Social Science Supporter Spotlight: Meet Yale Historian Dr. David Blight 

March 11, 2021 - Liz Schondelmayer

Dr. David Blight is a world-renowned historian, a critically-acclaimed author and a beloved professor at Yale University. He is also a proud Social Science Spartan, graduating with his bachelor’s degree in History in 1971 and then a Master's degree in 1976. 

Recently, Dr. Blight created the Blight History Scholarship Award to help students from working class families cover the cost of their tuition. Below, he discusses his inspiration for this incredible act of generosity, as well as his MSU experience and his current position as a Yale historian. 

Dr. Blight came to MSU in 1967. A student-athlete for the first half of his college career, Dr. Blight balanced baseball with his history education, and later pursued his political passions. 

I was an undergraduate at Michigan State from 1967 to '71. These were very turbulent years, with the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. I had a special combination of experiences which included being a history major and a baseball player. The then coach was the legendary Danny Litwiler, a hall of fame baseball player, but we parted ways in the mid-winter of 1970 in part because I didn't have the talent.

It wasn't easy to combine full-time serious academics and full-time serious sports, but some of us did it, proving it can be done. The third part of my experience there was in the Spring of 1970, when I got more involved in politics. I attended a lot of anti-war rallies that Spring, when there were student protests that were popping up all over the country. That was a politicizing process for me as a young man and a young student. My experience was a mix of loving history, loving baseball, and then getting out of it as a more politicized person and a broader thinker. 

During his time at Michigan State, Dr. Blight recalls what it was like to be involved in the Vietnam War draft lottery. 

It was an extraordinary time to be an undergraduate. It was the peak of the war in Vietnam. I lived in Wilson hall when the Vietnam lottery went into effect. I lived on the 5th floor of Wilson hall when the lottery went into effect. I still remember the day that the lottery was televised - we all sat in front of the televisions in Wilson hall, finding out what our draft status would be. I was very lucky, I got number 334. One never forgets that number. We took up a collection of money for the guy on our floor who had the lowest number, and I think we raised around $200.

It had been part of our lives then, from the moment we turned 18. It's caused a lot of anxieties and even guilt for many of us in that generation - I mean, we were the Vietnam generation. It had a lot of an impact on all of us.

Currently, Dr. Blight is a professor at Yale University, where he teaches and researches history.

My job is extremely rewarding. I have multiple jobs here at Yale. First of all, I teach both undergraduates and graduate students. I also direct a research institute called the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Together with a staff of five people, we run conferences and panels, and give out fellowships.

I also, of course, do research. A lot of my research focuses on the era of slavery, the civil war, and reconstruction. I became interested in this topic when I was at Michigan State, and then afterward when I had a job as a high school teacher. I spent 7 years teaching history at Flint Northern High School, which I believe is now closed. At the time, we were tasked with creating Black history courses for the first time, which was an extremely important project to me. I came of age with the history and the story of the Civil Rights Movement, which sparked a passionate interest in the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the slavery period that lead up to it.

As a student from a working class family in Flint, Michigan, Dr. Blight hopes his scholarship will provide opportunities to current students with a similar background.

I've always wanted to create a scholarship, but the thing is, I never had any money to get it started. I grew up a thoroughly working class kid in Flint. My dad worked for General Motors, and neither of my parents went to college. So, with a little bit of discretionary income now, I thought, "Why not create a little bit of scholarship money in the history department for today's version of kids like me, who may want to be a history major but may need some help?"

This is a modest gift I gave, I'm hoping to add to it a little bit every year so there's some kind of ongoing fund that the department can use at its discretion to help students.

Lastly, Dr. Blight offers a message of hope to students who find themselves struggling this semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the political unrest over the past year. 

Keep a long view of history the best that you can. Frederick Douglas was very fond of saying that he took hope from times of affliction because that's when people tend to learn the most. It may seem like the economy is a mess right now and that our political institutions are in a near permanent paralysis, so there are reasons to be deeply concerned about the future of the United States. But it's in times of great difficulty and great affliction when history gets our attention, and it often makes us learn the most and think the hardest, and sometimes, do great things.