A life of history

Ray Arsenault’s writing chronicles a changing South,
from biographies of civil rights champions to the legendary Arthur Ashe

As Ray Arsenault looks back at the
trajectory of his life, one moment
stands out.

He was studying history at Princeton University and working a student job as a busboy in the dining commons. “After two years if you were a good busboy you could become a captain and make everyone else do the work,” he recalls with a laugh. “The day before they were going to make a decision, I was carrying eight trays of plastic glasses and I tripped on the stairs. I dropped 400 glasses.” That was the end of the captain job.

Ray Arsenault, 2019 Lifetime Literary Award Winner
Ray Arsenault, 2019 Lifetime Literary Award Winner

“But they still had to find a job for me,” Arsenault says. A young history professor named Sheldon Hackney needed a research assistant and hired Arsenault. He would spend the next 2 1/2 years working closely with Hackney, who would go on to become one of the most prominent figures in higher education — youngest Princeton provost, president of Tulane University and the University of Pennsylvania, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and, most importantly for Arsenault, an expert in the history of the American South and the civil rights movement.

“He was an extraordinary figure,” Arsenault says. “It was just the most amazing revelation for me to work for Sheldon. I was deeply touched by his devotion to civil rights and justice. He changed my politics and my view of life. I’ve modeled myself after him for my entire career. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t dropped those glasses!”

Arsenault has had a distinguished academic career of his own. He is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he has taught for 39 years and where he co-founded the Florida Studies Program. He’s written or co-written nine books, including Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Arsenault consulted on a documentary on which it was based, winning three Emmys and a Peabody.

His latest book is Arthur Ashe: A Life, the first definitive biography of the tennis champion and civil rights champion. Barack Obama included it on a list of his favorite books for 2018, and Hollywood has expressed interest in making a feature film. The Washington Post called it “an insightful narrative of the evolution of a remarkable human being” and The New York Times praised it as “a deep, detailed, thoughtful chronicle of one of the country’s best and most important players.” It recently won the Florida Historical Society’s Harry and Harriette Moore Prize, named for the late civil rights activist and his wife whose home was bombed on Christmas night 1951.

Arsenault’s 2010 book, The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, which examined race through a single 1938 concert, is being turned into a documentary for the PBS series American Masters.

That large body of distinguished work has led to Arsenault’s latest honor: co-recipient of the Florida Humanities Council’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award. “I am such a fan of the Humanities Council,” he says. “I’m so proud of what I’ve been able to do with them over the years. Sometimes I wonder if we’d have culture in Florida without them!”

While Hackney had a profound impact on Arsenault’s work, his fascination with the South, and particularly civil rights, can be traced to a Yankee grandmother. “I’ve lived in Florida a good part of my life, but I’m not a Floridian,” Arsenault says. “I was born in Cape Cod, which is about as Yankee as you can get, so I’m really a transplanted New Englander and always thought of myself in that way.”

His father was a naval officer, and the family moved frequently. Arsenault attended 12 schools before graduating from high school. “One year I went to three different schools,” he recalls. “That either kills you or saves you.”

The family moved between North and South, living in very different worlds. “I think I was inevitably confused and curious about the differences. The town on the Cape had a large Cape Verdean population. All colors of the rainbow. Probably as close to an integrated community as you can find in the United States. So I had that point of reference. A lot of friends with dark skin. And then we’d be back in the South, with Jim Crow and segregation cradle to grave.”

His mom’s mom, who often lived with his family during their Southern excursions, had a huge influence on him. When they attended church in Pensacola, “she always insisted we sit in the back row with the black folks. And on the bus in Pensacola, we sat in the back. I thought at the time it was strange,” he says. “But later in life I was very proud of her for that.” She was a spitfire, he says.

Arsenault was attending high school in Fernandina Beach the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “Kids were screaming with joy because they heard he’d been killed and now they wouldn’t have to go to school with black kids,” he says. “I’d never felt so alone in my life. Those things really hit me hard. And when I was a Princeton undergraduate I really got interested in Southern history and civil rights.” He had wanted to be a history professor since he was 11 years old, “if I didn’t make the NBA.” (He was 6 feet tall in 8th grade).

After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton, Arsenault turned down Harvard to attend Brandeis University because it had “the most remarkable history program in the U.S. It was a very small program. You got essentially tutorials.” Its graduates have won six Pulitzers. He was the only Southern historian there.

His first teaching job was at the University of Minnesota. He wife, Kathleen, was a Florida girl — they met in Fernandina Beach — and in 1980, after four brutal winters in Minnesota, “the next thing I knew we were in a U-Haul truck heading for St. Pete. We’ve been here ever since.” Kathleen Arsenault is the retired dean of the USFSP Poynter Library. They have two daughters, Amelia and Anne.