Robert Francis Engs, 1943-2013

Historian Robert Engs died on Monday at the age of 69. He wrote Freedom’s First Generation (1979) about the post-Civil War Black community in and around Hampton, Virginia, and Educating the Disfranchised and Disinherited (1999), about Hampton Institute and Samuel Chapman Armstrong. He was also a member of my dissertation committee and really the only faculty member at Penn who took the time to mentor me as a beginning teacher, not seeing me just through the lens of a student in graduate classes. You can read a notice of his death on the William & Mary College page, an article in the William & Mary student newspaper, and a remembrance of Bob by Rob Gregg, whose time in Penn’s history graduate program overlapped with mine.

Rob Gregg’s blog captures a great deal about Bob’s sensibilities, and someone should follow up on those comments by delving into Bob’s papers at Penn’s archive. He skipped over some of Bob’s saltier language and the smoke that would fill his high-ceilinged office back when smoking was still allowed in faculty offices.1 I remember that office vividly, even more than the class. When I was his teaching assistant in spring 1989, Bob’s classes on the Civil War and the post-Civil War South were fairly popular with white fraternity members. The class I TA’d for was held in a room that was much wider than it was deep, and the seats were arranged in five or maybe six risers. Bob would stand at the front of the room and lecture once a week while I would lead discussion sections twice in the rest of the week. His voice was pretty quiet for a lecture, but he was far more provocative in what he said in that quiet voice than the most bombastic faculty member I knew.2 It was in that class that I learned the power of structuring a semester as an overarching narrative.3

Before he agreed to sit on my committee, Bob asked me if I thought education was liberatory or oppressive. That was the fundamental question for him when thinking about the debates over industrial education and the Hampton-Tuskegee power axis in Southern Black education (or the power of the two industrial-education schools in the South). His work is too often ignored by educational historians, and I’ll explain a little bit about his scholarship in the rest of the entry. Bob’s writings on philanthropists were based on much the same sources as Jim Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (1988), but they came to very different interpretations. Anderson saw a system overwhelmingly designed to reduce opportunity, with philanthropists who used the resources of the early foundations such as the General Education Fund to “modernize” Southern public education on inherently unequal ground. Bob focused on the efforts of Northern former General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, whom he saw as a complex individual who both catered to white racism and yet also provided opportunity to African Americans that would not have otherwise been there. He saw Armstrong as someone who was willing to sponsor local Black landowners and the Black petty bourgeois in the Hampton area even while spreading an ideology of industrial education that fit neatly with segregation and disfranchisement.

On the broader scale of the South as a whole, Jim Anderson is more persuasive. The work of educational philanthropists in the post-Civil War South helped legitimize public education in the late 19th century, something that was a dramatic change from the domestic terrorists who targeted schools and other civic institutions after the Civil War. But it was at a huge price, making education “safe” by taming it, by limiting the opportunities provided African Americans. Louis Harlan’s two-volume biography of Booker T. Washington fits well with the story Anderson tells, of Washington as an opportunist who kept a tight grip on Black political networks in the South. Washington could never be elected in the segregationist South, but he was as much of a politician as any of the white officeholders he catered to.

Though I’m with Anderson on the national story, I think Bob is correct about the local story of Hampton, which is a remarkable exception as a fairly diversified Black community in the late 19th century, a pocket of relative prosperity and opportunity. Bob was well aware that Hampton was an exception, but he could not help but forgive Samuel Chapman Armstrong, at least in our conversations. Or at least he forgave Armstrong much more than he forgave Washington, in part because Armstrong may have talked the language of segregation and accommodation but at least at the local level enabled Black opportunity in and around Hampton Institute. To Bob Engs, Armstrong’s alliance with racist philanthropists and power-brokers was a tragic weakness. To Anderson, it was a feature of the system design.

Below is the only snippet of video I could find of Bob:

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  1. The two faculty I remember smoking in their offices were Bob Engs and Sam Preston, a demographer and mortality specialist, or in other words, a cigar smoker who was expert on the causes of death. []
  2. In my first year, I was a grader for Alexander Riasanovsky, a Russian historian who loved strutting the stage and telling stories to amuse the 180 students in his lectures. What they learned was a lower priority to Riasnovsky. []
  3. The fact that I am still a prisoner to coverage is not the fault of Bob Engs. []