Winthrop D. Jordan was a renowned historian, admired professor, and award-winning author on the topics of race and slavery in American history. Best known for the book White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (1968), which earned him the National Book Award, the Bancroft Prize, and other honors, Jordan spent the last twenty-two years of his career as the William F. Winter Professor of History and F. A. P. Barnard Distinguished Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. In White over Black Jordan asserted that English perceptions about color, Christianity, manners, sexuality, and social hierarchy contributed to the “unthinking decision” to commence the trans-Atlantic slave trade and crystallized by the late eighteenth century into a race-based justification for chattel slavery. This argument profoundly affected historians’ understanding of both slavery and racism. The book’s erudite discussion of interracial sex is credited with inspiring serious scholarly inquiry into that topic—particularly the relationship between former president Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. In 1993 Jordan won a second Bancroft Prize for Tumult and Silence at Second Creek: An Inquiry into a Civil War Slave Conspiracy. In this work, Jordan not only brought to light details of a previously unstudied slave revolt near Natchez but also provided a model of the investigative skill, devotion to source materials, and keen insight that goes into the making of a consummate work of historical scholarship.
A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Jordan was born on 11 November 1931 into a family of scholars and liberal thinkers. His father, Henry Donaldson Jordan, was a professor of history at Clark University specializing in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British and American politics. Winthrop Jordan’s mother, Lucretia Mott Churchill Jordan, was descended from pioneering feminist and Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Coffin Mott. His great-great uncle, Edward N. Hallowell, was a commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a celebrated African American Civil War unit. True to these roots, Jordan’s midcareer decision to live and teach in Mississippi was fueled in part by a missionary impulse to improve the quality of higher education in the state. In addition, he was a founding member of Mississippi’s first official Quaker meeting, which met weekly at the Jordan home in Oxford.
Jordan attended high school at Massachusetts’s prestigious Andover Academy and graduated from Harvard University in 1953 without having taken a single course in history (because, he later explained, he was a history professor’s son). Although his degree was in social relations, his real major was performing with the Krokodiloes, an a cappella singing group. After a brief stint with the Prudential Life Insurance Company, Jordan began his teaching career as an instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire while earning a master’s degree in history from Clark in 1957. In 1960 he received a doctorate in history from Brown University. His doctoral dissertation formed the foundation of what became his masterwork, White over Black.
In 1963, after a two-year fellowship at the College of William and Mary’s Institute of Early American History and Culture, Jordan joined the department of history at the University of California at Berkeley in 1963, where he remained until he joined the faculty of the University of Mississippi in 1982. Jordan taught courses in African American history and early American social and intellectual history and a graduate seminar in research methods. In 2005, a year after Jordan’s retirement, ten of his former doctoral students from both Berkeley and Mississippi published Affect and Power: Essays on Sex, Slavery, Race, and Religion, a collection of essays he inspired.
In 2006 Jordan discovered he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Until days before his death on 23 February 2007, Jordan continued to pursue his scholarly interests, particularly his search for the origins of the one-drop rule—the uniquely American concept that only a small amount of African ancestry is sufficient to categorize a person as black, which he had originally explored in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1962.
Ironically, the Oxford funeral home in charge of filing Jordan’s death certificate incorrectly recorded his race as black. This was not the first time the son of New England seafaring stock had been presumed to have African roots. In 1993 the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education listed him among the year’s “most highly cited black scholars.” Although Jordan’s family and friends viewed his posthumous racial recategorization as an appropriate homage to the man whose life’s work contributed more to our understanding of what he called the “American chiaroscuro” than any other historian, the incident also revealed the enduring significance of racial labels. Mississippi law required the certificate to be amended and refiled, a process that proved an arduous and prolonged obstacle to the administration of his estate. To paraphrase Jordan’s 1999 assessment of public debate concerning the paternity of Hemings’s children, the wonder is not that a man with no known African ancestry was mistaken for black but that it mattered to some people.
- Winthrop D. Jordan, in Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, ed. Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (1999)
- David Libby, Paul Spickard, and Susan Ditto, eds., Affect and Power: Essays on Sex, Slavery, Race, and Religion in Appreciation of Winthrop D. Jordan (2006)
- History News Network, History Doyens, “Winthrop D. Jordan” (2 July 2006)