Go to Columbia Web

Record Banner
 VOL. 23, NO. 20APRIL 10, 1998 

The 1998 Bancroft Prize Recognizes Work of Three Leading Historians

Christine Heyrman
Walter LaFeber
Thomas Sugrue


Three historians have won the 1998 Bancroft Prize for studies of the Bible Belt, U.S.–Japanese relations and the urban crisis in Detroit. The prizes in American history, biography or diplomacy are awarded annually by Columbia and were to be presented Wednesday in formal ceremonies in Low Rotunda.

  The recipients are Christine Leigh Heyrman, professor of history at the University of Delaware, for Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, published by Alfred A. Knopf; Walter LaFeber, the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History at Cornell, for The Clash: U.S.–Japanese Relations Throughout History, published by W.W. Norton, and Thomas J. Sugrue, associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, for The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, published by Princeton University Press. Each receives $4,000.

  President George Rupp was to present the prizes; George Ames, chairman of the Friends of the Columbia Libraries, which sponsors the awards dinner, was to preside.

  The Bancroft Prizes were established at Columbia in 1948 with a bequest from Frederic Bancroft, the historian, author and librarian of the Department of State, to recognize books of exceptional merit in history, biography or diplomacy. Books eligible for the 1998 prizes were published in 1997.

  In Southern Cross, Heyrman tells the story of how evangelicals came to command the loyalties of white Southerners. Throughout the 18th century, she argues, Baptists and Methodists met with sharp opposition from a majority of the South’s ordinary people. What spurred their resistance were not only the anti-slavery views of some evangelicals, but also practices that accorded influence in the churches to young clergymen, women and African Americans, while challenging the authority of mature white men.

  Only in the middle of the 19th century did evangelical churches begin to win greater popular acceptance, she notes, chiefly by altering their teachings in ways that affirmed the superiority of whites over blacks, men over women and age over youth.

  In The Clash, LaFeber covers the protracted confrontation between the United States and Japan, from Commodore Perry’s 1853 gunboat diplomacy to the present post-Cold War tensions.

  Using archival and other sources, he documents deep-rooted conflicts, frequently related to the two countries’ policies on China.

  He predicts continued clashes and concludes that “they must be accepted, managed and limited.”

  In The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Sugrue finds that the decline of Detroit and other northern cities began earlier than many have suspected—in the seemingly prosperous 1940s and 1950s.

  Well before the onset of global competition, factories fled south from what became the Rust Belt to cheaper labor in the Sun Belt and, more recently, to other countries, he notes.

  Compounding the effects of job loss was intense racial conflict over housing. Sugrue found that Detroit was wracked by racial violence—including more than 200 attacks on black families who moved into all white neighborhoods between 1945 and 1965.

  Left behind were reservoirs of inner-city poverty walled by racial discrimination.

  Analyzing employment and housing statistics and political and corporate policies, he dismisses suggestions that Great Society social programs of the 1960s brought the city down and concludes that the urban crisis is “deeper, more tangled and perhaps more intractable” than others will admit.