In memoriam: David Montgomery

Union organizer and political and civil rights activist David Montgomery, the Farnam Professor Emeritus of History at Yale, died suddenly on Dec. 2. He was 84 years old.

Union organizer and political and civil rights activist David Montgomery, the Farnam Professor Emeritus of History at Yale, died suddenly on Dec. 2. He was 84 years old.

David Montgomery
David Montgomery

Montgomery was one of the founders of the “New Labor History” in the United States. His many articles and books have been credited with reshaping understanding of the history of American workers. His best-known work, “The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925,” was a finalist for the Pultizer Prize in non-fiction in 1989.

“More than other historians, Montgomery took his readers into the workplace, into the iron mills and railroad shops and munitions plants and electrical equipment factories of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which he saw as central to shaping workers’ consciousness and political struggles,” wrote Joshua B. Freeman, professor of history at the City University of New York, in one of a series of tributes to the historian presented by the Sidney Hillman Foundation.

A native of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Montgomery was very active in union and political organizing during his younger years. After serving in the military (on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos) and earning his bachelor’s degree (Swarthmore College), he worked as a self-taught machinist and was an active member of several local unions in the International Association of Machinists, Teamsters, and United Electrical Workers Union. He was blacklisted from several machinist jobs for union organizing during the McCarthy era.

“If he hadn’t been chased out of it, he’d probably have retired as a machinist,” according to his son Claude Montgomery of Stamford, Connecticut.

Instead, Montgomery returned to the world of academia, earning his M.A. (1960) and Ph.D. 1962) in history from the University of Minnesota. He taught for a year at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, before heading to the University of Pittsburgh, where he served on the faculty 1963-1979 and chaired the history department 1976-1976. He came to Yale in 1979, retiring in 1997.

Montgomery was a popular and respected teacher, both at Pittsburgh, where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award in 1971, and at Yale, where he was awarded the Sidonie Clauss Prize for Teaching Excellence in 1982. The labor movement also recognized his excellence as a teacher with the New York State Labor History Association’s John R. Commerford Labor Education Award.

Even as he pursued a career in academics, Montgomery remained a committed to labor causes. While in Pittsburgh, he supported the city’s unions, and he was active in labor politics at Yale, where he openly supported the clerical workers organizing a strike in 1984. He was also a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies during the Vietnam War era.

“David Montgomery was the model of the scholar-activist but also the activist-scholar,” Yale history professor Jennifer Klein told the Pittsburgh-Tribune. “He truly acted on what he wrote about and what he researched. He valued the dignity of all forms of labor and all workers, wherever they were, and he participated in their struggles for justice.”

Montgomery remained active after retirement. His last book, “Black Workers’ Struggle for Equality in Birmingham,” was published in 2004, and as recently as this September, he presented a paper on “Working People’s Responses to Past Depressions” at a Georgetown University symposium; the paper will be published in 2012.

Founder of the journal International Labor and Working Class History, Montgomery was a past president of the Organization of American Historians. He held several teaching appointments in other countries: senior lecturer, University of Warwick in England (1967-1969); a Fulbright lecturer, State University of Campinas, Brazil (1986); the Harmsworth Professor of American History, Oxford University (1986-1987) and the John Adams Professor of American Studies, American Institute University of Amsterdam.

In addition to his son Claude, Montgomery is survived by his wife, Martel; another son, Edward of Fulton, Maryland; five grandchildren; a brother, Daniel, of Kerrville, Texas; and a sister, Virginia Bailey, of West Grove, Chester County.

A memorial service in Montgomery’s honor will be held 1-2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, at Battell Chapel, corner of College and Elm streets. The family requests that donations in his honor be made to either Southern Poverty Law Center ( or Doctors Without Borders (

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