Changing History

The Armstead Robinson Papers

By Ervin L. Jordan Jr.
This is an image of Ervin Jordan

Professor Ervin L. Jordan Jr.
Photo by LuAnn Williams

In an audacious indictment of American academia’s hypocrisy and racism, a twenty-two-year-old Black undergraduate student at Yale in the late 1960s early evinced the intellectual prowess for which he would become renowned. He wrote, “To be black here—to be aware of all the things whiteness has meant for black people and to be asked to submit passively to being coddled by the white power structure, being paid to come, is a fundamental contradiction for anyone with a positive black identification.” The young man was Armstead Robinson and he was one of eighteen African-American men at Yale when he enrolled in the fall of 1964. Robinson soon founded the Black Student Alliance at Yale and helped develop the university’s Black Studies program. In 1968 he helped organize a symposium entitled, “Black Studies in the University,” one of the first such symposia in the country. It was attended by representatives of forty colleges and universities. In William Banks’ Black Intellectuals (1996), Armstead is listed among a pantheon of 130 distinguished African-American minds of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries including W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison and Cornel West. One of America’s most prolific Black scholars, Henry Louis Gates Jr., characterized his Yale classmate as one of “the talented tenth of the Talented Tenth, the la creme de la creme brulee … the most brilliant scholar of our set.” Another prominent historian, Eugene Genovese (author, most famously, of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made), early recognized Armstead’s destiny as a historian and wholeheartedly recommended him for a faculty position. Genovese described him as “an astonishingly impressive young man ... on his way to a career of high distinction ... everyone who has had any contact with him shares my high regard for him.”

The papers of Armstead Louis Robinson (1947-1995), Professor of History, Founding Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, scholar of the Civil War, and Black Studies pioneer, are now available for research at the University’s Special Collections Library. When Armstead’s widow, law professor Mildred Robinson, asked me to organize the collection, I had no idea that it would take five years to do so, but I am honored to have undertaken the task on behalf of my late colleague, friend and mentor. The collection consists of approximately 28,000 items, spanning the years 1964, when Armstead entered Yale as a freshman, to 1995, when he passed away unexpectedly at the age of forty-eight. The items comprise mostly correspondence, lectures, publications, and research files. A detailed guide has been compiled to assist students and researchers who wish to consult the archive. Historians will be especially interested in the research material and manuscripts for his posthumous magnum opus, Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865, published by the University of Virginia Press in 2005.

Taken together, the papers document the career of a nationally renowned historian and educator. A treasure trove for professional historians and the general public alike, the subjects covered in the collection include African-American history and historiography; the development of Black Studies during the 1960s; the nineteenth century American South; the Civil War and Reconstruction, and life as an African-American student and faculty member at predominately white institutions of higher education (Yale, the State University of New York, the University of Rochester, UCLA, and the University of Virginia) from the 1960s through the 1990s.

As Armstead prepared to move to Charlottesville to take up his new position, he wrote a colleague in June of 1980: “I am happier than I can possibly express to be able to return home to the south, particularly at U.Va. where I am scheduled to teach.” A native of New Orleans, Armstead added, “I am indeed excited about the day when a southern black can teach southern and Civil War/Reconstruction history at a major southern university.” Armstead did not like being characterized as a “Black historian,” referring to himself as an “American historian.” He was rightly proud and mindful of the racial implications and irony that he, an African-American, was teaching Civil War and Reconstruction history at “Mr. Jefferson’s University.” A proponent of Black Studies as a corrective to Eurocentricism, Armstead nonetheless took the controversial stand of insisting upon the right of white scholars to research and teach in the field as well. “I believe very strongly that the gender and/or race of the professor ought to have nothing to do at all with the subjects they can teach,” he wrote in 1990. Other scholars, believing white academics would become more humanized on both conscious and unconscious levels by exposure to Black Studies, have since adopted Armstead’s inclusive viewpoint.

Soon after his arrival in Virginia, Armstead took steps to establish the Carter G. Woodson Institute, which he considered a vital forum for reassessing African and African-American history and cultures in a global perspective. He believed that “the unique experience of Black People” was a “valid object for serious general study,” an undertaking that was “academically responsible, and intellectually defensible.” With the support of Professor Emeritus Paul Gaston and Professor Joseph Miller, both of the history department, he founded the “Institute for African-American Studies” in 1981. (He later successfully petitioned the University to change its name to the “Carter G. Woodson Institute.”) Documentation of Armstead’s bureaucratic struggles as the Institute’s first director is limited. However, a few items in the collection provide a glimpse into the challenges he faced in establishing and sustaining the Institute. For example, upon learning of the University’s plans to require Institute fellows to vacate their annex offices in 1992, Armstead, then out-of-town, vigorously protested this plan as a breach of contract: “Given the multiple funding threats we face at the Woodson Institute, the crippling blow that the fellowship program will receive from the loss of the Annex might well compromise fatally a campaign based on the University’s record of long-term high-visibility commitment to centering the Institute as the symbolic and substantive core of its research and teaching programs [in African-American Studies].”

Other pieces in the collection provide insights into Armstead’s meticulous research habits, not to mention his colorful personality. For instance, a lengthy 1974 letter to a research library director complained about a “picayune” requirement that researchers use pencils for note-taking. Explaining his preference for ink or ballpoint pens because his research was done on color coded file cards for specific topics, Armstead concluded: “The pencil-only rule can and ought to be changed. It seems to me that forcing even one researcher to curtail his work in the name of the sanctity of a rule whose application has no relationship whatever to its purported purpose is a travesty.” Some letters attest to Armstead’s insistence upon fair treatment for himself and compensation for his labors. For instance, a Massachusetts college learned to its expensive regret that he had little tolerance for nonpayment of his consultancy honorarium. After being contacted by a prestigious Boston law firm on Armstead’s behalf, the school hastily sent the full amount; the law firm held Armstead in such high esteem that it provided legal services “as a professional courtesy” without charge. Finally, the collection includes copies of Armstead’s correspondence with national and international scholars such as Molefi Kete Asante, founder of the Afrocentricity school of Black Studies; Arna Wendell Bontemps, the Harlem Renaissance novelist, and Ron Maulana Karenga, an important figure in the Black Studies movement and the creator of Kwanzaa.

Armstead and I first met shortly after his arrival at the University and became friends almost immediately despite our philosophical differences on various social issues. He was unceasingly supportive of my efforts as a Civil War historian, and often assumed the role of the worldly-wise big brother I never had. In my memories I can still see him, in well-dressed dignity, his salt and pepper beard, prosperous and professorial, strolling across the Grounds, with that customary half-smile and twinkle in his eye. As I organized his papers I was awed anew by his intellect and could almost hear his imperturbable baritone voice speaking the words on the page, teaching me again. And somewhere, I’m sure, he’s smiling.