James W. Loewen (1942-2021)
We mourn the loss of our friend and colleague and remain committed to the work he began.
For more on his life and work:
- James W. Loewen, Who Challenged How History Is Taught, Dies at 79, The New York Times
- HNN Honors James W. Loewen, 1942-2021, History News Network
- James W. Loewen, author of best-selling ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me,’ dies at 79, The Washington Post
- James Loewen, Author Of ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me,’ Dies At 79, NPR
- James Loewen ¡Presente!, The Zinn Education Project
- James W. Loewen, wrote ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me,’ dead at 79, AP
- Paul Von Blum, James Loewen’s Crusade for Real History Is More Necessary than Ever, The Progressive Magazine
- Ann Banks, The Truth about James Loewen, History News Network
- Jim Loewen (1942-2021, In Memory), Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement
- Guy Lancaster, The Generosity of James Loewen, History News Network
- Ben Railton, Considering History: The Real Threat Facing American Education, Saturday Evening Post
- Daniel Osborn, How My High School History Classes Failed Me, WBUR
- Colby King, James Loewen and the Sociology of Sundown Towns, Everyday Sociology Blog
- Myron Strong, Lies My Teacher Told Me: In Memory of James Loewen, Everyday Sociology Blog
- Phil Huckelberry, Remembering Jim Loewen
If you have reflections on the life and work of James Loewen we invite you to share those with us by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am a founding member of the Jim Loewen Fan Club. As a (former) social studies teacher, I intensely loved his Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. His book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, taught me that the town I grew up in was a sundown town! As a lover of American monuments, I very much appreciated his Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. As a mother, I am crazy-amazed by his adventurous spirit and joie d vie, and I wish our family could have gone with him on his canoe adventures, Up a Creek, With a Paddle: Tales of Canoeing and Life.
I will mention one of his pieces of advice that I use often. It was at a teachers’ workshop in Urbana, Illinois. One of the participants asked how to deal with the hard truth of history in high school and middle school classes. Jim suggested that the teacher first tell the students that many adults say that they are not mature enough to hear the truth. Then ask them if they think they are. It worked in my class. My students immediately felt engaged.
I will miss Jim’s brilliance, and also his jokes and his encouragement to try very weird food: clams from our South Carolina lake, bamboo from his yard, and squirrel from anywhere.
I am honored to have seen the good results of his good trouble. I treasure his efforts on behalf of truth and racial justice, and I will never forget his friendship. The fan club continues.
Five years ago I was in New York and had an opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History. As I approached the building I saw the monument to Teddy Roosevelt and was pretty shocked. I Googled the image and discovered Professor Loewen. I then read several of his books. To say I learned a lot is a big understatement.
The past few years have seen some of the most offensive monuments come down. I’m glad that Professor Loewen was able to witness some of this reckoning with America’s past before he passed away.
May the good memories he left be a blessing for his family and students.
–Paul L. Newman (Merion Station, PA)
I met Professor Loewen just once. Though he was already quite ill he invited me to his DC home to discuss a piece I was working on about a little-known Confederate monument in my town. I was, to him, a complete stranger. We had only corresponded a few times via email. I’m neither an historian nor college professor. I teach 4th grade and do most of my writing during summer break. Despite my lack of credentials, Jim graciously gave me some of his truly precious time—to listen and encourage. He didn’t have to do talk with me, but he did, because that’s what great educators do. They take the time. He will be missed, but his work goes on and even 4th grade teachers can help advance his cause for an honest accounting of US history.
–Dave Airozo (Silver Spring, MD)
Lies My Teacher Told Me was a bold book. I read it with community college students, who were blown away by Loewen’s bluntness, the facts he assembled, and the arguments he made. It made the teaching of U.S history ever so much more powerful.
Lies Across America inspired my own writing in local history, with its scrupulous documentation of what was left out of local stories.
Thank you James Loewen.
—Lauren Coodley (author of Lost Napa Valley (and 3 other histories of Napa) and a biography of Upton Sinclair, published by University of Nebraska, 2019)
I once “Googled” James Loewen in search of a phone number to ask if I could book him to speak to my students at my high school because I have assigned my students, “Lies My Teacher Told Me” as a summer reading over the last 15 years.
I learned so much from Jim about using local archives as a way to unearth and tell stories about our American history–all of it. He visited Denison over 5 years ago and delivered an address for MLK Day that was as much a lecture as it was a planning meeting, setting an agenda for everyone present to go, seek, and learn about their own places, their own histories. And he wasn’t asking folks to do this work for the sake of the work, but with a vision that if we can tell a more complete history of this country, we can become more inclusive and empowered and truly democratic. He was a gem.
