After his freshman year at Princeton University, Robert Engs spent the summer working at Colonial Williamsburg, where the mission is “That the future may learn from the past.” Engs, now a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent more than 40 years of his life fulfilling that mission -- teaching and researching African-American history and the post-bellum South.
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Last semester, Engs brought his years of expertise to William & Mary to serve as the Visiting Harrison Professor in the department of history. In that role, he taught a seminar course and conducted research on the College’s own history.
A researcher on the post-bellum era and the responses of freed people and white Southerners to emancipation, Engs has a special interest in the roles of education, religion and the missionaries in the emancipation process, according to the Penn Web site. He has written numerous articles and books, including “Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Va., 1861-1863,” and he has developed an electronic archive on the middle 19th century, titled “The Crisis of the Union Archives.” He is currently editing a collection of Civil War letters.
Engs, who received his doctorate in history from Yale University in 1972, is a former Guggenheim and William Penn Fellow, and a recipient of the Lindback Award for Excellence in Teaching. At Penn, he directed a president’s forum titled “The Enduring Significance of Race,” and he served as undergraduate chair of the history department and co-chair of the Afro-American Studies Program. Engs lectures for community organizations and historically black colleges, and he helps public schools develop their curricula on African-American history and social studies.
Engs’ historical expertise and ties to the area’s community made him an ideal candidate to come back to Williamsburg and move forward ongoing efforts for the College explore its own past.
“My understanding was that the College of William and Mary wanted to speak to the issue of the past ownership of slaves and the current state of race relations at the College and with the community,” said Engs, who formed a working group with William and Mary faculty and staff who were interested in the topic and had already conducted related research. The group’s work will help guide campus conversations and future projects that will continue to explore the College’s history.
“There’s been some excellent research that people have done,” said Engs.
In addition to the research, Engs brought his expertise to the classroom and taught a course in the fall semester that explored the Civil War experience as described by black and white Southerners, mostly from the Tidewater area. This was not the first time that Engs, who has family in the Williamsburg area, has taught at the College. About 20 years ago, he served as the Commonwealth Visiting Professor at the College. And, long before that, he made connections to people who would one day be the College’s top administrators. He was classmates with both William and Mary President Taylor Reveley and Provost Geoff Feiss at Princeton. The three were all members of the Class of 1965.
However, Engs did not know Feiss while at Princeton. In fact, it was through Engs’ sister, who knows Feiss through the “All Together” organization, that the two met. All Together is an organization that seeks to “bring together the people of the Greater Williamsburg area across racial lines,” according to its Web site. Feiss serves as the president of its board of directors.
“William & Mary was fortunate to have a historian of Robert Engs’ stature come to our campus, interact with our students and work closely with the campus community on this important research,” Feiss said. “His work will help guide our discussions as we continue to discuss and examine our own history.”
Engs said he enjoyed his semester at William & Mary and that it felt almost like he was in a “different country” being away from Philadelphia for a semester, where he has served on the Penn faculty since 1972.
Engs, who will receive emeritus status at Penn this semester, said he was very impressed with level of cooperation that he received from everyone during his time at the College.
“This could have been a terrible job, but it’s gone in my mind very smoothly,” he said. “I think it says a lot about the commitment of the faculty and administration.”