News your connection to The Boston Globe

Winthrop Jordan, 75; writer explored US racial history

Winthrop Jordan, the historian whose groundbreaking investigation of early American attitudes on race shed light on centuries-old roots, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Feb. 23 at his home in Oxford, Miss. A native of Worcester, Mass., he was 75.

The panel of judges who in 1969 awarded Jordan a National Book Award for his "White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812" praised the work as a "rare thing: an original contribution to an important subject."

"In helping us understand today's racial crisis, Jordan has ideally fulfilled the historian's function of investigating the past in order to enlighten the present," the judges wrote.

Research for the book began before Rosa Parks's 1955 refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Mr. Jordan wrote that, in conducting his research, he steered clear of reading much of the literature and even newspaper articles of that time.

Although not intended as a commentary on 20th-century race relations, Mr. Jordan's work ultimately was important to that discussion because it presented racial attitudes not as immutable and intrinsic but as developments that happened over time and for a reason.

"The first permanent English settlement on the African coast was at Kormantin in 1631, and the Royal African Company was not chartered for another forty years," he wrote in "White Over Black." "Initially therefore, English contact with Africans did not take place primarily in a context which prejudged the Negro as a slave. . . . Rather, Englishmen met Negroes merely as another sort of men."

The racial attitudes that would allow for the existence of slavery and other injustices evolved with time, influenced by economic interests, religion, national identity, differences in skin color, and fears , he wrote .

Just as the civil rights movement altered the relationship between racial groups in the United States, "White Over Black," published in 1968, changed the discussion about those relationships in academia. The book won Columbia University's Bancroft Prize.

"It forever changed our understanding of the roots of racism in the United States," Robert Haws, former chairman of the history department at the University of Mississippi, said in a statement.

Mr. Jordan joined the Mississippi faculty in 1982 and was a professor of history and African-American studies until his retirement in 2003.

Born Nov. 11, 1931, in Worcester, Mr. Jordan was the son of Harry Donaldson, a professor and dean of history at Clark University. His mother was Lucretia Mott Jordan, a descendant of a well-known Quaker family who were outspoken abolitionists.

He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in social relations from Harvard University. He taught briefly at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Mr. Jordan leaves his wife, Cora; three sons, Joshua, Mott, and Eliot; two stepsons, Michael Reilly and Steven Reilly; a stepdaughter, Mary Beth Conklin; a brother, Edwin; and his former wife, Phyllis Jordan.