It is with great sadness that I write about the sudden passing of a terrific historian and a very generous and humane man, Robert F. Engs. Dr. Engs was educated at Princeton and then Yale and taught at the University of Pennsylvania for many years (including the time when I was there; I was the beneficiary of his wonderful lecture class on the era of Civil War). Then after his retirement from Penn he returned to his native Virginia and was teaching at William and Mary, where he was working on the school's Lemon Project. That project is revisiting William and Mary's long history with the institution of slavery. Though Dr. Engs was so much more important to his students and those of us who came within his orbit than a catalog his scholarship would convey, I would like to mention several of his path-breaking books were Freedom's First Generation: Black Hampton, Va., 1861-1890 and Educating the Disfranchised and Disinherited; Samuel Chapman Armstrong and Hampton Institute, 1839-1893. He also co-edited with Randall Miller The Birth of the Grand Old Party. And because this is the internet I will also mention the electronic archive he developed on the coming of Civil War.
I had the pleasure of having dinner with Dr. Engs last spring and he was in classic form -- telling stories about his time as a graduate student and as a professor at Penn, about the days when African American history was so new, as well as all the work he had in process. He was recovering from some lingering health problems, but very much looking forward to the work of the Lemon Project and to travels. And we had a grand time at dinner. Wow, what an evening! Of course in his characteristically generous fashion he patiently listened to my talk about University, Court, and Slave -- and we had the chance to trade stories about the ways that institutions north and south (but mostly south) had promoted the cause of proslavery as well as benefitted from enslaved labor.
We have lost a wonderful person, a wonderful mentor, and a steadfast advocate for African American history. He cared deeply about his students and the future of the historical profession, and worked to recover African American history, particularly in the south. His writing was directed at recovering the full scope of African American life in the era as our nation emerged from generations of slavery and made the robust ideas of freedom an economic and social reality. I hope to talk a little bit more about Engs' influence and his work soon.
Rob Gregg, who was also one of my teachers, has an extensive remembrance at Histrionics. Sherman Dorn recalls his days teaching with Engs here. W&M's Provost, Michael Halleran, has a tribute here, and here is the Flat Hat's story. Further details about funeral arrangements are at the Daily Press' website. The family asks that in lieu of flowers a contribution be made to an organization of your choice that benefits at-risk youth.