James Green, 71, UMass Boston labor historian and writer
At the end of the 1960s, James Green studied at Yale University with renowned historian C. Vann Woodward, who encouraged students to write what the professor “called ‘history with a purpose,’’’ Dr. Green recalled. “For many of us, that meant writing in opposition to those who saw inequality as inevitable in American society. As Woodward once said, ‘The inevitable needed all the opposition it could get.’ ”
Accepting his mentor’s challenge, Dr. Green became a scholar, a writer, a historian, and more. “I don’t see myself as an activist, but as a participant,” he told the Globe in 2000.
He worked to protect affordable housing while living in the South End years ago, and for a time he wrote for the journal Radical America and other publications, including the Globe. He also traveled to Appalachia to advocate on behalf of coal miners and lend a hand to Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple as she made the video “Out of Darkness: The Mine Workers’ Story.”
While participating in unfolding events, he was a University of Massachusetts Boston professor, melding life in the field with teaching in the classroom. “There’s no break between what I do here and what I do outside,” he said in the Globe interview.
Dr. Green, a professor of history emeritus who wrote books about West Virginia coal miners and Chicago’s Haymarket Square bombing, died Thursday in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of complications from a bone marrow transplant that was part of his treatment for leukemia. He was 71 and lived in Somerville.
More than a decade ago, historian and writer Howard Zinn encouraged Dr. Green to branch out from journalism and academic articles and try his hand at book-length history. The result was “Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America,” published in 2006.
Bill Ayers, a retired University of Illinois Chicago education professor who formerly was a member of the Weather Underground, praised Dr. Green’s account of the 1886 Haymarket bombing, which resulted in the capture, trial, and conviction of labor activists, four of whom were hanged. Dr. Green “gives us both a compelling narrative of the Haymarket tragedy, and a layered understanding of its multiple meanings as they exploded out away from the event itself,” Ayers wrote in a review that is posted on his website, adding: “This is the best book ever written about the Haymarket.”
In 2000, Dr. Green published “Taking History to Heart,” weaving autobiographical recollections into his recounting of labor events. “I tell a bit of my own story here, thinking back on my efforts to find a voice for telling movement stories in public – a voice I could use to reach movement activists and a wider audience of concerned citizens,” he wrote.
Last year, he published “The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom.”
“One of the most important things about him is the passion he had for bringing the stories of people who make our world work to the forefront and sharing them with everybody,” said his wife, Janet Grogan.
“That’s an academic way of putting it, but that’s also what he was like as a person,” she added. “He was always, ‘Who are you? What is your story?’ He connected with so many people. And he did it very easily as a teacher. His students just adored him.”
The oldest of four siblings, Dr. Green was born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and grew up in Carpentersville, Ill. His mother, the former Mary Kaye DiVall, worked part time in a school office. His father, Gerald Green, taught high school math and was a mason during summers. “He liked the masonry more, that was real clear,” Grogan said. “He was a good math teacher, but he did that for the security.”
One of Dr. Green’s grandfathers was a switchman in Chicago’s train yards and the other worked in a clothing factory.
“What his parents did for work and what his grandparents did for work really influenced him,” Grogan said. “He had people in his family who were doing the work he ended up writing about. And he also liked being in the kitchen with the women who were telling all the stories at the big gatherings.”
Dr. Green graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University in 1966 and with a doctorate from Yale in 1972. He initially taught history at Brandeis University and was a visiting lecturer at Warwick University in England. In 1977, he joined the faculty at UMass Boston, where he was a professor at the College of Public and Community Service and director of the public history program. He also had been a lecturer for the Harvard Trade Union Program at Harvard Law School and a Fulbright senior lecturer at the University of Genoa in Italy.
As a writer, “he was very concerned about making everything accessible to general readers and telling stories that readers can relate to,” said Jim O’Brien, a former UMass Boston colleague who indexed Dr. Green’s books. “I immensely respected his ability to tell a story without shortchanging the analysis of what was going on: What was the industry, what was the political setting, what were the people like?’’
Dr. Green’s first marriage, to Carol McLaughlin, ended in divorce. Their daughter, Amanda, lives in Cambridge.
In 1988, he married Grogan, who was a lay advocate for the organization now known as Greater Boston Legal Services. They have a son, Nicholas, who lives in Somerville.
“He loved, loved, loved his children,” Grogan said of Dr. Green, who in 2000 spoke out at a May Day rally at the State House in favor of better wages for those in the home-care field. He noted in a Globe interview at the time that his daughter, who is disabled, “has been well-served by many home-care workers.”
Dr. Green also had mapped out what he called the Working Peoples’ Heritage Trail in Boston, which he said in 2001 was “not so much a labor history as a people’s history.”
In addition to his wife, daughter, and son; his mother, of Cambridge; and his former wife, Dr. Green leaves two sisters, Mary Beth Kress of Arlington and Nancy Herbert of Makanda, Ill., and a brother, Mark of Longmont, Colo.
An open house will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday in Dr. Green’s Somerville home. A larger, public memorial gathering will be announced later in the year.
Though his life was filled with conversation and travel, Dr. Green “was a very gentle, quiet soul,” Grogan said.
“I think one of the proofs of who he was as a person was how adored he was by his nurses. He said it was his last chance to be a ladies’ man, and they loved him,” she said. “He always appreciated what they did, and he was grateful.”