Ira Berlin, a longtime University of Maryland history professor and internationally recognized expert on slavery, died Tuesday of complications from multiple myeloma. He was 77.
Berlin, who came to this university in 1976, studied the history of slavery extensively, amassing a large body of research that he shared through classes, books and documentaries.
The study of slavery was once rare and seen as an anomaly in the scholarly community, history department chair Philip Soergel said, but Berlin brought it to the forefront.
“His work carved out an understanding of how slavery was key to almost every development in the U.S. economy,” Soergel said. “He showed historians it couldn’t be ignored.”
Soergel called Berlin the “world’s leading expert” on the history of slavery in the U.S. and credited him for helping this university come to terms with its past connections to slavery. The land this university sits on was once home to a plantation where slaves worked, and the majority of its original trustees were slave owners themselves.
In 2006, celebrations of this university’s 150th anniversary stirred controversy for only briefly mentioning its historical ties to slavery. In response, then-university President Dan Mote encouraged Berlin and a class of about 40 undergraduates to sift through documents related to this university’s founding, in the hopes of defining the role slaves played in its developmental years.
Though Berlin’s students were not able to find concrete evidence of the slaves’ contributions to this university’s establishment, they published an extensive, illustrated report that concluded the school had three founders: “a slaveholder, an abolitionist and the slaves themselves.”
“Those were the kinds of things he did,” Soergel said.
Soergel said Berlin’s work helped this university become known as one of the “premier places to study African-American society and structure.”
In 1999, Berlin’s book Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America received the Bancroft Prize from Columbia University, one of the highest honors for books on American history. In 2015, he won the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction, recognizing lifetime achievement in the field.
Author and historian Ana Lucia Araujo wrote in an email that Berlin influenced “three generations of scholars of the Atlantic world,” helping them understand the evolution of slavery and how that evolution impacted the lives of African-Americans.
“Unlike many historians of his generation, Berlin was not interested in emphasizing the demographics of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade,” she wrote. “He was among the few historians who brought to light the humanity of enslaved Africans and their descendents in the United States.”
At this university, Berlin was “remarkably generous” with his graduate students, said Katarina Keane, a history lecturer who worked with him for 18 years in the department. She recalled how Berlin would hold seminars for his graduate students on his back porch, where “they’d argue over big ideas in history over pizza and Indian food.”
Keane serves as executive director for the Center for Global Migration Studies, which Berlin founded with history professor Julie Greene in 2011.
Greene wrote in an email that the founding of the center was one of the most important and creative collaborations of her life, adding that she and Berlin worked together as “full and equal partners, even though, as a legendary scholar, he could easily have pulled rank on me.”
“He was not only an intellectual giant, shaping for generations the study of slavery — he also loved UMD so much and was always thinking about ways to make it even better,” Greene wrote. “He was a humanist in the greatest meaning of that term.”
For five years, Berlin led a campus group working to secure funding for this university’s Frederick Douglass Square. The project, which was completed in 2015, is now a focal point of Hornbake Plaza, where a 7 ½-foot bronze statue of the abolitionist towers over a decorative wall and engraved stones that bear his words.
In the 1990s, Berlin helped found the College Park Scholars program, a living-learning program for freshmen and sophomores. He also chaired a task force that revamped the general education curriculum for undergraduates — introducing I-Series and Scholarship in Practice courses and strengthening the English and diversity education requirements.
Berlin’s death leaves a “huge void” in the history department, Soergel said. Moving forward, the faculty and staff will inevitably search for someone of comparable caliber to replace him.
But, he said, “everybody knows we’ll never really find someone like Ira.”