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One year ago: Kenneth M. Stampp

July 10, 2010 |  7:00 am

Kenneth-stampp In the 1950s, the standard college text on slavery in the United States portrayed slave owners in a largely favorable light as a civilizing influence on their African slaves. But then came Kenneth M. Stampp, who wrote "The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South," a 1956 book that marked a turning point in historians' treatment of slavery. Stampp died one year ago.

Stampp was a UC Berkeley historian when he wrote the book, which rejected the moonlight-and-magnolias mythology that inspired such stereotypes as the benevolent plantation owner and the smiling black mammy. He also showed how slaves resisted their bondage, not only through rebellion and escape but also through more passive methods, such as work slowdowns and breaking tools.

The power of Stampp's book stemmed from its rich documentation -- which included narratives by fugitive slaves, antebellum newspapers, court records and slave owners' correspondence -- and its literary style.

Although Stampp's book came out during the eve of the Civil Rights movement, it was a product of thoughts and research he had been developing for at least a decade. Still, the book's theme meshed well with the temper of the times and within a few years became the generally accepted account of slavery.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who studied under Stampp in the early 1950s, said this about the book:

"What his book asked us to do was view slavery through the eyes of the slave as well as through the eyes of the slaveholders. ... The voice of slaves could no longer be denied."

For more, read Kenneth M. Stampp's obituary by The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Kenneth M. Stampp. Credit: UC Berkeley