An Ode to Kenneth Kusmer (1945-2020)

When Kenneth Kusmer died in November, urban historians lost a (humble) giant in the field. In this ode, Walter Greason remembers and honors his dissertation advisor.

By Walter Greason

When I was a doctoral student in the late 1990s, Temple University’s graduate seminars in history met in Center City, Philadelphia, at 1616 Walnut Street. One of the area’s older skyscrapers, the building had an early twentieth century character and commanded respect for the intellectual endeavors that students encountered in their doctoral work. Ibram Kendi, in How to Be an Antiracist, describes in great detail the eighth floor of another of Temple’s academic buildings, Gladfelter Hall, where the Department of African American Studies held its seminars in the ‘fishbowl’ – a classroom encased in glass windows on all sides. Although the Department of History’s faculty and administrative offices were one floor above that space, it was the downtown campus that defined the work that Kenneth Kusmer’s students in urban and African American history did. For a student like myself, fresh out of undergraduate work at a school on Philadelphia’s Main Line, in a history department dominated by the legacy of St. Augustine, Walnut Street was a dream come true. A popular bookstore was a block away, a comfortable pub was around the corner, and a number of extraordinary restaurants sat within two blocks for a quick snack before class or a lengthy dinner conversation with classmates afterwards. Ken balanced the vitality of the city with a patient caring for his students that was, and is, rare at a research university. He was the hand that helped hundreds of students reach higher to achieve entry into the tenure track and the community of scholars around the world.

Photo of Kenneth Kusmer from his Temple University faculty page.

Ken earned his bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College and his PhD at the University of Chicago. In addition to his seat at Temple University, he was also a Bancroft Professor of American History at the University of Göttingen and a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Genoa and the University of Roma Tre. His first book, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930, continues to offer fresh insights about urban formation and transition in the twentieth century. His series Black Communities and Urban Development in America, 1720-1990, remains a vital resource for any student of African-American urban history. I was fortunate to study with him as he completed his monograph, Down and Out, On the Road: The Homeless in American History. His technique of maintaining a manicured bibliography in all of his fields of interest still inspires me every semester. I remember writing, in an evaluation of his teaching over twenty years ago, that “His encyclopedic knowledge of urban studies challenges students to master the assigned and recommended readings every week.” On more than one occasion, he would ask a student to locate the evidence that supported a contention about the nature of segregation and its specific manifestations in one city or another. I learned the lesson quickly: read early and often in order to have any hope that I might answer those questions successfully.

His seminar on urban development since 1945 included future stars of American history like Juan Thomas, David Canton, and Peniel Joseph. I met Erik McDuffie in those classrooms, and together, with constant support from Ken, Bettye Collier-Thomas, and Wilbert Jenkins, we developed a conference on Black radicalism that featured Anthony Monteiro, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Robin D.G. Kelley. As a  community, we all pushed the boundaries of accepted scholarship in the historical profession. Even at this early stage of evaluation, I believe that moment, in that department, on that campus, in that city, holds tremendous meaning and power – it served as the bridge between the forerunning generations of social historical research and the ambitious interdisciplinary inquiry that has emerged in the last decade.

Lecture delivered in 1983 by Kenneth Kusmer as part of the Cleveland Heritage Program.

Probably the kindest words Ken had for me emphasized my teaching. To this day, they remain a source of strength in dark moments. He asked me to give a lecture to a survey course focused on the twentieth-century United States, held on the suburban Ambler campus of Temple University. I remember struggling to find the entrance to the parking lot, then wandering around the small campus trying to find the classroom. After a few years of navigating the Orange Line between Cecil B. Avenue and City Hall, I felt strange teaching a class in Montgomery County and its green fields. Ken said very little to me in terms of advice before the class started. He was a meticulous judge of both pedagogy and writing. My best advantage was that he did not know that I had spent almost twelve years teaching history at the middle and high school levels – it was not my first rodeo. We did a group activity where every student contributed a different insight about the assigned reading.  We broke into small groups for a short discussion of a targeted question. The last half hour focused on implications of the topic and the approach that the reading suggested, particularly in connection with the topics for the next class. The class finished their work, and I waited for comments and suggestions. Ken hugged me enthusiastically after the class left. “My MAN!  You are a natural!” We laughed and laughed and went to share a few minutes together over a coffee.

After I graduated, I did not see him again for a few years.  The process of the dissertation is tough, and I felt I had so much to prove as I landed my first tenure-track job. I kept an eye on how his work continued, especially inspired by the edited collection he produced with current UHA President-elect Joe Trotter. We finally found a few minutes to meet for dinner at the White Dog Café in University City. He walked more slowly, and the years had made him slighter. It was my turn to hug him enthusiastically. We talked about writing, travel, and the state of the profession. He could not speak as swiftly, but his insights had grown even sharper. When it was time to go, I helped him with his coat and watched him walk carefully back west along Sansom Street. His wisdom still guides me as I work with my own doctoral students today. More than anything, he gave me – as he gave all of his students – the confidence and skills to craft our own paths through a profession and a world that often undervalued us, and him. 

Kenneth Kusmer is a legendary historian for his scholarship, his teaching, and his service. Those accomplishments only scratch the surface of his contributions to history and civilization.


Walter Greason is a historian and educator studying comparative economic development since 1750. His work is available on Twitter, @worldprofessor.

Featured image (at top): Team AMP, “1616 Walnut Street,” 2009, [cropped], Wiki Takes Philadelphia Project, Wikimedia Commons.

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