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John Spencer Bassett, 1891 | by Duke University Archives
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John Spencer Bassett, 1891

In 1894, John Spencer Bassett, then only 27 years old, joined the Trinity College faculty as Professor of History. Having just completed his doctorate at the Johns Hopkins University, Bassett revitalized the Trinity College Historical Society and served as its president from 1894 until 1906.


During his tenure, Bassett led the effort to start the TCHS Museum, which flourished through donations of relics and manuscripts by students, faculty, and friends of the College. The museum was so successful that it received its own space, including a fireproof vault, with the construction of a new library in 1904. Bassett also created the Historical Papers series in 1897, which published historical essay compilations by students and faculty members of TCHS.


Bassett’s emphasis on collecting was part of his attempt to “put a new spirit into the historical work of the South.” He encouraged an objective, scientific approach to the study of history, and believed that in order to remain non-partisan, scholars had to use original sources and always maintain a “devotion to truth.” Bassett may be best known for his controversial article, “Stirring Up the Fires of Race Antipathy,” which praised African American accomplishments while brainstorming ideas for improved race relations. This article resulted in calls for his dismissal. Trinity College refused his resignation, however, and the “Bassett Affair” became a landmark episode for ensuring academic freedom in higher education.


Bassett left Trinity College in 1906 for a post at Smith College in Massachusetts. His scholarship continued and in 1919, he began serving as secretary of the American Historical Association. He held that post until his death in Washington DC, in 1928.


Professor Bassett's papers may be found at the Duke University Archives (Inventory of the John Spencer Bassett Collection)


Repository: Duke University Archives. Durham, North Carolina, USA.

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Taken on March 2, 2007