Langum Foundation News
This page is for current and upcoming news of the Trust and its work. Check back here periodically for links to news stories, upcoming deadlines, and late-breaking information.
MAY 15, 2019
The Winner of the 2018 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History is Black Litigants in the Antebellum South, by Kimberly M. Welch (North Carolina).
Welch’s meticulous research into obscure and tattered court records of the antebellum American South has yielded some surprising results. The title would encompass freedom suits of blacks wrongfully held as slaves and also criminal suits against slaves. Freedom suits are discussed, but her focus is on free persons of color suing whites, for debts, breach of contract, back wages, and the entire range of civil liability.
The surprise is that these free blacks suing whites in the antebellum South had no difficulty finding white lawyers to represent them, and that they often won their cases, even when tried by juries. These legal victories over whites, she argues, gave the free black community a small space of agency and self-autonomy. Welch argues that these results demonstrate that the antebellum South valued property rights, even property owned by Negroes, over a total domination of blacks. One could argue further that it demonstrates the value put on legality itself by antebellum whites over a total white supremacy. That is curious because after the War, whites of the South valued their hegemony over blacks more than legality itself (lynching, barriers to black voting, etc.).
Welch appends a harrowing description of the researcher’s difficulties in locating and even reading these obscure records. So it may be narrow-minded to point out that this is only a case study, involving only four counties of Mississippi and Louisiana. But what a stimulus for further work! She points out that many courthouses were burned by invading Union forces, but there must be many other localities where the antebellum court records have survived and could be used to test her findings (Montgomery, Alabama?).
On top of her careful research and stimulating findings, Welch also writes clearly and made her work a pleasure to read. – DJL, Sr.
Two books won Finalist status for the 2018 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History: Child Labor in America: The Epic Legal Struggle to Protect Children, by John A. Fliter (Kansas) and The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era, by Christopher W. Schmidt (Chicago).
In Child Labor, John A. Fliter comprehensively and vividly chronicles the complex political and constitutional issues involved in what the title so aptly describes as the “epic struggle” against child labor. This carefully researched book offers new insights into many subjects, including the enactment and judicial nullification of the first two federal child labor statutes, the subsequent failure of efforts to add a child labor amendment to the federal Constitution, and the ultimate enactment during the New Deal of a statute that withstood the U.S. Supreme Court’s scrutiny. The book concludes with a survey of recent efforts to roll back these hard-fought reforms. – WGR
In The Sit-Ins, Christopher W. Schmidt carefully analyzes the early 1960s lunch counter sit-ins, in Greensboro, North Carolina and then sweeping across the American South, from the perspectives of the protesting students, their lawyers, sympathizers, opponents, and the Congress that was then considering civil rights legislation that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The book describes the legal difficulty of using the 14th Amendment to protect protestors because the private owners of public accommodations are not the “state actors” that the 14th Amendment was designed to reach. As a result, the monumental 1964 Act was placed under the Congress’s commerce clause powers and not the 14th Amendment. Schmidt pays particular attention to the squabbles within the Supreme Court over the scope of the 14th Amendment in the struggle for equal accommodations, and writes clearly about the legal issues involved. – DJL, Sr.
MARCH 27, 2019
The winner of the 2018 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction is Louisa Hall’s Trinity
The novel explores Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, through his interactions with seven imagined characters from 1943 to 1966. Speaking in “testimonials,” the characters concentrate more on their own lives despite the major world events unfolding around them. Throughout, Oppenheimer appears familiar yet enigmatic. Excellent historical fiction has the power to reveal emotional truths that history cannot, and Trinity does just that through its ingenious form and compelling prose. – VL.
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The Finalist for the 2018 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction is Nick Dybek for his The Verdun Affair (Scribner)
Set in Verdun, France and Bologna, Italy in the aftermath of World War I (with a small portion in 1950s Hollywood, California), the chief protagonists are American. A young man works gathering up bones from the former Verdun battlefield for an ossuary when a young woman arrives in search of information about her husband who was reported missing in action. She was one of many American women who roamed Europe searching for missing husbands in the years following the armistice. The two strike up a romance, and then travel to Bologna where a doctor is treating a mysterious shell-shocked soldier who has lost all memory. Circumstantial evidence suggests he might be the husband. A third major character enters the scene, an Austrian journalist who has his own interest in this mystery man.
The book is well-written and a page turner. It has numerous elements of interest: a tender affair, the entry of a competing male, a dreadful description of Verdun following the battle, the mysterious amnesiac and the efforts to restore his memory or otherwise identify him, the chaos in Bologna incident to the early years of the Mussolini movement, and the pervasive effects of a significant mistruth spoken by one of the principal characters. – DJL, Sr.
FEBRUARY 11, 2019
The winner of the 2017-2018 Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism is What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, by Mona Hanna-Attisha (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).
Mona Hanna-Attisha tells a compelling story of injustice, protest, and partial redemption. She does this as the person most responsible for unearthing the truth about Flint, Michigan’s water crisis. Her highly personal account brings the drama directly to the reader, as she draws on her perspective as a pediatrician caring for the most vulnerable victims of the lead crisis. Hanna-Attisha directly holds the local, state, and national officials responsible for a set of inexcusable decisions. At the same time, her in-depth account shows the pressures that led officials to systematically undervalue the lives and health of Flint citizens. It is an added bonus that she brings in her family’s experience as immigrants from the Middle East slowly putting down roots in the Midwestern community that is at the heart of the drama. This book is a tribute to Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s skill as an author and an activist. She leaves the reader with no illusions about the entrenched nature of the forces behind the Flint water crisis. Yet this extraordinary book still leaves the reader inspired. – FS
The finalist status for the 2017-2018 Malott Prize for Recording Community Activism goes to Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands, by Zoltán Grossman (University of Washington Press, 2017).
The title accurately describes this book’s contents. Native tribes and their non-Indian neighbors often form alliances when they are mutually confronted by an outside threat, for example an oil pipeline, a dam, or a mine. Contemporary conflicts between natives and non-Indians are well-described, but the bulk of the book details the phenomenon of alliances formed after a mutual danger appears. Less commonly, blending of interests can be derived from sources other than an outside threat. For example, the non-Indian population of Wallowa Valley, Oregon has been remarkably facilitative of the Nez Perce tribe’s partial return to their ancestral lands. The non-Indian community stands to gain from the great tourist interest in the Nez Perce and their ceremonies held in Wallowa Valley. The book is well-written and accessible to the educated general reader. For those wanting more detail, copious endnotes are provided. – DJL, Sr.
JANUARY 29, 2019
The Langum Charitable Trust Changes Its Name
The Langum Charitable Trust is changing its name to The Langum Foundation. However, this change will not be effective on our website, the prizes, or in any of our advertising or publicity until after the current cycle of prizes are awarded, within the next month or so.