A scholar and historian of slavery in the United States, Georgia native John Blassingame spent almost thirty years on the history faculty at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He is best remembered for his book The Slave Community (1972) and for editing the papers of abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass.
John Wesley Blassingame was born on March 23, 1940, in Covington and grew up in Social Circle. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Fort Valley State College (later Fort Valley State University) in 1960 and a master of arts from Howard University in Washington, D.C., the following year. From 1961 until 1969 Blassingame taught at Howard University; Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and the University of Maryland in College Park.
In 1970 he became a lecturer at Yale, where he was pursuing his Ph.D. Upon receiving his doctoral degree in 1971, Blassingame accepted a position with the Yale history department. He received tenure in 1973 and became a full professor in 1974. In the 1980s Blassingame chaired Yale’s African American Studies Program.
Blassingame’s early success at Yale came as a result of three books that he produced within a few years of receiving his doctorate. In 1971 he edited a collection of essays entitled New Perspectives on Black Studies, which included essays from such well-known historians as Kenneth B. Clark and Eugene Genovese. The following year he published his best-known work, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Unlike earlier works regarding the life of enslaved people on plantations, his sources were the enslave people themselves. The book received a great deal of attention and became the focus of a panel at the 1976 meeting of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. A year later Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 was published.
Starting in the mid-1970s Blassingame dedicated himself to the recovery and preservation of primary source material related to the African American experience. In 1977 he published Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, a collection of autobiographical materials about and by former slaves. At the same time, he assumed the editorship of the Papers of Frederick Douglass and between 1979 and 1999 oversaw the publication of six volumes.
During his career Blassingame emerged as one of the foremost scholars of Black studies and African American history. He was on the editorial board of the Journal of Negro History, the American Historical Review, Reviews in American History, and Southern Studies, and he was a contributing editor to the Black Scholar.
New Perspectives on Black Studies has become a standard reference for schools looking to establish African American studies programs, and his 1982 work, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America, coauthored with Mary Frances Berry, remains a standard textbook for classes on African American history.
Blassingame died on February 13, 2000, after a long illness. In 2004 the Southern Historical Association established an award in his name that recognizes African American scholarship and the mentoring of minority students.