Ira Berlin, a historian who sifted through millions of documents to revive the voices of ordinary African Americans from the struggle for emancipation, and who helped demonstrate that slavery was a complex, ever-evolving institution at the core of American history, died June 5 at a hospital in Washington. He was 77.
The cause was complications from multiple myeloma, said his children, Richard Berlin and Lisa Berlin Wittenstein.
For nearly a century after the end of the Civil War, historians treated slavery as a “footnote or exception,” a side issue to the story of liberty in America, said Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Scholars often viewed the institution in romantic terms, arguing that it benefited slaves as well as white plantation owners.
Dr. Berlin, along with historians such as David Brion Davis and Eugene D. Genovese, upended that picture, Foner said, and “really put the history of slavery at the center of our understanding of American history,” impacting everything from economics to culture.
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