If the universe treated historians with the same wide-eyed respect and slobbery adulation as film stars, Raymond Arsenault would be the Brad Pitt or George Clooney of his profession.
That’s not the way things work, of course, and Ray Arsenault isn’t a household name, much less a matinee idol. Among historians and scholars, however, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History will always be top of the bill.
Arsenault, who recently announced his retirement (after 40 years) from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is the author of several of the most thorough and engaging books on the history of civil rights in America, including The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial and the Concert That Awakened America; Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle For Racial Justice; and Arthur Ashe: A Life, the first-ever biography of the great tennis star, a vocal anti-Apartheid activist.
“Ray Arsenault may be the most important scholar ever to build his career in St. Petersburg,” says his pal Roy Peter Clark, Arsenault’s co-editor on The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights. “To have a historian of his stature in our fair city is a blessing of the mind and of the soul. It was an honor to work with him.
“I don’t know how he finds anything in his office, though.”
Right now, Arsenault’s workspace is taken up with materials for his next project, a biography of his longtime friend John Lewis.
And his grandson, Lincoln, just turned 5. Which was a big, big deal!
The Catalyst spoke with Arsenault Thursday morning.
Reason for retiring #1
“I think it’s time. I’m 72, and I’ve been teaching at USF since 1980. So it’s been 40 years. I taught a couple years of high school, and then I taught at other universities – so I’ve got 48 years of teaching. And I’ve really enjoyed it, I love teaching, but you know, you feel your age and you realize maybe there are other things you want to do. I’d like to spend more time with my grandchildren, and with my wife and my daughters.”
“We’re teaching online now, and I think we’re going to be doing that for the foreseeable future, at least another year … and it’s not quite the same as face-to-face teaching. For me. I’ve always loved the interaction with students. I like to get to know my students really well. And it’s not so easy when you’re teaching online. So I thought maybe this was a good time to go.”
“We just went through consolidation at the university. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, but I fear that the feeling on campus in St. Petersburg will never be quite the same. We had a wonderful situation, a small liberal arts college in a beautiful setting. We had the best of both worlds – we had small classes and a real tradition of teaching and a sense of community, but we also had the resources of a major university. And I hope that balance will continue, but I fear it might not. At least not to the same degree that we had it before. We fought long and hard against consolidation. We didn’t want to lose our separate accreditation, and lose the autonomy and the momentum that we had built over the last 15 years.
“I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’m going off in a snit. I’m not, at all. We were able to preserve a certain amount of autonomy and community sense, and the identity of the campus. I’m pleased with that; it could have been worse. I was the president of the Faculty Senate for the last two years, and I think the battle probably took its toll on me a little bit.
“But that’s not the reason I retired. I’ll continue to write, and continue to serve on the boards and be involved in local affairs and activism – the ACLU, and Preserve the ‘Burg, and the Woodson Museum and other things that I really care about. I just decided it was time to make a change.”
Writing and teaching and writing
“I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve devoted most of my career to the history of civil rights, of people dealing with the kind of racial dilemmas of American life, but I’ve also been very active in the community, in civil rights organizations. And one spills over into the other. I’m a scholar who tries to be somewhat detached, but I’ve always thought of my writing as an extension of my teaching. It’s just a broader classroom. And I’ve been very fortunate, at least in the last 20 years of my career, to reach a much broader audience than you normally expect. Historians are fortunate if they sell a thousand copies of their books. But I decided I don’t want to just write for other professional historians.”
A history lesson
“I moved back to Florida from Massachusetts, at a time when the civil rights movement was coming to a crescendo. In fact, I was in Washington the night before the march. We were driving to Florida on that day, on August 28, 1963. We were in a motel outside of D.C., and there were hundreds of marchers there, who were going to go to the march the next day. We’d driven down from Massachusetts; my parents were tired, they went to the room. I went to the swimming pool. There, you saw blacks and whites swimming together, which you never saw in those days in Maryland. I spent a couple of hours in the pool with these marchers, and they were saying ‘Kid, if you want to see some real history, you can’t drive to Florida tomorrow, you’ve got to come with us. Dr. King’s going to be there, and there are going to be a quarter of a million people, and it’s going to be amazing …’
“Of course, I was absolutely intoxicated. And I rushed up to my parents to say ‘We can’t go to Florida tomorrow – we have to go to the march.’
“In the Hollywood version, we would have gone to the march. But we didn’t. And once I discovered what really happened on August 28, I felt I’d been cheated, and it gnawed at me.
“We lived on Amelia Island for the next couple of years, very segregated. I had to deal with having a very different view of civil rights than most of the people in my high school.”
“I’ve spent the last two days, all day long, doing interviews with the director and producer of American Masters. They’re doing a two-hour documentary for PBS based largely on my book The Sound of Freedom.
“The Arthur Ashe biography came out in 2018. Those were big projects, they took me a long time and I was totally immersed in them. I discovered that what I was doing was more than researching a book – I was recovering these lost stories. Many of incredible courage and commitment. It became almost a crusade for me to sort of spread the word – and I was so fortunate that Freedom Riders was made into an American Experience documentary. I worked for three years with the great filmmaker Stanley Nelson, and we won three Emmys and a Peabody Award in 2011.
“Now, they’re making a Hollywood film out of the Arthur Ashe book.
“So I feel so lucky that I’ve been able not only to sell a few books, but to reach a much broader audience. The Freedom Riders film has been seen by, I think, 60 million people. I never dreamed of that kind of exposure – or get the story out of the Freedom Riders, some of the most remarkable people that we’ve ever seen in American culture.
“These are extraordinary human beings. Marian Anderson, the Freedom Riders, Arthur Ashe, these are some of the greatest Americans of the 20th century.”