A few years ago, when I was teaching the Cultural Diversity graduate course for educators and using the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, I was receiving some push-back from a group of students who were public school teachers. This group of teachers claimed that they did not have the time nor the support to challenge the curriculum that they were given. They were not able to deal with the cognitive dissonance that they were experiencing in the course.
As a Tougaloo undergraduate in the 1970’s, Jim made a “huge” impression on this young student from a small, provincial, violent, and rural town in southwest Mississippi. He made me think about a different world without the overwhelmingly negative racial segregation under which I had lived all of my life! We worked together trying to establish (funding: we made personal requests to Ames descendants) the Ernst Borinski and Adelbert Ames Endowed Teaching Chairs. Of course, he gave me sage advice in my Junior year as I contemplated entering graduate school. It is not surprising that I also took my Ph. D. in sociology from Harvard.
Most importantly, I remember three important events out of many “Jim events”:
In my Sophomore year, I was chosen to represent Tougaloo College’s Sociology Department on a student panel session regarding introductory sociology courses (of course, I was the only Black student and HBCU person on the session) at the annual American Sociological Association in New Orleans, Louisiana. We traveled from Mississippi to Louisiana in a snazzy red sports car with his colleague from Brown;
Doing Mississippi Educational Television fieldwork or data collection for extra credit in our required statistics and research methods course as well registering and surveying Canton– Madison County (Mississippi) Black citizens;
Poll watching in the middle of a hostile white former plantation in Madison County (Mississippi) with a Tougaloo History Professor who was arrested on trumped up causes, again for extra credit in the same course.
All three are indications of the rich academic experiences provided by Loewen. HE WAS FANTASTIC!!!
–Donald Cunnigen, PhD
We had coffee together at the Library of Congress when you were doing research on Lies Across America. (I was honored to be mentioned in your book when it was published.) We talked about landmarks being a window through which we view history. You taught me about Sundown Towns. It was always enlightening to hear your comments about Friday’s Labor Folklore, racial justice, Confederate monuments — I always looked forward to your emails. We bumped into each other at the Greenbelt Theater and you grabbed my arm and told me about your illness. So many of your students and colleagues are saddened today; we carry with us the inspiration of your teaching.
Jim was one of the first scholars we contacted, because we were familiar with his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. He is one of those rare experts who values the efforts of community initiatives like ours. He believed the evidence and analysis we put forward, even as he encouraged us to uphold a high standard of integrity and accuracy. Then, he featured our campaign in his next book, Lies Across America (pp. 136–143), giving our work national visibility.
In the end, what made us successful was following Jim’s approach: gathering documentation that portrayed a more accurate version of the history of the era. PSGM members pored through the historical archives and located letters written home by the Minnesota volunteer soldiers who had been sent to the Philippines. Although they left home eager to protect democracy, they soon learned that was not the mission they had been assigned. Rather, they were pawns in an effort by the US government to wrestle control of the Philippines in order to build an empire. Their own anguished comments to relatives back home made their frustrations abundantly clear. After reading their letters, the state Adjutant General supported our endeavor.
Jim Loewen was an astute scholar who also made a critical difference in communities as well as the historical record. We will miss you, Jim.
—Meg Layese, Chair of PSGM
—Paul Bloom, PSGM member
—Ken Meter, PSGM member
(PSGM is a community of Filipino-Americans and friends committed to supporting the struggle for justice, peace and human rights in the Philippines. PSGM is committed to communicating the history of US relations with the Philippines to a public that is generally uninformed.)
One night about 20 years ago, I drove to Urbana, to see Jim Loewen speak at Allen Hall. Like so many other people I’d read Lies My Teacher Told Me. And I wanted to go hear from the man who wrote that book… the man who chased me away from graduate school.
I was a TA at Ohio State when I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, and it gave me all the context I’d been lacking for understanding what was going on with my students. They’d received such a terrible history education in high school – and before – that we’d already lost most of them. It left me seriously questioning the entire education process, and what my place in it could or should be.
He was there as a scholar-in-residence for a week, working on what would become Sundown Towns. Much of his talk focused on the prevalence of sundown towns in Illinois. We were in Urbana, I lived in Normal, I’d grown up in Rockford, I’d done my master’s thesis on Centralia, he’d grown up in Decatur… I mean, we had the state covered! And so many of his observations provided context for how I understood so much of Illinois to be. This was one of his special gifts, as a writer and as a lecturer: He could fill in gaps you didn’t know were gaps. Whatever else he might ostensibly be writing or talking about, it always felt relevant, visceral, to me, to my immediate surroundings.
Of all the things he talked about that night, though, the thing I remember best is a story about an experiment he conducted with jis sociology students at the University of Vermont. They would load into one of two cars – a luxury car, maybe a BMW, and an old clunker. And they would drive around Burlington. And they’d stop at red lights. And then when they lights turned green, they wouldn’t go. They’d start a stopwatch instead, and time how long it would take to get honked. On average, other cars honked the beater much faster than they honked the beamer.
