NEW YORK — Julius S. Scott, a groundbreaking scholar of slavery and Atlantic history who wove together stories of Black rebellion for a doctoral thesis once likened to “an underground mix-tape” and for the acclaimed 2018 book “The Common Wind,” has died. He was 66.
Dr. Scott died early Monday, according to his partner, Elisha Renne, who said that he had suffered from Type 1 diabetes and had been in failing health over the past month. Dr. Scott was a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, where Renne also taught.
“Dr. Scott began teaching at Michigan in 1991 and continued to shape our collective understanding of Atlantic history, slavery, the Haitian Revolution and the lives and struggles of Black peoples from across the African diaspora — and jazz, always jazz — through classroom instruction, symposia, and conversations too numerous to count,” Angela D. Dillard, chair of the school’s history department, said in a statement. “For many of us, these conversations took place in his impossibly book-lined and book-and paper-filled offices.”
Through his teaching, mentoring and writing, Dr. Scott was celebrated as a leader and innovator of “history from below,” how enslaved people themselves in the 18th century formed underground communities throughout the Americas, spreading the word through “inter-island mobility — the world of ships and sailors.” The book’s title is drawn from a tribute the British poet William Wordsworth wrote for the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture: “There’s not a breathing of the common wind/That will forget thee.”
Numerous historians shared memories on Twitter this week. Dr Jesús Sanjurjo, a lecturer at Cardiff University, wrote that his work was “foundational” and “helped catalyze a generation of historians of the Atlantic world.” Dr. Scott’s book, which had the full title “The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution,” received a Special Achievement Award from the GIlder Lerhman Institute of American History, among other honors.
Julius Sherrod Scott was born in Marshall, Texas, but lived everywhere from Boston to Atlanta to Houston as his father, a Methodist minister, took on different jobs. According to his mother, Ann Scott, he was a gifted young student with a precise sense of language. She remembered warning him about a grade school he was attending in Texas, telling him it was a white school. When he returned the first day, he corrected her.
“It wasn’t a white school,” he said. “It was red brick.”
In a 2018 interview with Publishers Weekly, he said the idea for “The Common Wind” began with childhood memories of watching the track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise their arms and give the Black Power salute during a medals ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
“As a young African-American, I noticed other Black athletes from Africa, the Caribbean and South America, and I thought about their relationship to Afro-North Americans, and what were some of the important vehicles of communication between Black people in different parts of the Americas,” he said.
He was an undergraduate at Brown University and a graduate student at Duke University. For decades he was little known outside the academic world and a hero within it, beginning with a thesis he completed at Duke in 1986. His paper long remained unpublished but was so talked about among peers that Harvard University’s Vincent Brown once called it “an underground mix-tape.”
Dr. Scott’s friend Marcus Rediker, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, says the book was delayed in part because of Dr. Scott’s health issues and because of Dr. Scott’s perfectionism; a deal with the Oxford University Press fell through after they couldn’t agree on the final text. Rediker, who had used Dr. Scott’s dissertation in his own teaching, stepped in a few years ago after an editor at Verso Books asked if had any ideas for a possible publication.
“I seized the opportunity,” said Rediker, who provided an introduction for the book.
“He really touched a lot of people,” Rediker added. “It was partly his work, but it was also his personality, his humanity. He had great depth of soul.”