Herbert Aptheker, a pioneering scholar of African American history, died 17 March 2003, at an assisted-care home in Mountain View, California. Herbert had continued his scholarly activity until complications from pneumonia incapacitated him shortly before his death at the age of 87.
Born in Brooklyn on 31 July 1915, Herbert was the youngest of five children of wealthy Russian immigrants. His father was a garment manufacturer who became known as the "Underwear King" and then lost his fortune in the early years of the Great Depression. Herbert later attributed his early interest in racial problems to his close relationship with his family's Trinidadian maid and his exposure to Black Belt poverty while accompanying his father on a business trip to Alabama. During the late 1930s, Herbert became involved in a campaign to help southern tenant farmers escape from debt peonage. His political activism was strengthened by his romantic involvement with Fay Aptheker, a Communist labor organizer who was also his first cousin. He joined the Communist Party in 1939 and married Fay three years later.
After receiving his undergraduate degree in geology at Columbia University, Herbert began graduate studies there in 1935 in the field of American history, with a special interest in slavery. His 1937 Master's thesis on Nat Turner's slave rebellion was followed by more general studies of slave resistance, including an article on slave maroons in the Journal of Negro History, two articles in the Marxist journal Science and Society, and a doctoral dissertation that was later published as American Negro Slave Revolts (Columbia University Press, 1943). These publications challenged then prevailing interpretations of slavery that stressed slave acquiescence rather than resistance. Although some later critics maintained that he overstated the significance of slave revolts and conspiracies in the United States, Herbert's early scholarly writings and those of black acquaintances such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, establish a foundation for a subsequent trend in American historiography toward greater emphasis on African American agency.
Herbert enlisted in February 1942 and became an artillery officer in World War II after graduating from Officers Candidate School. He commanded black troops in Louisiana and then served in Europe, before returning to Washington to undertake an assignment to write the History of the Armed Ground Forces in World War II. He also continued to publish in leftist and African American history periodicals while on active and reserve military service. These writings would later be cited in 1950 as justification for his forcible discharge from his commission as a major in the army.
Returning to Brooklyn following the war, Herbert was unable to obtain an academic position. He continued his scholarly research, however, with support from a Guggenheim Fellowship, working closely with Du Bois, who was the NAACP's Director of Research until 1948. His major project during this period was The Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, the first volume of which was published in 1951 (Citadel Press) (the seventh volume appeared in 1994). He also published The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma (International Publishers, 1946) and numerous articles during the postwar years. In addition, he served as founder-editor of Masses and the Mainstream (1948-1953), editor of Political Affairs (1953-1963), and as executive director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies (1962-1985).
Herbert fought against Cold War anticommunism, testifying on behalf of several leading Communist Party officials facing prosecution under the Smith Act, including Junius Scales and Steve Nelson. He remained loyal to the Communist Party even after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalinism in 1956 and publicly defended--in The Truth About Hungary (Mainstream Publishers, 1957)--the Soviet Union's subsequent suppression of the Hungarian rebellion. In 1962 Herbert became executive director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies, a post he held for more than two decades. He also began a twelve-volume history of the United States, but only completed the first two volumes.
In 1965, Herbert led a controversial delegation to Hanoi, at the invitation of the North Vietnamese government, during the early period of escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam. Upon returning, he often spoke at antiwar rallies, prompting the FBI to label him in an internal memo "the most dangerous communist in the United States." His only daughter, Bettina, also became an outspoken leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam.
As a result of the upsurge of interest in African American studies during the late 1960s, Herbert often lectured at colleges and universities. He had several part-time or temporary academic appointments at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, Bryn Mawr College, Yale University (despite objections from some members of its history department), and the University of California's Boalt Law School. In addition to continuing to edit volumes of his Documentary History, Herbert Aptheker published Nature of Democracy, Freedom and Revolution (International Publishers, 1967), World of C. Wright Mills (Marzani & Munsell, 1960), Unfolding Drama (International Publishers, 1979), Afro-American History: the Modern Era (Citadel Press, 1971), American Revolution, 1763-1783: A History of the American People (International Publishers, 1960), Abolitionism: a Revolutionary Movement (Twayne Publishers, 1989), The Literary Legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois (Kraus International Publications, 1989), Early Years of the Republic 1783-1793 (International Publishers, 1976) and Anti-Racism in U.S. History (Greenwood Press, 1992).
In 1991, Herbert resigned from the Communist Party (Fay and Bettina Aptheker had already left the party by this time), but he remained politically active as a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a group dedicated to the radical democratization of the American economic and political system. His last major public address was in 1992 at the national conference of the Committees of Correspondence in San Francisco. He called for the broadest possible coalition of the left to counter the Bush administration's policies. In 2002, he rejected an appeal from Communist Party leaders to rejoin the party by insisting that he was against "splitting of the Left into separate and relatively small organizations" that were ineffective.
During the last decade of his life, in addition to lecturing and writing, Herbert worked closely with me and my staff at the King Papers Project, volunteering his time as an editorial consultant for Volumes IV and V of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. He also worked with me to bring the Documentary History up to date by selecting documents for a new volume covering the period from 1968 to the present. His lectures at the project and in my classes displayed his singular passionate convictions, occasional self-deprecating humor, and irrepressible love of teaching.
He is survived by his daughter, Bettina; a niece, Claire Grotsky of Hillsborough, California; a nephew, David Artson of San Francisco, and grandchildren Jenny Kurzweil of Santa Cruz and Joshua Kurzweil of Tokyo.