Horatio Viscount “Berky” Nelson Jr. (1939-2015)

Berky Nelson
Courtesy Christopher Nelson, Fair use image
“Image Ownership: Christopher Nelson”

Horatio Viscount “Berky” Nelson was a widely recognized scholar of 20th Century African American political history and particularly class dynamics in the modern black community. His first major work, The Rise and Fall of Modern Black Leadership, was a searing critique of the inability of twentieth century black leaders to fully explicate the true horrific conditions facing the black underclass. Nelson’s work argues that the social conditions of poverty, high rates of incarceration, and deteriorating family structure needed leaders who devised strategies that would ameliorate these conditions. He listed the many leaders who developed those strategies and those who in his opinion did not.

Dr. Nelson furthered examined the class dilemma of African Americans in his second major work, Black Leadership’s Response to the Great Depression in Philadelphia. Here he analyzed the symbiotic relationship between the black educated class and the black proletariat. This work revealed that if the economic fortunes of the working class declined, it often had a more detrimental impact on black professionals such as physicians, lawyers, and small entrepreneurs, than among other racial or ethnic groups.

Dr. Nelson’s last work continued his interests in the black dispossessed. This monograph, Sharecropping, Ghetto, and Slum: A History of Impoverished Blacks in Twentieth-Century America, was written as he battled terminal cancer and thus became his final gift to the historical study of the black underclass. Written with great compassion, Dr. Nelson crafted a narrative which explained why what he called the “unlettered masses” of impoverished blacks deliberately fought to maintain true “black cultural norms” in the face of middle class black leaders who promoted what would become known as “respectability politics” which roundly condemned such norms.

Entertainer Bill Cosby promoted “respectability politics” in his May 17, 2004 speech at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. in an NAACP commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools. Nelson argued that the working class blacks Cosby criticized in that speech maintained their cultural norms precisely because they were effective in dealing with the debilitating impact of past and ongoing racism. Thus his final work revealed a deep empathy for black workers as they faced the racist brutality imposed upon them through the dire social conditions they experienced every day.

Horatio Viscount “Berky” Nelson, the staunch defender of the black working class was himself born on July 10, 1939 in Oxford, Pennsylvania to Viscount Nelson, Sr. and Leanna Nelson Johnson. He married Joan Kathleen Ricks of Philadelphia in 1964 and they had two sons, Christopher V. Nelson and Berk W. Nelson. At his undergraduate institution, West Chester University, Nelson became a world-class middle distance track runner. He attained his M.A. and Ph.D. in American History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and 1969, respectively. In addition, he had a successful teaching career at Dartmouth College before embarking on a highly distinguished administrative career at U.C.L.A. where he was the Director of the Campus Program and Activities Office for over forty years. In this position, Dr. Nelson helped steer the university safely during the turbulent decades of student unrest and helped establish a campus which embraced multi-culturalism and diversity.  Nelson was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and Sigma Pi Psi fraternities.

Horatio Viscount “Berky” Nelson died on October 5, 2015 at his home in Los Angeles, California. He was 76.