In Memoriam

David Brion Davis, Pulitzer Prize winner and renowned historian of slavery

David Brion Davis
David Brion Davis

David Brion Davis, Yale Sterling Professor of American History Emeritus and preeminent scholar on the history of slavery and abolition, died on April 14 of natural causes. He was 92.

Davis was the founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, which was established at Yale in 1998. In 1978, he was awarded a Sterling Professorship — the highest honor bestowed on Yale faculty — in recognition of his groundbreaking work in bringing slavery to the forefront of the study of American history. 

Davis is the author of the critically acclaimed “The Problem of Slavery” trilogy. Beginning with the “The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture,” published in 1966, Davis sought to analyze the place of slavery in the intellectual life of the West, and argued that it presented an enduring problem, but also an enduring companion to the formation of the modern world. In particular, Davis argued that the New World, from the moment of contact, was intertwined with slavery, and it has been one of the enduring themes of American history. Davis was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1967 for this book. In the second book in the series, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution,” published in 1975, Davis examined the intellectual and social ferment of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and sought to account for the advent of antislavery in Western Europe and America at a time of social upheaval and profound economic change. This book was recognized with both the Bancroft Prize and the National Book Award in History and Biography in 1976. In Davis’ most recent book, “The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation,” published in 2014, he looks at the meanings, problems, and possibilities of emancipation in the Atlantic world, focusing particularly on the role of black abolitionism.

Marta and I extend our deepest sympathy to the family of David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of American History and founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale,” said Yale president Peter Salovey. “Over the course of his prodigious and extraordinary career, Professor Davis transformed the study of slavery and abolition and inspired generations of historians beyond his own field. His willingness to ask new questions and seek larger truths inspires us still. As a teacher and mentor, Professor Davis will be remembered as kind, generous, and brilliant. I join with the entire Yale community in mourning his loss and paying tribute to his remarkable legacy.”

Davis earned his B.A. studying philosophy at Dartmouth College in 1950, and his Ph.D. in the Program in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in 1956. He joined the Yale faculty in 1970, where he remained until his retirement in 2001.

In 2006, Davis published “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World,” which brings together generations of international scholarship on slavery, and is regarded as a definitive history of the rise and fall of slavery in the New World.

David Brion Davis was an intellectual in pursuit of truth and wisdom. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw the historian’s craft as a search for the minds and souls of people in the past. He devoted his life and career to understanding the place of the inhumane but profoundly important and persistent practices of slavery and racism in the world. He was a philosopher at heart, a lyrical writer, and defined why we do history. We stand on his shoulders. At the Gilder Lehrman Center we carry on his legacy every day,” said David Blight, The Class of 1954 Professor of American History, and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale.

Davis served as the president of the Organization of American Historians (1988-1989), and held the Harmsworth Professorship at Oxford University and the French-American Foundation Chair in American Civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Antiquarian Society, and the American Philosophical Society, and held honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of New Haven, and Columbia University, among other institutions.

In 2014, Davis was awarded the National Humanities Medal by then-President Barack Obama — the highest honor bestowed by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

David Brion Davis was a pillar of the historical profession,” said Alan Mikhail, professor and chair of Yale’s Department of History. “It is not an exaggeration to say that there was the study of slavery before Davis and the study of slavery after him. He was that important. Yale, American letters, and the world are all diminished by his passing.”

A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Davis is the author of many other seminal works in American history, including “Homicide in American Fiction, 1798-1860: A Study in Social Values,” “Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery,” “In the Image of God: Religion, Moral Values, and Our Heritage of Slavery,” and “The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery Through the Civil War.”

Davis is survived by his wife, Toni Hahn, a former associate dean for alumni and public affairs at the Yale Law School; his sons, Adam, Noah, and Jeremiah; his daughters, Martha Davis Beck and Sarah Brion Davis; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

A funeral service will be held at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16 at Congregation Or Shalom, 205 Old Grassy Hill Rd., followed by burial at 855 Derby-Milford Rd., Orange. 

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