Herbert Aptheker, 87, Prolific Marxist Historian, Is Dead (NY Times)
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Thu Mar 20 06:51:00 MST 2003
Herbert Aptheker, 87, Prolific Marxist Historian, Is Dead
March 20, 2003
By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT
Herbert Aptheker, the prolific Marxist historian best known
for his three-volume "Documentary History of the Negro
People in the United States" and for editing the
correspondence and writing of his mentor, W. E. B. DuBois,
died on Monday in Mountain View, Calif. He was 87.
Along with his work on black history and his outspoken
defense of civil rights, he was known as a dominant voice
on the American left in the 1950's and 60's and as one of
the first scholars to denounce American military
involvement in Vietnam. His political views, and
particularly a fact-finding trip to Hanoi and Beijing in
1966, resulted in threats by Washington to revoke his
passport, a move that provoked a high-profile debate about
the legality of State Department travel restrictions.
In another public feud, Mr. Aptheker took on the author
William Styron, after the publication of his best-selling
1967 novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner," a re-creation
of the 1831 Virginia slave insurrection. Mr. Aptheker, as
well as some black writers and historians, accused Mr.
Styron of distorting the record and promoting racial
stereotypes. Mr. Styron, who called his book a "meditation
on history," hotly rejected Mr. Aptheker's view, saying it
was tainted by politics.
Although he wrote, taught and lectured widely on his
political views, his only major attempt at elective office
was an unsuccessful campaign for the House of
Representatives from Brooklyn in 1966 on the Peace and
Among his lasting contributions was the editing of the
DuBois letters. Writing in The New York Times Sunday Book
Review, the historian Eric Foner called "The Correspondence
of W. E. B. DuBois" (Massachusetts, 1973-1978) "a landmark
in Afro-American history." Yet when DuBois appointed Mr.
Aptheker (pronounced AP-tek-er) his literary executor in
1946 and subsequently turned over to him his vast
correspondence shortly before his death in 1963, the move
was vocally criticized in the black intellectual community.
Some felt that as a white man Mr. Aptheker could not truly
identify with the black American experience. Others thought
that for DuBois to have chosen an avowed Marxist to edit
his papers was to make him vulnerable to the accusation,
often voiced in the McCarthy era, that he himself was
opposed to the American way of life.
Yet Mr. Aptheker's editing was greeted with wide praise.
Reviewers said that his own extensive writing on
African-American history had clearly prepared him for the
task. Jay Saunders Redding, the black author and teacher,
wrote in Phylon, a journal founded by DuBois, that "what
gives a special importance to the letters it contains is
the light they shed on the why and how of this history and
on the men and women who made it."
Herbert Aptheker was born on July 31, 1915, in Brooklyn,
the youngest of five children of Benjamin Aptheker, a
successful manufacturer of women's underwear, and Rebecca
Komar Aptheker. He graduated from Columbia University in
1936, completed a master's degree there in 1937 and a
doctorate in history in 1943. His dissertation was
published under the title "Black Slave Revolts" (Columbia,
In September 1939, just after he began working toward his
doctorate, he joined the Communist Party, because, he said,
he saw it as an anti-fascist force and a progressive voice
for race relations. He was a hostile witness before the
House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, and
throughout the 1950's he remained on the defensive for his
radical views, experiencing violent threats and close
In 1942, he married Fay Philippa Aptheker, his first
cousin. She died in 1999. They had one child, a daughter,
Bettina, a leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement who
is a professor and the chairwoman of Women's Studies at the
University of California at Santa Cruz. He is also survived
by two grandchildren.
>From 1942 until 1946, Mr. Aptheker served in the Army,
seeing action as an artillery officer in Europe and rising
to the rank of major.
His first published work was a pamphlet, "The Negro in the
Civil War" (1938), later compiled with other pamphlets
under the title "To Be Free: Studies in American Negro
History" (International Publishers, 1948). After the
publication of his dissertation in 1942, he produced books
almost yearly. Among his more notable works, in addition to
his "Documentary History" (Citadel, 1951-1975) were his
multivolume "History of the American People"
(International, 1959-1976) and "Anti-Racism in U.S.
History" (Greenwood, 1992). In "Anti-Racism," he traced the
thread of opposition to black racism that he saw running
throughout American history.
After he returned to New York after World War II, he
applied for a teaching position at Columbia and was advised
that because of his politics he would never be hired. In
fact he was excluded from academic life until 1969, when
student demands for a course on black history led to an
invitation to teach at Bryn Mawr College, where he remained
Yet throughout his long career he lectured informally on
black history. He was also DuBois lecturer at the
University of Massachusetts at Amherst from 1971 to 1972,
as a professor at Hostos Community College of the City
University of New York from 1971 to 1977 and as a visiting
lecturer at Yale, the University of California at Berkeley
Law School and Humboldt University in Berlin.
He was an associate editor at Masses and Mainstream from
1948 to 1953 and an editor at Political Affairs from 1953
to 1963. In 1964, he founded the American Institute of
Marxist Studies in New York.
Mr. Aptheker's trip to Hanoi and Beijing in January 1966
stirred a whirlwind of debate over Washington's travel
restrictions to certain countries. Mr. Aptheker made the
trip with Staughton Lynd, then a history professor at Yale,
and Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic
The widely publicized visit was billed as a mission to
sound out the government of North Vietnam about the
possibility of a negotiated end to the Vietnam War. Federal
law on the broadly drawn State Department rules was
unsettled. In one case that seemed to put Mr. Aptheker in
the clear, the Supreme Court had held unconstitutionally
broad a regulation that barred all Communists from
traveling in all countries where passports are required.
But when the three men returned, the State Department,
which viewed their trip as meddlesome, took steps to
restrict their travel, though it eventually backed down.
To the end of his life, Mr. Aptheker saw his friendship
with DuBois as formative. He recalled how in the late 40's
they shared an office on 40th Street in Manhattan when
DuBois was director of publicity and research for the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
One day, Mr. Aptheker recalled, DuBois "said to me,
`Herbert, any time you have a problem, don't hesitate, just
ask me." This meant, he said, having access to one of
America's most dynamic minds. "Imagine what that meant to
me. I had it right here, and I had the New York Public
Library across the street."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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