Professor wins prestigious Lincoln book award - Christopher Newport University


Portrait of Jon White standing in his office

Professor wins prestigious Lincoln book award

Dr. Jonathan White’s book includes research conducted by students.

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The cover of Jonathan White's book A House Built By Slaves

Dr. Jonathan White’s book, “A House Built By Slaves: African American Visitors to the Lincoln White House,” has been named co-winner of the 2023 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, a prestigious award that recognizes extraordinary works focused on the life of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

“This is such an incredible honor,” said White, professor of American Studies in the Department of Leadership and American Studies. “I am so pleased that my work resonated with the scholars on the jury, and that they saw something innovative and valuable in my research.”

Selected as White’s co-winner was Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, historian and popular television commentator. Meacham was awarded for his book “And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle.” White and Meacham were chosen from a group of five finalists. The two will be presented with the award and a $50,000 prize at the Harvard Club in New York City on April 11.

“We are pleased to be able to honor two outstanding books. Jonathan White’s work provides us with a deeper and important understanding of the view of Lincoln shared by African Americans in the Civil War era. Jon Meacham’s work is a major contribution to the long line of Lincoln biographies that will be read and re-read for decades,” said Larry D. Walker, one of the five members of the Gilder Lehrman Prize Board who selected White and Meacham.

James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, said, “‘And There Was Light’ and ‘A House Built by Slaves’ powerfully humanize the story of the Civil War by re-examining the lives and legacies of those who lived it. Thousands of books have been written about Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries, but these studies by Meacham and White stand out for their narrative skill and interpretive brilliance.”

In its report to the prize board, the three-person jury that recommended the finalists, stated that in “A House Built by Slaves,” “White captures the symbolic importance of social equality as an issue to be addressed during - and after - the restoration of the Union and eradication of slavery.”

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., lauded White’s book “an attempt to size Lincoln up through the eyes of Black Americans who visited the ‘the people’s house’ that their people had built and in whose names they were determined to win the fight for their freedom and citizenship.”

White, who focuses his teaching and research on Lincoln, began writing “A House Built by Slaves” in 2018. It was born from a collection of 125 letters he amassed and published that were written by African Americans to Lincoln. What White realized from reading the letters was that many of the men and women who wrote them had also visited the White House while Lincoln was president.

“I was surprised by how many African Americans met with Lincoln during his presidency. It’s impossible to know the exact number, but I would guess that it was in the hundreds,” White said. “Prior to Lincoln’s presidency, African Americans were more likely to be bought and sold as slaves by a sitting president than to be welcomed as his guests. So, Lincoln really oversaw an incredible transformation.”

Michael Dwight Sparks, ’23 Economics and Mathematics, was one of the students who helped White conduct research for the book. During his first semester at Christopher Newport, he enrolled in White’s American Studies 100 class. Sparks, who chose Christopher Newport because of its emphasis on undergraduate research, became a Summer Scholar for White and subsequently was asked to help with the book project.

“My unexpected encounter with Dr. White would not have been feasible if not for the requirement of enrolling in his course, and as such, the course of my academic career would have changed dramatically,” Sparks said.

For White and the book to be recognized nationally, he said, is a well-deserved honor.

“I could not be more excited, for I can conceive of no worthier recipient of this coveted prize than Dr. White,” Sparks said.

The 16th U.S. president, Lincoln led the effort to preserve the Union during the Civil War and in 1863, issued the Emancipation Proclamation that resulted in freedom from slavery for African Americans. By doing so, he changed the trajectory of race relations in this country.

“There is a lot of talk today about Lincoln’s view on race, and whether or not he was racist. I wanted to shed light on those debates with fresh research about Lincoln’s personal interactions with African Americans,” White said. “My book shows that Lincoln was uncommonly enlightened when it came to matters of race for a man of his times. That’s especially remarkable when we think about him as a politician in the mid-nineteenth century. He showed kindness and cordiality toward the black men and women he met at the White House and on the streets of Washington, D.C.

“Doing that sort of thing did not score him any political points. In fact, it was often used against him in the press. But he did it anyway because he believed that all people should be treated with dignity, regardless of the color of their skin.”

Hopefully, White said, readers of his book “will see just how remarkable of a leader Lincoln was.”

White said “he fell into being a Lincoln guy” during his first year teaching at Christopher Newport when he wrote a book entitled, “Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman.”

“Ever since then, I’ve devoted much of my scholarly attention – and much of my teaching – to Abraham Lincoln. When I teach Lincoln in my classes, I try to get students to see how important he is to the American story. He made powerful arguments that appealed to our nation’s founding principles, such as that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ He really believed that, and he believed that those principles should apply to ‘all people of all colors everywhere.’”

“A House Built by Slaves” is one of 13 books White has penned during his career, and he has three more slated to be released this year. His next book, “Shipwrecked: A True Civil War Story of Mutinies, Jailbreaks, Blockade-running, and the Slave Trade,” tells the story of a man named Appleton Oaksmith, who was convicted of fitting out ships for the slave trade during the Civil War. It will be published in August.

“In June 2016, my Summer Scholar, Daniel Glenn, ’19, was doing research for me on the slave trade and one day he came to me and said, ‘Have you ever heard of Appleton Oaksmith?,’” White said. “I hadn’t, but Daniel and I began researching his story and found that it was one worth telling.”

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