Remembering John H. Bracey, Jr.: Black Studies Pioneer and Longtime Afro-American Studies Professor Has Died at Age 81
Monday, February 6, 2023
Monday, February 6, 2023
John H. Bracey—Black Studies pioneer and longtime faculty member in the UMass Amherst W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies since 1972—died this weekend at age 81.
Bracey was a leading figure in the fields of African American studies and U.S. history. He helped create one of the nation’s first doctoral programs in African American studies at UMass Amherst, where he also served in several roles including as chair of the department and co-director of the graduate certificate in African Diaspora Studies.
“He was a true champion for Black Studies and Black students, and his tireless work made us a much better university,” says Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. “Thank you, Dr. Bracey, for your historic contributions to UMass. You will be deeply missed.”
Barbara Krauthamer, dean of the College of Humanities & Fine Arts, says, “John’s lifetime of activism in Black Studies, thoughtful leadership, and meaningful student mentorship created a lasting impact that extends far beyond our college and the university. He is a luminary. We will miss John dearly, and we extend our heartfelt condolences to his family.”
In recent years, Bracey was a leader in creating the UMass Black Presence Initiative, UMass Amherst’s major endeavor to honor and celebrate the historic contributions of its Black faculty, students, staff and alumni by creating a permanent archive. Bracey and his students conducted oral history interviews with dozens of past and present members of UMass Amherst's Black community. It serves as a living testament to the impact they have had throughout our nearly 160-year history.
“Professor Bracey was a giant in his field. His contributions, mentorship, and advocacy for African American Studies/Black Studies were known throughout the world. He was a member of our department faculty since 1972, for over 50 years,” says Yolanda Covington-Ward, chair of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. “Indeed, he was an institution within himself. His commitment to supporting and guiding our students was invaluable; he impacted the lives of so many students and faculty. Our department has lost one of its strongest pillars and we are grieving. We are still trying to come to terms with this tremendous loss.”
In 2021, UMass Amherst established the John H. Bracey, Jr. Fellowship Fund, which provides summer fellowship support for doctoral students in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies who have achieved candidacy and are engaged in research and writing their dissertations.
“In addition to being a preeminent scholar of Black history and the Black arts movement, John was passionate about fostering the next generation of Black leaders and scholars. His generosity and brilliance transformed the field of Black Studies,” says Joye Bowman, senior associate dean in the College of Humanities & Fine Arts. “Simply put, his efforts were historic, and his legacy will not soon be forgotten.”
Bracey’s writing and research focused on African social and cultural history, radical ideologies and movements, and the history of African American women, while his recent interests focused on the interactions between African Americans and Native Americans, Afro-Latinx, and Jewish Americans.
His publications include several co-edited volumes, such as “Black Nationalism in America” (1970); the award-winning “African American Women and the Vote: 1837-1965" (1997); “Strangers and Neighbors: Relations between Blacks and Jews in the United States,” written with Maurianne Adams (1999); and “African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-First Century,” which he co-authored with Manisha Sinha (2004). His recent writings display an enormous range of interests and competencies, from an award-winning essay on the musician John Coltrane in the Massachusetts Review in 2016 to his contribution to a Furious Flower anthology in 2019.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in Washington, D.C., Bracey attended both Howard University and Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he earned his BA in 1964. He did graduate work both at Roosevelt and at Northwestern University. From 1961 through 1971, Bracey was active in the Civil Rights, Black Liberation, and Peace movements as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Chicago Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the Revolutionary Action Movement.
In 1972, Bracey came to UMass Amherst as a founding member of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. He has served twice as department chair. Over the past five decades, Bracey has been a tireless supporter of Black student initiatives, organizations, and cultural activities on campus. He initiated programming that contributed to the diverse cultural and educational life of UMass Amherst. As an educator, he has devotedly served as a close and attentive mentor to many undergraduate students and doctoral and master's degree candidates.
Bracey’s significant contributions to the field of Black studies have had international impact. He has made primary documents and other key sources of African American history and culture accessible to scholars, teachers, students, and the general public. His writings and editorial projects are prolific. An ardent collaborator, he has worked with prominent thinkers and figures, like Sharon Harley, August Meier, Manisha Sinha, Sonia Sanchez, and Elliott Rudwick.
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)—one of many organizations in African American studies where Bracey’s membership and presence have been deeply felt—held a plenary tribute to Bracey’s achievements. He was a lifetime member of ASALH and of the Organization of American Historians, participating in the latter’s Distinguished Lecturers Program. He has received awards from ASALH as well as the National Council of Black Studies and numerous campus and community organizations. In 2013, the College of Wooster granted Bracey an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
Learn more about John H. Bracey, Jr., or contribute to the John. H. Bracey, Jr. Fellowship Fund.