William Cohen

Born in Los Angeles, at age 10 William (Bill) Cohen moved with his mother and younger sister to New York City, and thereafter always considered himself a New Yorker. As a youth, his mother sent him to communist youth camps (notably WoChiCa, Workers’ Children’s Camp), and he went on to become part of the Communist Youth League, but subsequently questioned and then renounced the movement and communism. He was later drafted into the Army, which wished to exclude him because of his communist past, but he sued them on principle, won, and was assigned to work on counter-intelligence at Fort Knox. He attended Brooklyn College, and then went on to pursue higher degrees in history: a Masters at Columbia and a Ph.D at New York University. After his Ph.D, he moved to Chicago to study the history of race relations with the famed historian John Hope Franklin. It was there that he met Margaret (Margie) Proctor, whom he married in December 1972.

In 1971, he accepted a position as a history professor at Hope College, in Holland, MI, where he would spend the rest of his career. He was known by his students as a passionate and exacting professor, someone who pushed them towards rigor and critical thinking, but who brooked little sympathy for those unwilling to engage with the material. He felt that one of his greatest achievements was coaching the applications of Hope’s top students in their applications for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, in which he achieved an impressive success rate. At the end of his career he also spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar teaching American History in Japan. He continued his research as well throughout his career. His two most notable achievements were his 1960 article, “Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery,” showing that Thomas Jefferson had not treated his slaves in accordance with the principles he espoused on the public stage, and his 1991 book At Freedom’s Edge, a history of black migration during the reconstruction period that showed how both economics and Jim Crow laws drove migration patterns, not just from South to North but also within the South. His 1960 article continues to have an impact, and was indeed one of the first steps in the rethinking of the place of the Founding Fathers in the American Pantheon, a process that continues today and on which Bill himself was decidedly ambivalent.

Despite his professional successes, in later life he considered his greatest achievement to have been his three children, Alan, Elizabeth, and Miriam (Mia). Margie died relatively young in 2000, and in 2007 he found his second partner in life, fellow New York expat Vivian Snapper, with whom he spent 11 happy years. She preceded him in death in 2018. One of his greatest points of pride was the devoted care he provided to both Margie and to Vivian as they each battled with cancer in their final years. After Vivian’s passing, he was particularly close with his friend and neighbor Paul Lane.

Over the last year of his life, he struggled with chronic kidney disease. He passed away peacefully on September 7. He is survived by his three loving children Alan Cohen (Juhong Lee), Elizabeth Cohen (John Spieser), and Mia Franklin (Neal Franklin) and three grandchildren, Soren, Sonny, and Miriel, as well as by his brother-in-law Lewis “Buddy” Proctor (Joyce Smith) and his “adopted” son-in-law Gary Snapper (Nikki Boxer). Funeral services will be held… As a historian of race and immigration, and as someone committed to a just, fair, and open society, he requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent either to United We Dream (https://secure.actblue.com/donate/uwdhomepage?refcode=uwd-header&amount=27.00) or to the Southern Poverty Law Center (https://donate.splcenter.org/).

Hope News: Retired History Professor William Cohen dies

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