Lerone Bennett, Jr. – a leading Black historian whose landmark book Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619–1962 examined the contributions and legacy of African-Americans predating the Transatlantic Slave Trade – died this week at age 89. He had vascular dementia.
Bennett was, along with Dr. John Hope Franklin, one of the most acclaimed scholars of Black history in the U.S., from the 1950’s until the time of his death.
Born October 17, 1928 in Clarksdale, Miss. — a town known for native musicians such as Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Son House and John Lee Hooker — Bennett was educated at Atlanta’s Morehouse College at the same time as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., under the presidency of the influential Dr. Benjamin Mays.
Bennett pursued graduate studies before working as a journalist for the Atlanta Daily World in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. The Daily World was unique among the Black U.S. press at the time, when nearly all other Black newspapers based in major cities were published weekly.
He also was Atlanta city editor for EBONY magazine until 1953, when at the age of 25 he accepted a position as an associate editor at the most widely read monthly aimed at Black U.S. readers. There, Bennett distinguished himself with a series of features concerning little-known aspects of Black history, from antiquity to modernity. One such article in 195, was titled Thomas Jefferson’s Negro Grandchildren and traced several contemporary U.S. citizens back to Sally Hemings. In 1956, Bennett married the former Gloria Sylvester.
Two years later, Bennett was named executive editor at EBONY. Before The Mayflower, which he published in 1962, was excerpted in the magazine. For many, it was the first mainstream text to chronicle Black achievements in the Americas before colonization and outside the realm of enslavement. The Capital Press Club honored the work as Book of the Year.
“His writings helped to popularize and mainstream the study of the African diaspora for generations of Black folk domestically and internationally,” said Dr. Peniel Joseph, a professor of History and Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, adding that Bennett was “one of the true giants of Black history.”
In 1964 with What Manner Of Man, Bennett wrote the first prominent biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His other works include Confrontation: Black And White (1965), Black Power USA (1967), Wade In The Water: Great Moments In Black History (1979) and Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (2000).
For decades, Bennett debunked the notion that President Lincoln was a racial visionary or altruistic leader in terms of emancipation. His works contended that Lincoln was incessantly pushed by abolitionists and compelled by priorities of preserving the Union and defeating the Confederacy, including the president’s decision to write a statute that did not free enslaved Blacks in the slaveholding U.S. South.
This belief made Bennett a popular panelist at conferences and forums that examined Lincoln or his times, and he was often tapped to defend his premise on television and radio. His scholarship and prolific publishing inspired generations of historians and academics.
Dr. Christopher Tinson, an associate professor of Africana Studies and History at Hampshire College, called Bennett “one of the foremost historians of the African experience globally, but certainly in the United States.”
“Bennett offered not only the craftsmanship and discipline of the historian, but he wrote and worked with a commitment to the practice of liberation,” said Tinson, who has researched and written about Bennett.
In 2003, Bennett was awarded the Carter G. Woodson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association For The Study of African American Life And History. During his career, Bennett received honorary degrees from universities as varied as the University of Illinois, Marquette, Wilberforce and his alma mater, Morehouse.
“It is powerfully symbolic that Lerone Bennett – journalist, historian, scholar extraordinaire – passed on Valentine’s Day,” said Dr. Barbara Ransby, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor of History, African-American Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies. “His love of history, his love of truth and his commitment to justice were unmatched. His scholarship was both passionate and pioneering.”
Ransby said that Before the Mayflower and Bennett’s 1970 article The Road Not Taken mapped the evolution and invention of racism and White supremacy in the North America.
“Reading Bennett’s words has to be a part of our lesson plan for liberation,” she said. “He will be dearly missed.”
Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, paid homage to Bennett via Twitter. “A classmate & biographer of Dr. King, during the turbulent 60’s, his was a pen that mattered. As historian, author of Before the Mayflower, editor of EBONY magazine, the most-read voice of the freedom struggle, his impact will long be felt and remembered.”