In Memoriam: James Oliver Horton

Professor emeritus of American studies and history was a consummate scholar, especially in African American history, and known at GW for his humor, quick wit and as a mentor to generations of students.

February 24, 2017

james hortonJames Oliver Horton, George Washington University professor emeritus, scholar, public speaker and public historian, died this month. Dr. Horton, who joined GW faculty in 1977, was the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History and historian emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

Dr. Horton was born in Newark, N.J., and received his bachelor’s degree from SUNY Buffalo, master’s from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University in 1973. He served in the U.S. Air Force and was on the faculty at the University of Michigan before joining GW.

Known at GW for teaching his courses with humor, quick wit and a depth of historical knowledge, Dr. Horton disrupted the stereotypes and historical truisms students brought to class, lecturing on invisibility issues being raised by black feminists, the masculinity challenges for enslaved and newly freed black men and class overlaps and tensions among working-class men and women of various races during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  

A prolific mentor for generations of graduate students, Dr. Horton led the American studies department in rethinking the field of public history as museums grappled with how to present new interpretations at odds with some of the country’s most persistent racial beliefs.

Many of his graduate students became lifelong friends, and watching them mature in the profession gave him great satisfaction and filled him with pride. In the public history classes he designed to take advantage of his Smithsonian Institution affiliation, Dr. Horton enabled students to bring new interpretations to exhibits and historical sites and documented public reception of new views.

His work on the difficult subjects of American history grew out of years of graduate teaching that produced a generation of museum staff and curators attuned to making African American history central to the history of the country.

“We note with deep regret the passing of James Oliver Horton,” said Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Ben Vinson III. “Dr. Horton left an indelible mark as a teacher, scholar, public speaker and public historian.”

Dr. Horton edited, authored or co-authored many books, including “Landmarks of African American History” and “Slavery and the Making of America.” But it was his first book, “Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North,” co-authored with his wife Lois Horton, professor emerita of history at George Mason University, that established his reputation as a leading scholar of African American social history. The book has set the standard for scholarly understanding of free black life in the North.

Dr. Horton’s influence extended beyond the United States. A lecturer throughout Europe and in Thailand and Japan, he was Senior Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Munich in Germany in 1988 and 1989 and the John Adams Distinguished Fulbright Chair in American Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands in the fall 2003. In 1991, he assisted the German government in developing American Studies programs in the former East Germany.

Among his many professional titles, Dr. Horton also was president of the Organization of American Historians, and he held several presidential and governmental appointments, including serving from 1998-2000 on the White House Millennium Council and acting as historical expert for then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. He also was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Dr. Horton also served as historical adviser to several museums in the United States and abroad as well as historical consultant to film and video productions.

“Jim Horton will be remembered for many things, but especially for his zeal to bringing untapped historical knowledge to the broader public,” said Gayle Wald, chair of the Department of American Studies. “This legacy lives on in the generations of students he inspired and instructed. It is embodied in institutions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, several of whose curators were mentored by Jim.”

Over the course of his career, Dr. Horton was recognized for his service and teaching excellence, and among his accolades is the Trachtenberg Distinguished Teaching Award. In 2005 the Boston Museum of African American History presented him with its “Living Legend Award,” and he received an honorary doctorate from Wagner College. In 2006, Dr. Horton was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the George Washington University President’s Medal for scholarly achievement and teaching excellence.

Dr. Horton is survived by his wife and collaborator, Lois Horton, and their son Michael.

Donations in memory of Dr. Horton may be sent to the Horton-Vlach Fund for American Studies, established in 2014 to honor Dr. Horton and his colleague GW Professor John Vlach.

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