After returning from his military tour in Vietnam, 25-year-old David Colburn taught history to undergraduates at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill — or at least gave it his best try, when he could raise his voice above the noise.
In 1968, anti-war protests were so intense across campus that young people outside would bang on classroom windows and pound on doors, “and keep that up until you stopped whatever you were doing,” Colburn recalled. “It was clear the nation was racked by Vietnam.”
But Colburn, then a doctoral student in American history, “respected their decision to come out in the streets and say this is wrong — we have to stop,” he told the WUFT journalist Ethan Magoc 50 years later during an interview at the University of Florida.
Our era of tribalism, angry polarization and years of too-close-to-call elections have convinced many Americans that we have become too divided to hold together our democracy. But that’s not what Colburn, a beloved UF professor of American history who died Sept. 18 at the age of 76, taught me and the many other former students mourning him.
He reminded us that despite its name, the United States has been divided for most of its existence. The real problem is not the division, but the tendency to slam the window closed rather than listen to the voices in the noise.
Contrary to our angst over razor-thin election margins, Colburn’s scholarship revealed that America was often at its worse when an easy majority had its way for too long, such as the “Pork Chop gang,” conservative Democrats who dominated the Florida Legislature and fought fair reapportionment and desegregation into the 1960s.
Colburn was convinced that diversity was America and Florida’s exceptional strength. He also believed that the way to overcoming division was to shine light in dark corners, working on the present by helping people understand the past.
A scholar of politics, race and ethnicity, and civil rights, Colburn joined UF’s history faculty in 1972 and spent nearly half a century in every role, including as university provost. For the last seven years, he was director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service, which is devoted to undergraduate training in leadership, service and civic engagement. He was both scholar and teacher, one tirelessly devoted to students. His legacy is an unflinching commitment to the truth — and to the work of listening to how different people experience the same truth, to help find meaning and a just path forward.
He spent his early years in Florida interviewing those involved in the civil rights struggles in communities such as St. Augustine, where black citizens were arrested and violently assaulted for swimming at the public beach. He brought their stories to light in his book Racial Change and Community Crisis: St. Augustine, Florida, 1877-1980. He also wrote books on America’s African-American mayors with his colleague, the UF historian Jeffrey Adler, and on Florida’s African-American heritage with his former student, the Vanderbilt historian Jane Landers. As one of the authors of Florida’s Rosewood Report in 1993, an inquiry into the 1923 destruction of the town of Rosewood, he helped push Florida to approve unprecedented reparations for racial violence.
Rosewood “was a way to connect his scholarship to a real-world problem,” said fellow UF historian Paul Ortiz. “How do you heal a horrible injustice? It turns out to be through a lot of listening, and then collaborating.”
Truth was only the first step. “The task of the historian is not just to state or identify the facts, but to give them meaning,” said Matthew Jacobs, Colburn’s successor as director of the Graham Center. “David was a master in helping people find meaning in even uncomfortable facts.”
As the center’s director at the close of his career, Colburn convened public conversations on all manner of topics, from race to Vietnam. He appreciated last year’s panel of Vietnam veterans with widely divergent views on the war “because he saw that he had helped create a space where people could work through very different beliefs with a sense of dignity,” said Ortiz.
But more than anything else, Colburn was drawn to his rewarding last leadership role by the undergraduates served by the Graham Center. He often said our work was to help UF students “develop the tools of discernment.” For nearly 50 years, he inspired generations of students to listen to the voices through the noise.
Cynthia Barnett, an environmental author working on her fourth book, was David Colburn’s graduate student and later returned to work with him as an environmental fellow at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service.