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Baltimore writer Steve Luxenberg wins $30,000 Lukas Prize

Steve Luxenberg, shown in a 2009 file photo, won the 2016 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Award.
Steve Luxenberg, shown in a 2009 file photo, won the 2016 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Award.(Jed Kirschbaum / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore author Steve Luxenberg on Wednesday picked up a prestigious plum — a 2016 J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Award and $30,000 to finish his second book.

The award, given annually to a work in progress, will help Luxenberg finish researching and writing "Separate," which focuses on the people behind the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case that permitted "separate but equal" treatment based on race.

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The award citation praised Luxenberg's manuscript as "'big history,' deeply researched and well told" and noted:

"Generations of scholars have studied the ruling that upheld an 1890 Louisiana law that mandated separate railroad cars for 'whites' and 'coloreds.' Steve Luxenberg's interwoven narrative takes the story in a new direction, providing illuminating answers to fundamental questions."

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In addition to Luxenberg's prize, two other writers won awards of $10,000 for books they've already published: Susan Southard, an Arizona writer and theater director, for "Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War" and Nikolaus Wachsmann, a London history professor, for "KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps."

The awards, which will be presented May 10, honor American nonfiction writing. They have been awarded annually since 1998 by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

"There's nothing modern about some of the conversations about race we're having today," said Luxenberg, who is on a leave of absence from his editing job at The Washington Post.

"One hundred and fifty years ago, a quite lively discussion about race was going on in public and private. Plessy has to be seen as the culmination of the Civil War and unresolved questions about what it meant to abolish slavery and embrace equality."

When "Separate" is released by W.W. Norton & Co. in early 2018, it will become Luxenberg's second published book. His first, "Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret," came out in 2009.

Though many books have explored the legal ramifications of Plessy, widely considered one of the worst Supreme Court rulings of all time, Luxenberg said that his book is different because it delves deeply into the human side of the story.

"I'm not writing from a legal point of view," Luxenberg said. "I write about the people who got swept up in the case. It's the arc of their lives I'm interested in, how their views evolved as they lived through the Civil War, the Reconstruction and the changing relationship between the North and the South."

He's fascinated by the apparent contradictions — a white civil rights advocate designed the legal strategy for Plessy. One of only two Southerners on the court* wrote the lone dissent.

"Every morning, I have to look at the world through the eyes of the people who lived at the time and not through my own eyes, and that's quite challenging," Luxenberg said.

For instance, "in the 19th century, the word 'segregation' was never used," he said. "The word people said instead was 'separation.' "

Before he joined The Washington Post, Luxenberg was a reporter and editor for The Baltimore Sun from 1974 to 1985. He and his wife live in Lauraville.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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*Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of Southerners on the Supreme Court at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson. The Sun regrets the error. 

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