Alexander Saxton, 93, historian of race in America

NEW YORK — Alexander Saxton, who would go on to become a prominent historian of race in America, summed himself up in a blurb on the dust jacket of his first novel, ‘‘Grand Crossings,’’ published when he was 24.

‘‘At various times,’’ the ­Massachusetts native said, he had worked as ‘‘a harvest hand, construction gang laborer, ­engine-wiper, freight brakeman, architectural apprentice, assistant to the assistant editor’’ of a union newspaper, railroad switchman, and columnist for The Daily Worker.

Unmentioned were his upbringing on the East Side of Manhattan in a household where Thornton Wilder and ­Aldous Huxley were often guests, and his schooling at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard.


But in his biographical blurb, the young Mr. Saxton ­accomplished the first of many self-transformations. They included passage from upper-income childhood to working-class adulthood; from Harvard student to Chicago laborer; from novelist to union organizer and Socialist; from activist to academic.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

He made his final self-transformation on Aug. 20 — at age 93 — in choosing to end his life. Mr. Saxton, an avid outdoorsman who had been in failing health for several years, died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Lone Pine, Calif., said his daughter, Catherine Steele.

“He felt the terms of his life were his to decide,’’ she said. The act of choosing, which defined his life as well as his death, accounted for the unique perspective he brought to each new sphere of his experience, she added.

In all those spheres, Mr. Saxton made significant contributions. His three novels were praised for the three-dimensional scope he gave to the working-class men and women he portrayed, black and white. His first novel, published in 1943, was translated into 15 languages.

He became a full-time organizer of maritime workers and longshoremen in San Francisco, which he did while writing prolifically for left-wing publications of all kinds, from the smallest union newsletter to The Nation magazine.


At 43, when the Cold War climate and the blacklisting of Communists made it impossible for him to find publishers for his fiction, he went back to college. He earned a PhD in history from the University of California, Berkeley, and not long afterward became a tenured professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

His contributions as a cultural historian are considered his most enduring. Mr. Saxton’s first historical book, ‘‘The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California,’’ became a landmark of labor history.

‘‘It challenged one of the foundational stories of the labor movement,’’ said Eric Foner, a Columbia University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. ‘‘Instead of the story of solidarity and democracy usually told, Mr. Saxton showed how racism was one of labor’s most important organizing tools.’’

The critical success of the book helped him establish the first Asian-American studies program in the United States at UCLA in the early 1980s.

His 1975 paper ‘‘Blackface Minstrelsy and Jacksonian Ideology,’’ tracing the links between blackface minstrels and the ideology of white supremacy, is considered one of the early texts in black history studies.


Alexander Saxton was born July 16, 1919, in Great Barrington, Mass., one of two children of Eugene and Martha Saxton. His father was editor-in-chief of Harper & Bros. His mother taught literature at a girls’ school in Manhattan.