NIU alumnus and esteemed historian Joseph Reidy was recently awarded the 2020 Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy by the Columbia University Libraries for his book, “Illusions of Emancipation: The Pursuit of Freedom and Equality in the Twilight of Slavery” (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
“To put it simply, this award means more than I could possibly put into words,” said Reidy. “To receive an honor like this from your peers goes beyond what you could ever imagine; I am still floating on cloud nine.”
The trustees of Columbia University have awarded the Bancroft Prizes annually since 1948. Winners are judged in terms of the scope, significance, depth of research and richness of interpretation they present in the areas of American history and diplomacy.
Reidy earned his bachelor’s degree from Villanova University and his master’s and doctorate degree from NIU.
“When I came to NIU in 1972 it was everything I had dreamed of and more,” said Reidy, who received a graduate assistantship in the department of history. “There was such an incredibly vibrant intellectual climate there at the time.”
Reidy said the focus of the history department’s intellectual work was on taking a critical look at US history.
“The faculty and graduate students and undergraduate students were very much alive to considering a new understanding of the American past,” Reidy said. “It was important to take into account the lives, labors, struggles and achievements of people who had not been featured in much of the historical writing before that time.”
Reidy was an editor with the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland and earned his doctorate degree from NIU in 1982. He joined the faculty of Howard University in 1984 where he was an associate provost and professor in the department of history before retiring in 2017.
The Bancroft Prize committee said through prodigious research and compelling argument, Reidy’s book “builds upon and departs from a raft of historiography to deepen our understanding of emancipation’s vagaries in the United States.”
Reidy said the book is a testament to the people whose lives he wrote about.
“I am just the storyteller,” Reidy said. “The real story is that of the enslaved people who pursued freedom relentlessly during the Civil War, and whose experiences were often life threatening – even death defying – and utterly awe inspiring to future generations.”
Reidy was one of two authors selected from 200 submissions. Harvard professor and historian, Lizabeth Cohen, was also named as a 2020 Bancroft Prize winner for her book, “Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age.” Reidy and Cohen each received a $10,000 award.