W&M Professor stirs up inspiration from a forgotten South African leader at Reves Room Reading

Staff writer

Professor Trent Vinson had only one bad thing to say about Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Luthuli: “He has bad handwriting.”

About 40 people, including deans, professors and students, filled the Reves Room as Professor Trent Vinson passionately recounted the life of forgotten South African human rights leader Albert Luthuli Thursday night.

Like many, Vinson knew little of the man about whom he would write his most recent book: “Albert Luthuli: Mandela Before Mandela.”

His editor asked him to take a few months and write a short book on the activist. But after discovering his personal papers, which had been smuggled into the U.S and kept secret, he went on a five-year quest to bring Luthuli’s life into the light.

“They were extensive. I spent several years looking at those papers. And then I had another problem: this was supposed to be a short book,” Vinson said. “The challenge was to produce the leading scholarship in an accessible form, in a short way. So that’s what I did.”

The Frances L. and Edwin L. Cummings associate professor of history, Africana studies and international relations led a discussion on his work Feb. 21 at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary.

Published in August 2018 by the Ohio University Press, the book details the life and legacy of Luthuli, who became one of the world’s leading proponents of nonviolent civil disobedience during the apartheid struggle in South Africa.

“You really get an inside look at the integrity of this man and the sacrifices he was willing to make,” Vinson said. “Once you start digging into people’s lives, you start finding things that are maybe not so great. I was expecting to find things and I have to say, this was a man of deep integrity, a man of great principle.”

Vinson’s reading was the first of the center’s new Reading in the Reves Room program. Kate Hoving, the center’s public relations manager, said she started the event to highlight the great research done by William and Mary faculty.

“He set the bar high,” Hoving said. “We’re going to do these as we see fit, and we’re hoping to reach out to faculty of all disciplines. The breadth of topics and expertise is so impressive and I think people would want to hear about them.”

Phil Roessler, project leader for the Center for African Development and Economics, and Public Policy Professor Berhanu Abegaz will discuss state-building in Ethiopia in the Reves Room April 11.

Hispanic Studies Professor John Riofrio was among those who attended. He said the conversation got him thinking about other inspiring historical figures.

“I have known Trent for years and I respect everything he does. He’s an incredible speaker,” Riofrio said. “As far as the content of his talk, it just has me thinking of role models and how we get inspired.”

Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at sararose.martin@vagazette.com or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.

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