Willie Lee Rose, a historian whose short but brilliant career helped steer the study of slavery and Reconstruction away from white slaveholders and toward freed African Americans — and who oversaw a gender discrimination report that spurred her profession to address sexism within its ranks — died June 20 at a retirement community in Baltimore. She was 91.
Johns Hopkins University, where she taught from 1973 until her retirement in 1992, announced the death but did not give a cause.
Rose suffered a stroke in 1978 that severely curtailed her academic work, limiting her scholarly output to little more than a collection of essays, a compilation of primary-source documents and a single full-length book, “Rehearsal for Reconstruction.” Yet that book, and the scattered works that followed, proved so influential that she was credited with standing at the fore of a revolution in the field of U.S. history.
Rose was part of a generation of historians who dismantled the prevailing view of Reconstruction as a “Tragic Era” for the South. Under an interpretation that became known as the Dunning School, radical Republicans were said to have ravaged the former Confederacy in the postwar years, working with ignorant African Americans and corrupt Northern whites to undermine the region's culture and politics. Black suffrage was seen as a political failure; the system of Jim Crow segregation that followed was justified as a political necessity.
Rose and her peers all but obliterated that school of thought, spotlighting the efforts of well-intended reformers and introducing the perspective of newly freed slaves who sought to exercise their freedom.
“She introduced real nuance in a subject that has too often been dealt with as a question of black and white, good and evil,” said Eric Foner, a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Rose, he added, was “one of the very first to look at the former slaves themselves as major actors,” rather than victims or passive subjects.
Her dissertation and first book, “Rehearsal for Reconstruction,” presented a chronicle of Reconstruction in miniature. It focused entirely on the sweeping changes that occurred after Union forces seized control of South Carolina's Sea Islands in 1861, freeing some 10,000 slaves.
For the most part, officials left the freedmen's fate to a group of teachers, preachers, doctors and abolitionists known as Gideon's Band, a proto-Peace Corps unit that helped the former slaves establish schools and an island economy. A few of the volunteers lined their pockets, Rose noted, while Sea Islanders became “as self-governing as many a small New England town.”
The book was a finalist for the National Book Award and received the Allan Nevins Prize for best dissertation and the Francis Parkman Prize for the best work of American history — the first time a book had received both prizes, given by the Society of American Historians.
Partly as a result of her newfound prominence, Rose was appointed to lead a committee to evaluate the status and treatment of women in the field of history. Her findings, presented to the American Historical Assn. in a 1970 document known as the Rose Report, were a calmly worded indictment of gender inequity.
“The present demand for social justice for women coincides with the permanent interest of the historical profession,” the report began. “To increase the opportunities open to women in the field of history is to advance the quality of the profession itself.”
While elite graduate departments granted about 15% of their doctorates to women, the report noted, men constituted 98% to 99% of their faculties, with “women serving primarily in the lower ranks.” The report cited a separate study stating that those who “discriminated against women in academic employment also hold general views concerning female inferiority.”
As a result of the findings, the AHA agreed to work toward expanding the number of women in the field and increasing the opportunities available to them. One 2007 survey found that women made up about 35% of all history faculties.
Willie Lee Nichols was born in Moneta, Va., on May 18, 1927, and raised in nearby Bedford. Her father ran a farm supply store, and her mother was a homemaker.
She graduated at 20 from Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, Va. Two years later, she married William G. Rose, a mechanical engineer who became a photographer. He died in 1985. She leaves no immediate survivors.
At Johns Hopkins, she studied under leading Southern historian C. Vann Woodward and received her doctorate in 1962. After several years teaching at the University of Virginia, she joined the Johns Hopkins faculty.
In 1976 she became the first woman selected as the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth visiting professor of American history at the University of Oxford in England. That same year, she published “A Documentary History of Slavery in North America,” which featured commentary on slave letters, planters’ diaries, songs, advertisements and other primary sources.
Her final book, a collection of essays, speeches and book reviews titled “Slavery and Freedom,” was edited by her Johns Hopkins colleague William W. Freehling and published in 1982. The book received rave reviews.
The essays seemed to point toward a project that was unfulfilled — another book, or another shelf of books — that might have explored Rose’s suggestion that “the study of slavery can illuminate the spirit of freedom.”
Instead, Freehling wrote in the book’s preface, the essays marked “a beginning turned by the fates into a culmination.”