Herbert Aptheker; Scholar of Slave History
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Fri Mar 21 20:54:32 MST 2003
Herbert Aptheker, 87; Scholar of Slave History,
Quit U.S. Communist Party
By Dennis McLellan
Times Staff Writer
March 21, 2003
Herbert Aptheker, a pioneering historian who helped
establish the foundation for modern African American
scholarship and for decades was an influential leader of the
American Communist Party, has died. He was 87.
Aptheker, who suffered the latest in a series of strokes
last week, died Monday of complications of pneumonia in a
private residence near his home in San Jose, where he had
lived since 1977.
The Brooklyn-born Aptheker (pronounced ap-take-er), whose
Russian-immigrant father was a successful manufacturer of
ladies underwear, wrote and edited more than 80 volumes of
scholarly writing over the past seven decades and lectured
widely at universities all over the world on Marxism, civil
rights and U.S. and African American history.
At the same time, he frequently generated headlines and was
the subject of FBI surveillance as well as hate mail and
bomb threats for his Communist Party affiliation.
Before resigning from the American Communist Party in 1991,
he was one of its leading Marxist theoreticians. From the
mid-1960s to the early-1980s, he served as director of the
American Institute for Marxist Studies in New York City.
His daughter, Bettina Aptheker, now a professor of women's
studies at UC Santa Cruz, was a leader of the Berkeley Free
Speech Movement in the 1960s. And Angela Davis, the Black
Panther and onetime UCLA professor, was a close family
In 1966 during the Vietnam War, Aptheker made a
controversial fact-finding trip to Hanoi with Tom Hayden,
then leader of Students for a Democratic Society, and Yale
history professor Staughton Lynd to look into the
possibility of a negotiated end to the war.
The same year, Aptheker ran unsuccessfully for Congress on
the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.
A slim man of medium build and curly black hair, which
turned white in his 40s, Aptheker never lost his Brooklyn
accent -- or his strong beliefs.
"He could be fiercely polemical, and he also could be
soft-spoken and quite humorous," said his daughter, who
attributes her own radicalism to both her father and her
mother, Fay, who was also a Communist.
Aptheker established his reputation in African American
scholarship with the publication of his 1943 book "American
Negro Slave Revolts," an expansion of his doctoral
dissertation at Columbia University. The book demonstrated
that, contrary to prevailing scholarship at the time, slaves
in America were not acquiescent to slavery but had a long
history of rebellion.
"He was writing things that were against the grain of the
mainstream of American scholarship on African Americans,"
said history professor Clayborne Carson, director of the
Martin Luther King Jr. papers project at Stanford University
and a longtime friend of Aptheker's.
"When he came into the field in the 1930s, most of the
slavery scholarship was dominated by apologists for the
Southern segregation system," Carson said.
Aptheker's book, he said, "shifted the debate from the
notion of slavery being a civilizing institution -- that
slavery in a way benefited African slaves -- to the notion
that it was a harsh, exploitative institution and that
slaves resisted in whatever way they could. It seems like
that's obvious now, but at the time it was a radical
To arrive at that, Carson said, Aptheker "simply went back
and looked at the sources."
"He used a lot of newspaper records from the period that
talked a lot about slave rebelliousness," Carson said. "I
think that when he came up with more than 300 accounts of
slave revolts, that seemed to suggest that there was another
pattern at work and that you couldn't interpret slavery with
the old framework."
Aptheker was part of a younger generation of scholars who
were influenced by W.E.B. DuBois, the distinguished African
American scholar, sociologist, political activist and
co-founder of the National Assn. for the Advancement of
In 1946, DuBois asked Aptheker to edit his personal papers
Aptheker and his wife, who died in 1999, later edited three
volumes of DuBois' correspondence, more than 30 volumes of
his writings and an 800-page annotated DuBois bibliography,
which is considered the standard reference work.
Over the last year, Carson was helping Aptheker edit the
eighth volume of "A Documentary History of the Negro People
in the United States," the first major collection of
historical documents by African Americans.
The first volume, published in 1951, spanned the colonial
period through the founding of the NAACP in 1909. The
seventh volume, published in 1994, ended with the
assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
"We're bringing it up to the 21st century," said Carson. "To
me, it is just as important as Herbert's groundbreaking work
on slavery because no one had really put together such a
comprehensive collection of African American documents."
Aptheker's reputation as a champion of civil rights and his
lifelong interest in African American history were rooted in
A long car trip to Alabama with his father one summer while
he was in high school in the early 1930s helped set the
stage for his scholarly pursuits and social activism.
In a 1965 Associated Press interview, Aptheker said he saw
"indescribable things: starved kids, black and white, with
bloated bellies and rickety legs, and the brutal treatment
Bettina Aptheker said her father "never saw so much
suffering, and it left an indelible impression on him."
He returned to the South later in the 1930s as a leader in a
movement working for basic human rights for black
sharecroppers, and he wrote his 1937 master's thesis at
Columbia on the rebellion of slave Nat Turner.
In 1939, Aptheker joined the American Communist Party
because, he said, it was an anti-fascist force and a
progressive voice for race relations. Five decades later,
thinking the party was no longer a viable political force,
he resigned over a dispute with leaders over its direction.
During World War II, Aptheker served with the field
artillery in Europe, rising to the rank of major. After the
war, his involvement with the Communist Party prevented him
from being hired for a teaching position at Columbia.
Although he later lectured widely at major universities, a
permanent faculty appointment always eluded him.
Carson said he occasionally asked Aptheker to lecture in his
African American history class at Stanford.
"One of the things I liked about him was that you always
knew where he stood," Carson said. "He had a sharp mind, a
very strong sense of what was politically right and
politically wrong for him, and it was rooted in a fierce
hatred of injustice. That was the driving force."
In addition to his daughter, Aptheker is survived by two
grandchildren. A memorial will be held at 1 p.m. March 30 in
Cubberly Auditorium at Stanford University.
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