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David Brion Davis, Historian Of Slavery, Dies At 92


David Brion Davis, scholar and author, has died. Davis won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his three volumes on the problem of slavery. More importantly, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports, he helped shape the way we view the role of slavery in the West.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: David Brion Davis' trilogy was the work of a lifetime. The first volume was published in 1966, the final volume in 2014. During that time, Davis also had a career as a history professor at Yale. Both his writing and his teaching, says Eric Foner, professor emeritus at Columbia University, powerfully influenced several generations of scholars.

ERIC FONER: Really, it's hard to remember. But when he was starting out, sure, there were some people who wrote about slavery. But it was considered a minor piece of the history of the United States or the Western Hemisphere. And Davis kind of shattered that idea. And I think - that's his most enduring legacy, I think.

NEARY: Foner says Davis' interest in studying slavery began when he served in Germany at the end of World War II.

FONER: Seeing kind of racism firsthand, both the Nazi concentration camps and the horrible things that had happened there, but also the United States and the mistreatment of black soldiers by the Army itself - and I think it was the combination of those two things that led him to say, I want to study where this came from.

NEARY: Foner says starting with his first book, "The Problem Of Slavery In Western Culture," Davis took slavery out of the background and placed it at the center of Western history.

FONER: He really makes the case that slavery was fundamental to the rise of the modern world, the expansion of Europe, the colonization of the New World, the economic profits that led to the Industrial Revolution. In other words, slavery, which previous scholars really had looked at as a footnote, suddenly becomes the key institution in the rise of the West to global prominence.

NEARY: Davis looked at slavery from a global perspective, says Foner, but he also shed new light on this country's relationship with slavery.

FONER: He analyzed with remarkable sophistication the contradictions, the complications, the psychological impact of slavery on many of the Founding Fathers.

NEARY: In 2013, David Brion Davis was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. Davis was cited for his work in, quote, "reshaping history and driving us to keep making moral progress in our time." Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.