William Loren Katz, historian of African Americans, dies at 92

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William Loren Katz, historian of African Americans, dies at 92
William Loren Katz. Katz, who documented the often overlooked contributions of black people in books for young adults, helping to refashion social studies curriculums across the country, died on Oct. 25, 2019, in Manhattan. He was 92. Handout via The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- The fountainhead of historian Bill Katz’s immersion in African American culture was his father’s passion for jazz. Ben Katz had derived more pleasure from the music and its historical roots than from his day job as an art director for an advertising agency.

Bill also inherited his father’s lust for learning and political consciousness. Before he was 10 he marched in a May Day rally to support the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African Americans falsely charged with rape in the early 1930s.

His empathy for black Americans only grew. As a high school teacher and in some 40 books written under the name William Loren Katz, he awakened his readers to the integral roles that African Americans — from rebellious slaves to cowboys who tamed the West — had played in their nation’s history. He popularized their contributions in nonfiction narratives for young adults, helping to refashion social studies curriculums across the country.

Katz died Oct. 25 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 92. His wife, Laurie R. Lehman, an associate professor of special education at Long Island University, said the cause was complications of heart disease.

Rather than isolating racial or ethnic studies in separate classes or departments, Katz favored incorporating the contributions of overlooked women and members of minority groups into regular American history courses.

“The assertion that the Negro has no history worth mentioning is basic to the theory that he has no humanity worth defending,” he told The New York Times in 1968.

Who knew, he asked in 1990, that Lewis Howard Latimer, a black inventor, had “drawn up the plans for Bell’s telephone”? Or that another black innovator, Elijah McCoy, the son of runaway slaves, had designed an industrial lubricating device so highly valued by machinists that the demand for it inspired the idiom “the real McCoy”?

Katz’s first book, “Eyewitness: The Negro in American History” (1967), broke ground by introducing a generation of students to black historical figures who had been neglected in most textbooks.

In the late 1960s, Katz edited two series — “The American Negro: His History and Literature” and “The Antislavery Crusade in America” — that totaled more than 200 volumes of scholarly and out-of-print texts. The series were published jointly by The New York Times and Arno Press.

“He wrote about heroic black women, slave rebellions and antislavery movements when discussing such matters was dangerous and seen as unpatriotic,” Jesse Weaver Shipley, a professor of African and African American studies and oratory at Dartmouth College, said in an email.

Among Katz’s other books were “The Black West” (1973) and “Black Indians” (1986).

“When whites were sending out posses, Native Americans were extending the hand of friendship,” Katz told The Times in 1994. “Almost every Afro American family in the United States has a Native American branch to its family tree, from Michael Jackson to Jesse Jackson, from Frederick Douglass to Langston Hughes.”

Katz was born Loren Paul Katz on June 2, 1927, in Brooklyn to Bernard and Madeline (Simon) Katz, whose own parents were Jewish immigrants. Ben Katz, as he was known, besides being a commercial art director, was an ardent leftist; Madeline Katz, a former championship diver, died several weeks after Loren was born. His stepmother, Phyllis (Brownstone) Katz, was an editor at Parents magazine.

Katz chose his pen name, Lehman said, because he had adopted the nickname Bill (his mother was known as Billie) and decided that William Loren Katz sounded more scholarly than Loren Paul Katz.

In addition to Lehman, whom he married in 1994, Katz is survived by a daughter, Naomi Katz, from a previous marriage, which ended in divorce; a granddaughter; and a younger stepbrother, Jonathan, whom he mentored and who wrote the trailblazing book “Gay American History” (1976). A son, Michael, died earlier.

Katz grew up in Greenwich Village and was in the first graduating class of the private, progressive Elisabeth Irwin High School in Lower Manhattan. He then joined the Navy and served in the Pacific at the end of World War II.

Katz recalled in an interview with the Zinn Education Project (named after another progressive historian, Howard Zinn) that his provocative opinions had first surfaced in high school when, in a school project, he devoted the first three chapters of a 200-page history of jazz to slavery.

He went on to attend Syracuse University on the GI Bill, earning a bachelor’s degree in history in 1950. He obtained a master’s in education from New York University. He began teaching in Upper Manhattan in 1955 and later taught at Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, New York.

Katz recalled that his loyalty to the United States was questioned during the Red Scare by the New York City Board of Education after he held a classroom discussion in which he raised doubts about whether Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been convicted of conspiracy to spy for the Soviet Union, were unjustly executed in 1953.

He was cleared, he said, after reminding board officials that he had volunteered for the Navy and had bought $175 in war bonds.

“That was the level of stupidity in the McCarthy era,” he said.

Inspired by the scholarship of historians like John Hope Franklin and Robin D.G. Kelley, Katz later acknowledged that reinterpreting the past was challenging under any circumstances.

“I have been humbled by the awesome task of rejecting bias,” he wrote in “Black Indians.” “I have never sought bland neutrality and have consoled myself that unbiased history has yet to be written.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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