Professor David Blight Awarded Lincoln Prize For Frederick Douglass Biography
Professor David Blight
Recently, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History held the thirtieth annual Lincoln Prize Ceremony. This year, the prestigious honor was awarded to historian David Blight for his biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. The ceremony was held at the historic Union League Club of New York.
Among the attendees were respected historians such as Martha Hodes, Eric Foner and Richard J. M. Blackett, and Harold Holzer, Medal of Honor winner Paul Bucha, Pace University provost, Dr. Vanya Quinoñes, and many friends, supporters and trustees of the organization. Also in attendance were Middle and High School Gilder Lehrman Civil War Essay Contest winners.
Gilder Lehrman founders, Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, spoke during the cocktail hour. Mr. Gilder spoke highly of Blight, who is a professor at Yale, and referenced his Pulitzer Prize win, which was announced the day before the Lincoln Prize ceremony. Mr. Lehrman echoed his compatriot’s sentiments. “What Ron Chernow has done for Alexander Hamilton, David Blight has now done for Frederick Douglass,” said Mr. Lehrman, referencing the landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton”. Mr. Lehrman also explained how Frederick Douglass’s history had been somewhat overlooked until Blight’s illuminating biography. Following the words from the founders, Mr. Blight spoke briefly, noting that the bulk of his speech was to come later during dinner. He also paid tribute to David Brion Davis, founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, where Blight is director. Davis passed away just a few days before the ceremony at the age of 92.
A gorgeous dinner followed the cocktail hour. James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, was the emcee. His lively remarks included some friendly teasing regarding Blight’s Pulitzer win — a running joke throughout the evening that the Pulitzer committee followed in Gilder Lehrman’s footsteps!
A highlight of the ceremony was a reading by Eliane Spalding. An 8th grader at Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School in Dallas, Texas, Spalding won first place in the middle school division of the Civil War Student Essay Contest. She eloquently read selections from her winning piece “Lincoln and Davis: Motivational Leaders”.
When it came time to introduce Professor Blight, James Basker gave a glowing introduction which highlighted the historian’s many professional accomplishments. He spoke of Mr. Blight’s affiliation with Yale, which began when he was a student (class of 1954) and progressed to him becoming a professor and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. He described Blight as a respected and well-liked teacher whose classes often have a wait list. Described as a generous and dedicated mentor, Blight has been known to never deny students or teachers the opportunity to collaborate evidenced by his work as a professor for the online Pace-Gilder Lehrman MA in American History Program.
When David Blight took to the podium, he expressed his appreciation for the great recognition and his wry humor was on display. “It’s a good thing I had an independent jury or you’d think this was an inside job!” he said to laughter. Blight then highlighted all the other finalists and spoke highly of many of the historians in attendance including Catherine Clinton. He shared some personal anecdotes as well. Most touching was his expanded memorial to colleague David Brion Davis. “You never were in his presence without learning something, even if you didn’t want to,” said Blight, adding, “he reminds me of the humility at the core of what we do.”
Blight ended his acceptance speech with Frederick Douglass’s own words: “Power concedes nothing without a demand” and “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” #