The Henry Adams Club, a history graduate student organization, awarded GSAS alumnus Oscar Handlin a posthumous honorary Vice President’s post on Friday, over 70 years after he was denied the position for being Jewish.
Handlin taught history at Harvard for over 50 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Uprooted,” a chronicle of migrations that shaped the United States.
Shaun S. Nichols, current Vice President of the Henry Adams Club, said he learned of the incident while reading a memoir by Handlin’s classmate Joseph Hope Franklin.
“[Handlin] was nominated, and basically someone said, ‘He may be a good Jew, but he’s still a Jew,’” Nichols said.
“I usually hold these symbolic events in low esteem,” said Nichols, who opened the ceremony on Friday. But he said this event was “a testament that historians really do change the world.”
The organization unanimously approved club President Gregory D. Afinogenov’s motion to confer the title.
“What this shows is that I can be President of Henry Adams without even thinking that I’m Jewish,” said Afinogenov, who comes from a Russian-Jewish background similar to Handlin’s. “This kind of event is good at marking out how much had changed.”
Handlin’s daughter Joanna accepted the award on her father’s behalf, although she said she felt the incident had not impacted her father greatly.
“One thing that amazes me is that never did I ever hear my father mention anti-Semitism, or even mention the Adams Club for that matter,” she said.
Professor Bernard Bailyn, a colleague of Handlin’s for many years, agreed that being Jewish was not a defining characteristic of Handlin’s career at Harvard. He recalled Handlin’s close collaboration with other professors such as Samuel E. Morrison—who Bailyn described as “a Brahmin of the Brahmins.”
“They merged in the work they were doing together at the history department,” Bailyn said.
Handlin’s daughter said she was initially skeptical about whether her father would approve of such an honor.
“We all knew my father as someone who did not believe that the wrongs of history could or should be righted many decades later,” she said.
“[This] in itself is a historical artifact of this day and age, and that is a good thing,” she added.
“I can almost hear him saying, ‘Thanks, now go do your writing.’”
—Staff writer Katie R. Zavadski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.