There were three takeaways of his story. One, which you might spin a little bit differently, is that people have far more patience for the wealthy than they have for the poor. Another, which was less a takeaway than a directive, was him telling us that if we see a luxury car not moving at a green light, honk ‘em!
The third takeaway, of course, is that here was this famous professor and author, inexplicably using the word honk as a transitive verb!
And while a celebration of life may be an odd place to bring up the use of transitive verbs… I think for him it makes perfect sense. He was a transitive man! Insatiably curious, constantly buzzing, fiercely devoted to social justice. And yet also, critically, a man who understood how to laugh, including at himself. Curiosity, action, justice, laughter, these things all fit together. What, after all, is “Honk ‘em!”, but another way of imploring people to speak truth to power? And as for laughing at himself, I mean, here was a guy whose website featured a database of sundown towns… and at the very top of the front page, the first words you read are:
Something Has Gone Very Wrong… The Homepage of James W. Loewen
Many years went by after I met him that night in Urbana. And at some point, I reached out. For lack of a better way to put it, I was at a point where I wanted to participate in something bigger than me, and I felt he was whom I needed to connect with. It was from that reaching out that I got involved in the website. It was truly an honor to have done what work I could for him: which was, of course, work for everyone.
From that point forward I had the opportunity to visit with him and Susan numerous times. He was always so gracious, as interested in what you were doing as in what he was doing, even when he was doing things like convincing America to take down those monuments and you were doing… not quite that!
For me, he will always remain an inspiration. Certainly his work is and has been inspiring for decades, and, I believe, will continue to resonate for many decades to come. But I think what will stay with me most is his mien, his constant positive demeanor, his contagious optimistic attitude. Recent years in America might not be considered a new era of good feelings. But when so many other people I know have felt doom and despair, Jim saw real progress and felt real hope. More than once, at times when he was sick, he uplifted me, just by focusing on how much is going right. I hope I can take that example and do the same for others.
Yes, as with literally millions of people, I learned a lot from his books. But I was also exceedingly fortunate to learn even more from the man himself, not just about history and justice, but also about how to carry myself day to day. A lot of these are lessons I’ll impart to my son, not the least of which will be:
How I will miss my dear friend, Jim Loewen!
I met Jim in 1980 in Charleston, S.C. where we were working on a court case involving the voting rights act in that state. He was amazingly successful at communicating in the court room with judges and defendants in civil rights and voting rights cases. Loewen literally was the inventor of social science statistical measures of discrimination and quantitative techniques to prove racial bloc voting; in other words, we could then win the courtroom battles. He worked with minority plaintiffs in 50 class-action lawsuits, which, according to his expert testimony, fought laws and regulations that victimized people in civil rights, voting rights and job discrimination cases.
We became fast friends. He and I continued our collaborations as expert witnesses for minority plaintiffs, and we also co-authored essays, participated in conferences and workshops together, and had planned to do a co-authored revised version of his classic Social Scientist in the Courtroom.
Jim was a scholar of many and varied talents. He achieved considerable renown as an indefatigable gadfly, both generous and cantankerous, attacking the falsification of American history in our textbooks and at our historical sites. He had a unique background of strengths in sociology, race relations, and social science techniques, and he truly knew the subject of race relations in America. He studied white people, Black people, Native Americans, Latinos, and Chinese Americans. A warrior for truth, he was never afraid to address real issues.
Wherever I taught, I invited Jim as a guest speaker. He knew how to engage with the public, and especially with teachers and students. Jim wanted teachers to be effective advocates for truth in social studies. Audiences took hold of his zeal, and students were inspired to seek out the truth for social and racial justice.
Lies My Teacher Told Me is probably the best-selling book by a sociologist. Loewen reached something of a cult or legendary status among high school history teachers. But more than that, he moved into the status of a public intellectual. In addition to superb scholarly credentials and well-constructed research projects from which he authored books and public presentations, Jim was always in the process of stimulating the exchange of ideas and dialogue among different disciplines and scholars. And, he always addressed his scholarship toward matters of significant public policy. Trained and experienced in using both traditional historical research methods and quantitative methodology and modeling, Jim was also effective in using the participant-observer methodology. He often teased me that history was just a bunch of facts without theory or meaning, while I retorted sociology was only theory without any basis of evidence. His work in testifying to government commissions, his interviews on National Public Radio, on TV, and his work with the National Park Service, all show that his ability to communicate his research and his ideas went beyond the normal scholarly publications.
A person of total integrity, he was without pretense. He provoked and challenged in the best sense of the scholarly community. He dismantled fictions and exposed towns for excluding minorities. He invigorated teachers and historians to quit dumbing down lessons. No one was better at encouraging creativity while pursuing clarity. He had a profound positive influence upon American education in the broadest meaning of the word, encouraging a never-ending willingness to keep learning.
