Dr Michael Ondaatje’s research into influential black conservatives challenges the one-dimensional view of African American activism.

Heroes and villains

Dr Michael Ondaatje's research into influential black conservatives challenges the one-dimensional view of African American activism.

Michael Ondaatje with the American flag and photographs 

When Dr Michael Ondaatje visited Huntsville, Alabama, early this year he was surprised to discover he was the first academic to delve into the personal archives of a man he regards as one of the key black figures of 19th Century African American history.

William Hooper Councill was a self-educated African American who rose from slavery to establish a newspaper, a university for black students, gain admittance to the bar and achieve political influence within America and beyond. Yet, despite his achievements, he has been largely overlooked in history because he was considered to be a conservative and white sympathiser who, as Ondaatje explains, "didn't fit the heroic liberator mode" of activists such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ondaatje has been awarded a grant from the United States Studies Centre, in Sydney, to research a biography of Councill, which he believes will shed new light on a neglected chapter in the history of the African American struggle – the role of black conservatives.

"When you look into Councill's papers and newspaper reports of the time you get a sense of him being someone who grappled seriously with the racial dilemmas around him," Ondaatje points out. "He corresponded with black leaders around the country, he travelled to Europe to advise governments in the UK and Belgium on their colonial education systems and he instigated a landmark court case against black segregation on public transport.

"He was an important and widely known figure, but by the mid 20th Century, when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, he slipped into obscurity. It was as if he was airbrushed out of history because he didn't fit the mould of a protest-type leader."

Ondaatje contends that conservative African American figures such as Councill, while arguably flawed, made significant contributions to the advancement of civil rights but have been viewed with suspicion or disregarded by historians because of their political beliefs.

"The way black history has evolved since the civil rights era is an utter rejection of what Councill stood for and historians have fallen into line with that. But, if you want to recover the black historical past as it was, rather than how you want it to be, then you have to reckon with some people and ideas that are perhaps uncomfortable."

Interestingly, it was reading about heroic liberators such as Martin Luther King that sparked a teenage Ondaatje's interest in African American history. As a history undergraduate at the University of Western Australia, he became fascinated by the motivations of black conservatives and devoted his doctoral studies to the subject, winning the prestigious Robert Street Prize for the best PhD across all disciplines at the University in 2008.

Ondaatje was appointed to the University of Newcastle in 2008, and in 2010 released the book Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America, one of the year's 20 bestselling titles in the field of American history. It attracted many favourable reviews, with the influential Journal of American History describing it as "a first-rate evenhanded account of black conservatism that will likely be a pivotal work on the topic for years to come."

Ondaatje believes that while his research presents "a less romantic view of African American history", it is important to portray the variation of views and responses to civil rights issues.

"This biography will reveal that there were blacks within conservative frameworks who believed they were advocating in the best interests of their community but worked in different ways to the protest-type leaders," he argues.

"They all sought the same ends, but the argument was about how they got there. To me that is interesting because that is the process of history, really – how we get there."