Andrew Bunie (1931–2012)

Patricia Sullivan, September 2012

Andrew Bunie. Photo by Lee Pellegrini.Historian of African American Life and Leaders

Born in Manchester, New Hampshire on June 21, 1931, Andrew "Andy" Bunie* was the eighth and youngest child of Ukrainian immigrants, Nicholas Bunie and Cecile Makar. His parents "could neither read nor write in any language but gave it their all as laborers," Bunie wrote. Following high school, he went to work in a meat packing plant, but in 1952 he enlisted in the Army and served in the Korean conflict. After returning briefly to his job, he enrolled at the University of New Hampshire under the GI bill. He earned a BA and an MA in history and married fellow UNH student Joyce Kelly. Bunie taught and coached at the Hatch School in Newport, Rhode Island for two years before starting his doctoral studies in history at the University of Virginia in 1961.

In considering how Andy Bunie—white and working class—became a historian of the African American experience, August Meier and Elliott Rudwick wrote in Black History and the Historical Profession: "What opened his eyes about racial matters was the positive experience he had with black soldiers after steps were taken to desegregate the Army during the Korean War." A black roommate at the University of New Hampshire "furthered his education about black life." But it was the civil rights protests of the early sixties, while Bunie was studying for his doctorate at Virginia under Edward Younger "that provided the catalyst for his dissertation" on "The Negro in Virginia Politics."

The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1902-1965, his revised dissertation, was published in 1967. Raymond Gavins recently described this work as "a seminal interpretation of race relations and black electoral and freedom struggles, from statutory disfranchisement to the civil rights and voting rights acts. Deeply researched, it established Andy as an intellectual trailblazer in Virginia, African American, and Southern history." It remains the standard work on the subject.

Andy taught at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia after completing his PhD, and accepted a position at Boston College in 1968; he was the school's first specialist in black history. He actively promoted the hiring of black faculty and the expansion of black studies and was attentive to the challenges facing black students at the predominantly white institution. Bunie fought bigotry and intolerance in its various guises, and was on the forefront of efforts to hire more women as well as gay and lesbian faculty. Beyond Boston College, he taught history at Walpole Prison and the Concord, Massachusetts correctional facility.

A long distance runner who ran the Boston marathon each spring, Andy was a dynamic, innovative, and enthusiastic teacher. He focused on a broad array of topics including immigration, race, the South, the urban experience, the history of jazz and the history of film. He never lectured or read from notes, but engaged in rigorous discussion about books, readings, and ideas, roaming widely, challenging assumptions, and drawing on students' knowledge and experience. The city became the classroom for a course he created on the history of Boston and its neighborhoods; it was one of the university's most popular courses. Bunie developed a course on the history of sports in America with student athletes in mind and it became a favorite among undergraduates. When his efforts to motivate a football player who was failing his class revealed that the student's mother might be helpful, Andy covered expenses to fly her to Boston from Alabama for a three way meeting. The student was soon earning B's in the class.

The black experience and the formative role of race in American life and history were at the center of Bunie's scholarship and teaching. His second book, Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism was hailed as "a major landmark in the biographies of black journalists." The book recovered the history of one of the foremost leaders of black America during the interwar years while also providing a rich history of the Pittsburgh Courier, which was the most widely-circulated black newspaper in the United States by the 1930s. Al Tony Gilmore wrote that Bunie's Robert L. Vann provided "a conceptual framework" that should be "the standard" for such studies.

In the mid-1970s, Bunie began work on a biography of Paul Robeson, a remarkable journey that literally took him around the world and across the country, interviewing people who had known Robeson in various capacities. It was my good fortune to be Andy's research assistant then, and one of my assignments introduced me to a generation of southerners who would become the focus of my own research. Andy's dedicated efforts to learn all he could about Robeson and his life would not yield to deadlines, and extended the timeframe for writing the book. In 1981 Sheila Tully Boyle began working with Bunie as a writer and editor, and became coauthor of Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement, published in 2001. This book, the first of an anticipated two volume study, chronicles Robeson's life to 1940. It is an achievement which reflects Andy's deep immersion in the worlds of Robeson—from the Robeson family roots in North Carolina and early years in New Jersey, through Harlem and the New York theatre scene in the 1920s, concert tours and life abroad, and the merging of art and politics during the pivotal decade of the 1930s.

A memorial service commemorating and celebrating Andrew Bunie's life was hosted by his family and the Boston College history department on April 21, 2012. Andy's students, friends and colleagues remain grateful to the family, particularly his wife, Joyce Kelly Buni, and their four children, Jack, Catherine, Jim and Nick. Remembering his father, Jim Buni accompanied himself on guitar and sang "There But for Fortune," a poignant expression of the deep humanity that infused Andy's life and work.

—Patricia Sullivan
University of South Carolina

*Bunie previously had the last name Buni.