One of our last projects together was a conference on “Lincoln’s Unfinished Work,” where we concluded the conference with a co-taught workshop for public school teachers on how to teach about the difficult history of race relations. In both this workshop, and in Jim’s presentation on an academic panel at Clemson, and the article in the book from the conference, mentioned the statue of Robert E. Lee. It was Jim’s tireless advocacy that helped to bring about the removal of that statue. His essay is titled “Our Textbooks and Monuments Have Flattened Lincoln, Just When We Need Him the Most.” No one could ever flatten Jim Loewen. And we lost him just when we need him the most.
Loved by his family and friends, admired by the public, Jim Loewen had a good life, a life of purpose and significance. We will miss him, and so will the academic community and the U.S of A. He made the world a better place.
—Vernon Burton, the Judge Matthew J. Perry, Jr. Distinguished Professor of History and Professor Computer Science, Clemson University, Emeritus University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Jim Loewen will forever have a place in my heart. We worked hard together, argued a lot, laughed a lot and wrote good history together.
I’ve been a major fan of Prof. Loewen for a long time, and have read all of his books (some of them many times). In fact, I had my well-read and slightly tattered copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me on my desk when I received your notice about his passing. Although I never met Mr. Loewen, I was truly saddened to learn of his passing.
About 6 months ago, I emailed Mr. Loewen after reading about the types of slow-moving airplanes that were purportedly used in the Tulsa Race Massacre in an old National Geographic, and posited to him that the anecdotal reports of these planes dropping kerosene-soaked bundles on the homes below were likely inaccurate. I explained that these airplanes could travel 155 MPH and felt it was unlikely that anyone could ignite kerosene in the open cockpits without setting themselves on fire as well. To my ultimate shock, surprise and delight, Mr. Loewen took the time to write me back and discuss the issue in the most scholarly and polite terms imaginable. He pointed out that although the airplanes could fly faster, they could also fly as slow as 55 MPH, making the theory plausible. Although I still don’t completely agree, I respect Mr. Loewen immensely for taking the time to write me back and was gratified that my fandom for this individual was well placed.
I only met James Loewen once, when we spent an afternoon together at a conference, but he always asked the hard questions about the stories we tell about our country, and how they link past, present and future, and distort our future by repeating lies. I admired him greatly and I’ll miss him.
–Paul Loeb (author of Soul of a Citizen)
In 1923, my 30-year-old grandfather was shot and killed in the lobby of his own hotel, while my grandmother and 2-year-old mother looked on. Albert Berch, I believe, is the only Caucasian in history to be murdered for violating sundown laws. 10 days earlier, he had hired an African American, Robert Johnigan, to work (and live) as a porter in the hotel. An angry mob in Marlow, Oklahoma, probably stirred by Klan leanings, killed Mr. Johnigan in addition to my grandfather. Fifty years later, my mother began work on a book about the incident (never published), but when she died in 2011 at the age of 89, I found a correspondence file with letters going back and forth between her and Jim Loewen as they exchanged information about the murders. In one of the letters, Jim told my mother to be on the lookout for his upcoming book on Sundown Towns. Years later, I took up the banner, eventually publishing “Killing Albert Berch.” When I contacted Jim as part of my research, he picked up the conversation as though he had just left off with my mother, remembering many details about the murders. We spoke several times during the process, and his contributions are referenced in my book. He had a remarkable memory for detail, when I consider how many similar stories he heard over the years. May he rest in peace after a life well-lived.
–Alan Berch Hollingsworth, MD
Governors State University
It was quite surreal to get this notice on the day that the statue of Robert E Lee was removed from Richmond. As a history major in school, the most important book I ever read was Lies My Teacher Told Me, I have purchased copies for all 5 of my Grandchildren as I wanted them to know the truth. The misconceptions that have been taught as “History” are truly amazing. Particularly found interesting the truth about Columbus, as my wife is Haitian, her family traces their history in Haiti over 300 years.
While we did not always agree on everything, Dr Loewen’s work was life changing, often would send him articles about Sundown towns in California, yes California, my parents grew up in one, Taft, California.
My deepest condolences to his Family,
We have lost a Great Warrior for the truth.
I interned for Dr. Loewen the summer of 2018 doing public history research for his upcoming 20 year re-release of Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. I also conducted brief research for him for his work on sundown towns at the start of my last semester at the University of Maryland College Park. That research included collecting census data on the race make-up of a few cities in Maryland. It was a pleasure interning for Dr. Loewen, I learned so much from him. Interning for him was one of the highlights of my college experience. I am so happy to hear about the continued developments of his work. His work is so important for the world.