History professor remembered as pioneer for African American research

Photo courtesy of James Horton

Family and colleagues say James Oliver Horton will be remembered for pushing boundaries and fighting to keep African American history intact.

Horton, an emeritus American studies and history professor, died from complications from dementia Feb. 20. He was 73 years old.

Horton taught at GW from 1977 to 2008 as the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History. He first began his teaching career at the University of Michigan, where he taught history until 1977, before he became the Senior Fulbright Professor at the University of Munich in 1988.

Lois Horton, Horton’s wife and an emeritus professor of history at George Mason University, said she and her husband first met as college students at the State University of New York at Buffalo and were married in 1964. He earned his bachelor’s degree in history there the same year.

“He was a singer and had a band and I was on the cheerleading squad,” Lois Horton said. “We were married for 53 years. We have a lot of stories.”

Horton and Lois Horton co-authored four books together, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community and Protest among Northern Free Blacks” in 1997. Lois Horton said they made memories traveling and doing research together on African American history.

“When we first started doing research together on the black community in Boston, everyone said ‘Oh that’s not possible, there was no community and the documents aren’t there,’” she said. “So we took it as a challenge and managed actually to recreate that community from before the Civil War.”

He kept up with students through their whole lives, knew their families.

Horton served on the White House Millennium Council as a historical expert for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, traveling with her “Save America’s Treasures” bus tour during her time as first lady. In the fall of 2000, Horton was one of two historians appointed by former President Bill Clinton to serve on the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission – a federal committee that worked to commemorate Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

While serving as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, Horton took courses at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where he received a M.A. in American studies, before getting his Ph.D. in history from Brandeis University.

Horton received honors at GW, including the Trachtenberg Distinguished Teaching Award and the President’s Medal for scholarly achievement and teaching excellence. The Carnegie Foundation named him the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s Professor the Year for the District of Columbia in 1996.

Lois Horton said her husband’s favorite part about teaching was spending time with students.

“He kept up with students through their whole lives, knew their families,” she said. “He was very proud of their students so many of his students worked at the Smithsonian because he could provide internships for them and that worked into jobs for many of them.”

His influence, vision, and mission, was written into the fabric of this museum and all it represents.

Horton was also the director of the African-American Communities Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and served as the senior adviser on historical interpretation and public education for the Director of the National Park Service in 1994.

Some Columbian College of Arts and Sciences alumni who worked closely with Horton are now curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Horton’s students said he helped them land internships that led to jobs.

Paul Gardullo, an alumnus who is a museum curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said Horton influenced the people that work at the museum to tell the untold stories of African Americans and to hold others accountable.

“His influence, vision, and mission, was written into the fabric of this museum and all it represents,” Gardullo said. “He was deeply influential to the people that work here and deeply influential on holding institutions accountable.”

Melani McAlister, an associate professor of American studies and international affairs, said she got to know Horton when they first met at GW more than 20 years ago. McAlister said she remembers Horton as a generous person who loved to play tennis and had a beautiful singing voice.

“One time, some graduate students got him to do a performance, they named the band ‘The Jim Horton Experience.’ They sang Motown and stuff like that,” she said. “He was extraordinary.”

He was so fierce in his belief in the right of African Americans to fight for their rights and justice and importance.

Horton was an ambassador to the world outside of academia in how he explained the importance of African American history, McAlister said.

“He was so fierce in his belief in the right of African Americans to fight for their rights and justice and importance,” she said. “He took the big abstract concepts and brought them into a personal and individual story, and he was great at that.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.