People

David W. Blight, Director

David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University, joining that faculty in January, 2003. He previously taught at Amherst College for thirteen years. As of June, 2004, he is Director, succeeding David Brion Davis, of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. In 2010-11, Blight was the Rogers Distinguished Fellow in 19th century American History at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. During the 2006-07 academic year he was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars, New York Public Library. He is currently writing a new, full biography of Frederick Douglass that will be published by Simon and Schuster. Blight works in many capacities in the world of public history, including on boards of museums and historical societies, and as a member of a small team of advisors to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum team of curators. For that institution he wrote the  published essay, “Will It Rise: September 11 in American Memory.” In 2012, Blight was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Blight’s newest book, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (Harvard University Press, published August 2011), received the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Award for best book in non-fiction on racism and human diversity; the work is an intellectual history of Civil War memory, rooted in the work of Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin. Blight is also the author of A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including their Narratives of Emancipation, (Harcourt, 2007), paperback in 2009. This book combines two newly discovered slave narratives in a volume that recovers the lives of their authors, John Washington and Wallace Turnage, as well as provides an incisive history of the story of emancipation. In June, 2004, the New York Times ran a front page story about the discovery and significance of these two rare slave narratives. A Slave No More garnered three book prizes, including the Connecticut Book Award for non-fiction.

Blight is also the author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2001), which received eight book awards, including the Bancroft Prize, the Abraham Lincoln Prize, and the Frederick Douglass Prize as well as four awards from the Organization of American Historians, including the Merle Curti prizes for both intellectual and social history. Other published works include a book of essays, Beyond the Battlefield: Race, Memory, and the American Civil War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2002); and Frederick Douglass’s Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (LSU Press, 1989).

Blight is also a frequent book reviewer for the Washington Post Book World, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, Slate.com and other newspapers, and has written many articles on abolitionism, American historical memory, and African American intellectual and cultural history. He is one of the authors of the bestselling American history textbook for the college level, A People and a Nation (Houghton Mifflin). He is also series advisor and editor for the Bedford Books series in American History and Culture, a popular series of teaching books for the college level. Blight lectures widely in the US and around the world on the Civil War and Reconstruction, race relations, Douglass, Du Bois, and problems in public history and American historical memory. He teaches summer institutes for secondary teachers and for park rangers and historians in the National Park Service, devoting a good deal of time to these and many other public history initiatives.

Blight has been a consultant to many documentary films, including the 1998 PBS series, “Africans in America,” and “The Reconstruction Era” (2004). Blight has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and did his undergraduate degree at Michigan State University. He has also taught at Harvard University, at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and for seven years was a public high school teacher in his hometown, Flint, Michigan. He was also senior Fulbright Professor in American Studies at the University of Munich in Germany in 1992-93.

Blight was elected as a member of the Society of American Historians in 2002. Board of Trustees memberships include the New York Historical Society, the National Civil War Center at Tredegar in Richmond, VA, and the board for African American Programs at Monticello in Charlottesville, VA. He also served on the board of advisors to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and is involved in planning numerous conferences and events to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. In his capacity as director of the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale, Blight organizes conferences, working groups, lectures, the administering of the annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize, and many public outreach programs regarding the history of slavery and its abolition. Blight maintains a professional web site at davidwblight.com and his lectures for the course, “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era,” are available on line at the Yale University web site, yale.edu, linking to the program, “Open Courses.” In 2009, Blight chaired the jury for non-fiction for the National Book Award.


David Brion Davis, Director Emeritus

David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and the founding director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, is the author of The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, and many other books. His 2006 book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, received the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize from the Phi Beta Kappa Society. His other awards include the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, the American Historical Associations’ Albert J. Beveridge Award, the National Book Award, and the 2004 Bruce Catton Prize of the Society of American Historians for lifetime achievement. Davis is also the recipient of the 2004 Kidger Award from the New England History Teachers Association given to honor his devotion to teaching. Currently, Davis is working on The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation to conclude his magisterial series. Davis received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1956. He served as President of the Organization of American Historians for the 1988-1989 term.


Michelle Zacks, Associate Director

Michelle Zacks holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, an M.A. in Latin American Studies (concentration in Tropical Conservation and Development) from the University of Florida, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawai’i-Mānoa. Raised in the New Haven area, Michelle has conducted interdisciplinary field work and historical research on coastal communities in Georgia, Florida, Haiti, and Antigua. Most recently, she worked as a folklorist and public historian on Maryland’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where she focused on African American history and culture. Her research interests lie in marine environmental history and the ways in which place-based notions of belonging conflict with the racial and class hierarchies associated with nation-state definitions of citizenship.  Her book manuscript, in progress, is titled “The People’s Fish: Florida Mullet and the Marine Commonwealth.” She is also at work on a research project that examines African American labor in the antebellum oyster industry as a mechanism for constructing cultural landscapes devoted to expanded spaces of freedom.


Thomas Thurston, Education Director

Thomas Thurston holds a B.A. in American Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz and an MPhl in American Studies from Yale University. Prior to coming to the Gilder Lehrman Center he served as the Project Director of the New Deal Network, an educational website developed by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University. For his work developing the New Deal Network he received the first annual award for “Best Multimedia Resource” from the American Association for History and Computing and a “Best of the Humanities on the Web” citation from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Tom has led week-long NEH workshops for K-12 teachers, has acted as a consulting historian for several Teaching American History programs, and has served as a curriculum developer for WNET’s Educational Technologies Department, including the documentary series “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow” and “Slavery and the Making of America.” He currently serves as president of the Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History and as president of the board of trustees for the Yale Summer Cabaret Theater.


Melissa McGrath, Administrative Assistant