Portrait of Dr. Lawrence D. Reddick, professor of history. Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.
African American, Ethnography, History
Dr. Lawrence Dunbar Reddick was an internationally acclaimed historian, intellectual, and educator. His transformative documentation of the lives, struggles, and cultures of Black people spans much of the 20th century.
Born in 1910 to Amos Richard Reddick, a Pullman porter, and Fannie Ethridge Reddick, a homemaker in segregated Jacksonville, Florida, Lawrence Dunbar Reddick was named after acclaimed poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The civil rights activism in this community provided him the grounding for the stances he would take in his future scholarship and teaching.
Reddick earned his BA magna cum laude (1932) and MA (1933) in history from Fisk University. Upon completing his master’s degree, Reddick became head of the History Department at Kentucky State Industrial College in Frankfort, Kentucky. In 1934, in response to the prospect of job opportunities promised by New Deal programs, Reddick proposed a project to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) that would expand the research with ex-slaves previously done at Fisk in the 1920s. Reddick, who had participated in Charles Johnson/Ophelia Egypt’s earlier project at Fisk, sought to collect and study the testimonies and histories of ex-slaves in six states of the Ohio River Valley over twelve months with a plan to hire educated Black interviewers. If the project were successful, he hoped that the initiative would be expanded to all U.S. states with 500 Black interviewers. In 1935, he directed the initial projects in Kentucky and Indiana, which, with twelve interviewers, produced approximately 250 interviews, but that initiative ended that year. From 1936 to 1938, the Works Project Administration (WPA) initiated a program similar to his idea as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, in which mostly white fieldworkers interviewed former slaves in seventeen states. Reddick, as the first director of the Louisiana Negro Writer’s Project at Dillard University for the WPA in 1936, continued documenting ex-slave interviews, and researching African American history, culture, and folklore.
Reddick earned his PhD in History from the University of Chicago (1939) and was named curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature at the New York Public Library, following the death of founding curator, Arturo Schomburg. Before joining the faculty at
Alabama State College in 1956, Dr. Reddick taught at several colleges, including Atlanta University, and the New School for Social Research. In the 1950s and 1960s, Reddick became the historian for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, becoming Dr. King’s friend and first biographer. Fired from Alabama State in retaliation for his civil rights activism, Reddick moved to teach at Coppin State Teachers College in Baltimore, MD, Temple University, Harvard University, and in 1978, returned to Dillard University in New Orleans. He retired in 1987 after teaching for 40 years. His scholarship challenged prevailing worldviews in education and media about Black people as well as provided interpretations of African American civil rights and history from Black perspectives.
Among his many publications are:
“Racial attitudes in American history textbooks of the South.” The Journal of Negro History 19, no. 3 (1934): 225-265.