lucid prose.
Other important changes, too, have tracked with your time on the Williams faculty. As history department chair you promoted mentoring opportunities for junior faculty and allowed them to participate fully in hiring decisions. You even reinvented the administrative memo: Your versions are famed for their elegance. Like your late and dearly missed wife Robb, whom The L.A. Times once called “one of our premier chroniclers of the everyday,” you take pleasure in the smallest details.
Perhaps this talent for observation also explains your well-known fascination with trains. You used to depart for conferences on the West Coast three days early, so that you could ride out by rail. You seemingly know the names of all the trains, the kinds of cars and their schedules.
Speaking of timetables, you operate on one that we’d all like to know more about: You never seem to get any older! We’re delighted that you and Williams have grown up together.
I hereby affirm you as Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, Emeritus, entitled to all the rights, honors and privileges appertaining thereto.
July 23, 2022