With the death of the African and African American historian Louis Edward Wilson on July 10, 2022, the field of African Studies, as well his students, colleagues, and family members, lost an extraordinarily graceful, talented, and generous person.
Born in Longview, Texas on March 1 1939 to Rebecca McKenzie Wilson and Essie Wilson, Louis moved with his family to California as part of the Great Migration and grew up in the neighborhood known today as South Central Los Angeles. After graduating from California State University-Los Angeles, he went on to graduate school at UCLA where he earned his MA in 1973 and his Ph.D. in 1980 specializing in the histories of Los Angeles, Colonial America, and Africa. Supported by fellowships from the NDEA, the Fulbright Program, and the Ford Foundation, his research in African History resulted in book The Krobo People in Ghana to 1892: A Political, Social and Economic History (Ohio State University Press, 1992). One reviewer hailed it as “a definitive social and political history of the Krobo, a small but important Adangme people of southeastern Ghana.” And another reviewer credited the book with “a good feel and grasp of such issues such as family networks, biased oral traditions, and the impact of conflicting Christian and traditional values.”
Wilson taught for one year (1975-76) at an institution now known as University of Massachusetts Dartmouth before moving on to what was then known as Claremont Men’s College (now Claremont McKenna College) where he was assistant professor of History and Black Studies from 1976 to 1980. From there he took a position, which he held from 1980 to 1989, at the University of Colorado-Boulder where he was an assistant professor of History and Black Studies. In 1989 he moved to Smith College where he rose to the position of full professor and served as chair of African Studies Program (2012-14) and for many years as chair of what came to be known as the Africana Studies Department. Along the way he benefited from other opportunities and garnered other honors. He held a Senior Fulbright Lectureship at the University of Ghana in 1983-84. He received the Blackwell Fellowship and Prize in 1991 as an Outstanding Black New England Scholar.
Such a summary hardly conveys the impact he had on peers and students. He was, as his colleague Floyd Cheung remarked, “a trusted and influential mentor to many students and junior faculty, especially those of color, including myself. He helped us navigate a predominantly white institution with grace and integrity.” Above all it was with students in and out of the classroom that he had an extraordinary impact. Daphne Lamothe, currently the chair of Africana Studies at Smith College, having noted the extraordinary range of the courses he taught, stated that his “students and colleagues will remember his great passion for teaching and learning, his dedication to mentoring students and new colleagues, and generosity of spirit.” Observing him in the classroom it was clear how much teaching was to him second nature; he combined high professional standards with an erudition and delivery that only seemed casual and effortless. When they heard of his passing, former students wrote of the impact Wilson had on them. One remarked that “his kindness, brilliance and spirit will stay alive in us. Again and again others described his “truth telling” and “humor”; how he became part of their lives and that of their family members; how he taught with an unusual combination of love, provocation, toughness, and passion. He was, one noted, “there as a guide, protector, and place of refuge even after graduation.”
Not long after he arrived at Smith College not only his teaching but also his writing turned increasingly to U.S. history. With others he was responsible for a series of widely used K-8 and 9-12 textbooks, mostly in U.S. History, first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1994. As a scholar, he developed a sustained and passionate interest in the history of African Americans in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.
Although with his move to Smith College his teaching and research increasingly focused on American history, he remained committed to African Studies. He was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Cape Town in 1999; chaired the College’s African Studies Program; often gave talks on African history and politics in the U.S. and Africa; led the Mellon Foundation program for Smith College and Wellesley College on introductory tours of South Africa (2001-04); and traveled to Africa to introduce his Smith College students to the continent’s history.
He is survived by Alona Cooper Wilson, whom he married on November 30, 2002; by his sons: Bennett (Jennifer Gorman, and their sons Lee and Graham), a veterinarian practicing in Maine and Mark (Meaghan Brady and their sons Maxwell and Masalee), a Foreign Service officer with USAID, serving mainly in Africa; and Judy Wilson, his former wife and mother to his sons.