Lessons from a National Humanities Medal winner

As a child growing up Washington, D.C., Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham met many prominent black Americans.

She was inspired by thinkers such as Carter G. Woodson, a journalist and historian often referred to as the “father of black history.” Woodson worked closely with Higginbotham’s father, Albert N. D. Brooks, the secretary-treasurer for the organization now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Higginbotham, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history at UWM, grew into one of the country’s leading historians, honored earlier this month with a National Humanities Medal. A White House citation credited Higginbotham, “for illuminating the African-American journey. In her writings and edited volumes, Dr. Higginbotham has traced the course of African-American progress, and deepened our understanding of the American story.”

Higginbotham attended Howard University and the University of Rochester, but marriage brought her to UWM for her sophomore year, where she was a member of the Phi Alpha Theta history honors society.

“I had wonderful professors,” she recalled, but the jolt she received from one UWM teacher was a profoundly formative experience.

“I wrote a paper on African-American soldiers in the Civil War and I think I’ve written a good paper and I get a C-minus!” she said. “It was heartbreaking.”

But when she pondered the comments made by the professor, Nathan Miller, she recognized that he was trying to get her to ask questions and to think critically, rather than simply offer a narration of events. She now considers Miller to be one of her “heroes.”

“There’s not a semester goes by that I don’t talk about him to my students,” she said. “I always tell my students the best friend you can have is someone who gives you honest and constructive criticism, because they can only make you better.”

Higginbotham is the Harvard University Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and African American Studies. She was a coeditor, with Henry Louis Gates Jr., of the 12-volume “African American National Biography.” Among her many accomplishments, one has echoes of her experience at UWM.

Asked to collaborate with scholar John Hope Franklin on the ninth edition of his landmark book “From Slavery to Freedom,” Higginbotham found herself in the awkward position of being compelled to significantly rewrite, rather than merely update, the work of a scholar she had known since she was five years old.

“So when I’m handing him the first 15 chapters, I think to myself, ‘Oh my goodness he’s going to say what have you done to my book?’” she recalled. Instead her told her, “This is wonderful. You’ve given my book new life.”

“What I saw was a man who really wanted to see the book better,” she said. “And that’s what I emphasize about myself. If somebody tells me how I can do something better, I see someone who cares enough about me to think I can do it better.

For Higginbotham, historical research has been personal. Her great-grandfather Albert Royal Brooks was born a slave in Virginia, but in freedom served on the jury that tried former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. His wife, Lucy Goode Brooks, established one of the first post–Civil War orphanages for black children. Higginbotham’s grandfather Walter Henderson Brooks was pastor of Nineteenth St. Baptist Church, the oldest black Baptist congregation in Washington, D.C.

Higginbotham, who started her career teaching American history in Milwaukee and served as an eighth grade counselor at Parkman Junior High School, received an honorary doctorate from UWM in 2014.

Higginbotham sees herself as part of a continuum of scholarship.

“I’ve been given this award because I have worked to bring African-American history into the mainstream of the American narrative” she said. “And I’ve done this in the footsteps of John Hope Franklin. To be described in the way that most people think of him is, to me, a great honor in itself.”

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