Thaddeus Wilbur ‘Thad’ Tate Jr., 92, W&M professor and Colonial Williamsburg historian

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Thaddeus Wilbur ‘Thad’ Tate Jr., a scholar of colonial Virginia who taught in William & Mary’s history department and served in many capacities at the Institute of Early American History and Culture (later the Omohundro Institute), died Saturday morning, April 8, 2017. He was weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.

Survivors include his stepmother, Lib Tate of Clemmons, N.C.; first cousin, Patricia Tate Weaver of Winston-Salem, N.C.; cousins, Jane Norman, Jim Adkins, Virginia Compton and Bill Tate; his namesake and godson, Charles Thaddeus Crowe Jr., of Jacksonville, Fla., and his namesake, Thaddeus Allen Nichols of Hyde Park, Utah.

Thad Tate was born May 27, 1924, in Winston Salem, N.C., to Thaddeus W. Tate Sr., and Elizabeth Llewellyn Tate. During his boyhood, his uncle, Edwin Tate, stationmaster at Edgemont, N.C., introduced him to trains and railroading, which became one of his lifetime passions. His tour of service as a Navy cryptographer in the Pacific in World War II interrupted his undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, but once discharged, he returned to college.

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in 1947, followed by an M.A. in 1948. His keen interest in early American history led him to subscribe to the William and Mary Quarterly, thus inaugurating a relationship with the journal and the Institute and its founding sponsors, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the College of William & Mary, that would frame his professional life. His would be one of the most consequential tenures in the institute’s history.

Following the completion of his master’s degree, Thad began an important association with public history, first working for the National Park Service at Colonial National Historical Park at Yorktown, moving next to Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia and finally to Colonial Williamsburg.

He was a research associate from 1954 to 1957, and then assistant director of research from 1957 to 1961 for Colonial Williamsburg, authoring reports on such subjects as “Funerals in Eighteenth-Century Virginia.” He also served as the research historian for The Story of a Patriot, the 1957 Hollywood production that has introduced generations of visitors to the historic area. Tate also had a brief ‘star turn’ appearance in the film.

After earning his Ph.D. from Brown University in 1960, he joined the faculty at William & Mary, where he was promoted to associate professor in 1964 and professor in 1969. During these years, he taught early Virginia and early American history while also serving as book review editor from 1961 to 1966 and editor from 1966 to 1972 of the WMQ and holding a variety of positions in the College, including that of faculty marshal. In 1972, he became director of the Institute of Early American History and Culture. His leadership expanded and solidified important aspects of the Institute, including its financial and governing structures and its commitment to a fellowship program that enlarged its outreach to early career scholars and to the field of early American studies.

Tate’s scholarly focus on early Virginia included published articles in the WMQ and elsewhere about Virginia in the American Revolution. His monograph, The Negro in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg Research Studies, 1966) formed the basis for the integration of the African American experience into the Foundation’s programming. During a period of intensifying scholarly interest in the early Chesapeake, he co-edited (with David Ammerman) and contributed to a collection of essays summarizing the field, The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays in Anglo-American Society (1979). He subsequently joined fellow students of Edmund Morgan at Brown, David D. Hall and John Murrin, in co-editing and contributing to Saints and Revolutionaries: Essays on Early American History (1984).

In 1990, he published Colonial Virginia: a History with his student-turned-colleague and friend, Warren Billings, and another W&M and Institute colleague, John E. Selby. A number of Tate’s early scholarly interests broadened during his lifetime into vital areas of inquiry; a lifelong love of hiking and the outdoors, for example, spurred his interest in environmental history.

During his academic career, he held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia. He chaired William & Mary’s Tercentenary Committee to mark the College’s charter in 1689, and was an author of the two-volume history published to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary. After retiring from William & Mary and the Institute in 1989, Tate served for the next three years as the founding Director of the Commonwealth Center for the Study of American Culture at William & Mary. In recognition of his distinguished service, William & Mary awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at Charter Day 2011.

Tate was a longtime member of the Bruton Parish congregation, and had served on the vestry. He participated actively in the Episcopal Church Historical Society, served as president of that organization and received an honorary doctorate from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church. His many friends and colleagues remember him as an avid traveler who enjoyed long train trips, in particular a journey by rail across Australia.

“A Conversation with Thad Tate,” edited by Fredrika J. Teute from interviews she conducted with him, appeared in the April 1993 WMQ. In these discussions, Thad noted that of all the positions he had held, being editor of the Quarterly was the most meaningful. “In bringing an author’s work to publication,” he said, “you’re filling a role in the advancement of scholarship that isn’t filled any other way.” Advancing scholarship has been the central mission of the Institute since its founding. Thad Tate’s role in securing that mission’s future is a key legacy for early Americanists in Williamsburg and far beyond.

A memorial service will take place at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 20, at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Va. Following the memorial service, these published reflections will be posted on the Institute’s website, along with other memorials to Thad Tate, in celebration and appreciation of his life and career.