Historian, educator, institute director. Orville Vernon Burton returned to his hometown of Ninety-Six, South Carolina, after sojourning in the north for over thirty years. In his 2004 autobiographical sketch and again in his presidential address at the Southern Historical Association’s 2012 meeting, he focused on the peculiarities and peccadilloes of a southerner displaced in the north. He characterizes his adult life as one of “crossing boundaries, boundaries of race, geography, class and status.” In fact, he admits, “I have crossed so many boundaries that sometimes I no longer know where I belong. . . . But, I do know where I am from.”
Burton grew up in the rural, cotton mill town of Ninety-Six and attended a small high school where everyone knew each other. Burton himself was on the football team. Commenting on the fact that his coach, who was also the history teacher, would let his players skip class in order to get more practice on the field, Burton confessed: “We did have a very good football team and won the state championship, but I learned very little about history in high school. I did read a lot, including all the history and biographies in the bookmobile that visited every other week. Also, as I rolled newspapers for my paper route each morning, I read three different papers with totally contrasting political views, which was intriguing to me.” Burton’s self-education and close reading of the “abuses of the past” took him to Furman University where he graduated with a B.A. in history in 1969. His quest for knowledge and deep curiosity eventually led him to the north where he would continue his education by earning an M.A. and Ph.D. at Princeton University. Moving from New Jersey to Illinois for his first academic post, Burton began his long exile from his beloved but blighted South.
At the University of Illinois, where he is now emeritus University Distinguished Teacher/Scholar and professor of history, African American studies, and sociology, Burton was recognized for his outstanding mentorship and teaching. In 1999 he was named the National Research and Doctoral University Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation. He is a leader of the movement to bridge the cyber world and academe, as both the founding director of the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UIUC and as Distinguished Professor of humanities and computer science and director of the CyberInstitute at Clemson University. When Burton first returned to the South, he was the Mark W. Clark Visiting Distinguished Chair at the Citadel. Later, he spent two years as the Burroughs Distinguished Professor of history and culture at Coastal Carolina University, where he followed in the footsteps of his colleague and friend, Charles Joyner.
In his hundreds of scholarly articles and sixteen books, Burton has focused on the American South and its painful history of race relations. In My Father’s House are Many Mansions (1985) casts light on the violence of black and white relations in Edgefield, South Carolina. Noting how few scholars until that time had studied southern family life, he wrote: “This history of family and community in nineteenth-century Edgefield, South Carolina, is intended to convey the enormous richness and complexity of family and community life, a life complicated by the violent strains of slavery, Civil War, freedom, Reconstruction, and Redemption.” Researching the family papers, letters, slave narratives, and church records of the residents of Edgefield—an area called a “district of devils” by Parson Weems— unveiled the “ties that bound black and white together.”
Burton followed the influential, Edgefield-based Pickens family into another book that he co-edited with his wife, Georganne. The Free Flag of Cuba by Lucy Holcombe Pickens, Governor Francis W. Pickens’s third wife, is a work of romantic fiction inspired by the 1851 filibustering campaign in Cuba, an unauthorized military incursion focused on fomenting revolution. The Burtons uncovered Lucy’s lost novel, written under the pseudonym, H.R. Hardimann, and annotated the historical details in the book.
Burton is perhaps best-known for his monograph on President Abraham Lincoln. In The Age of Lincoln, Burton identifies Lincoln’s “southernness” as key to his affirmation of freedom and liberty for all. The companion website that Burton manages for the book allows readers to engage in their own analysis and interpretation of many primary source documents that undergird the research. Here Burton’s twin pillar strengths of computing and humanities research are provided to the general public, free of charge.
Burton, O. Vernon. The Age of Lincoln. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
———. In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
———. “The Southerner as Stranger.” Presidential Address presented at meeting of the Southern Historical Association, Mobile, Alabama, 2012.
———. “Stranger in a Strange Land: Crossing Boundaries.” In Shapers of Southern History: Autobiographical Sketches by Fifteen Historians. Edited by John Boles. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
———. and Georganne B Burton, editors. The Free Flag of Cuba: The Lost Novel of Lucy Holcombe Pickens. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2002.
“Interview with Orville Vernon Burton,” conducted by Roy Rosenzweig in History Matters. City University of New York, and George Mason University, http://historymatters.gmu .edu/d/6164. August, 2001.