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Robert J. Norrell

Professor & Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence


Professor Norrell has held the Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence since 1998. For the past two years, he has been working on a relatively new research project, “War and Truth: How Historians in Four Nations Treated Wars in the Twentieth Century.” This study is an inquiry into how historians in Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States have treated the big wars of the twentieth century—World War One and Two and the Cold War. The study begins at an epochal moment in history, the beginning of the Great War, with a look at how the war was treated by historians in the four nations from 1914 through the 1960s.  It analyzes how the nationalism of each country was evident in the particular history they wrote before the war and then about the Great War. It examines how historians’ interpretations shaped attitudes toward postwar engagement in international affairs, including the acceptance of Nazism in Germany, appeasement in Great Britain, pacifism in France, and isolationism among Americans. It then follows the writing through the Second World War and then the Cold War.

The project will push to the forefront considerations of how historians decided what was historical, what influences shaped decisions about the content of written history, and the ways that historians’ selection of subjects and evidence determined what went into the historical record—and what was left out. This is a book about how history was used to advance or thwart presentist political questions and especially how governments manipulated popular and elite understandings of the past for matters of war and peace.

To date, Professor Norrell has written mainly about American race relations. In 2015, Norrell published Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation, which covers the rise to national celebrity and great literary influence of Haley. In 2009 his revisionist biography, Up from History: the Life of Booker T. Washington, appeared to some acclaim.* In 2005 he published a well-reviewed interpretive synthesis of race relations in the twentieth-century United States, The House I Live In: Race in the American Century. His book Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1986. He has published ten other books on the history of the American South. He is the author of 25 scholarly articles. He has given invited lectures at Heidelberg Oxford University, the University of Cambridge, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Tübingen, and several other universities.
*[see New York Times book review and Washington Post article].

Professor Norrell teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in southern history and graduate courses in recent United States history. He has directed doctoral dissertations on education reform, environmental history, black religion, southern economic history, race relations in housing, and modern southern political history.



Ph.D. University of Virginia, 1983

Awards and Recognitions

  • The Mellon Research Fellowship in American History, 1984-85, University of Cambridge
  • Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, 1986 for Reaping the Whirlwind
  • Visiting Scholar, Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green University, 2007
  • Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies, University of Tübingen, Germany, 2010-11

Selected Publications

  • Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation (St. Martin’s, 2015)
  • Tuckeleechee Cove: Faces of the Past, with Boyce Driskell (University of Tennessee Press 2015)
  • A Scholarly Analysis of Andrew Zimmerman’s Alabama in Africa, A Major Work of Transnational History: How Ideological Commitments Corrupt Understanding (Edwin Mellen Press, 2015)
  • Eden Rise (NewSouth Books, 2012), a novel of the civil rights movement
  • The House I Live In: Race in the American Century (Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington
    • Library JournalBest Book of 2009
    • BooklistTop 10 Black History Non-fiction Book of 2009
    • The Washington PostBest Book of 2009 (1 of 9)
    • 2009 Honorable Mention, US History and Biography/Autobiography, The Association of American Publishers Prose Awards
  • Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee(Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). Revised edition, 1998, University of North Carolina Press. Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, 1986
  • A Promising Field: Engineering at Alabama, 1837-1987(University of Alabama Press, 1990).
  • James Bowron: The Autobiography of a New South Industrialist(UNC Press, 1991).
  • Labor at the Ballot Box: Unions in Alabama Politics from the New Deal to the Dixiecrat Movement, Journal of Southern History (May 1991).
  • Caste in Steel: Jim Crow Careers in Birmingham, Alabama, Journal of American History (December 1986).
  • Labor Trouble: George Wallace and Union Politics in Alabama, in Robert Zieger, ed., Twentieth-Century Southern Labor History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991)
  • One Thing We Did Right: Protest, History, and the Civil Rights Movement, in New Directions in Civil Rights Studies(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1991).
  • After Thirty Years of ‘New’ Labour History, There Is Still No Socialism in Reagan Country,Historical Journal (March 1990).
  • Steelworkers and Storekeepers: Social Mobility Among Italian Immigrants in Birmingham,in Rocco Caporale, ed., The Italian Americans Through the Generations (New York: American Italian Historical Association, 1986).

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