At the 1983 annual meeting in San Francisco of the American Historical Association (AHA), of which he was president, Philip D. Curtin threw a hardball at his fellow professors.

"Graduate schools, with very few exceptions," he said, "do nothing at all to prepare history teachers to handle the kind of courses students need in order to understand the world they live in."

As a recipient that year of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, he might have earned the right to speak his mind.

On June 4, Mr. Curtin, 87, a scholar of the Africa-to-Americas slave trade, died of pneumonia at Chester County Hospital. He lived at Cartmel in the Kendal-Crosslands retirement community near Longwood Gardens.

In that 1983 AHA speech, Mr. Curtin was just as hard on advisers to President Ronald Reagan as he was on his scholarly colleagues.

"From the heights of power in the White House," Mr. Curtin said, "we find portrayed a simplistic, tripartite division of the world into ourselves, our enemies, and the rest."

The rest, he said, "do not count, even though they form the vast majority of the world's population."

Not everyone "in the federal government [is] as badly informed as Mr. Reagan's circle of advisers," Mr. Curtin said, but "the national leadership lacks long-term understanding of historical change."

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Curtin graduated from the George School in Bucks County, said his wife, Anne, and served as a merchant marine radio operator in the Mediterranean and the Pacific during World War II.

He earned a bachelor's degree in history from Swarthmore College in 1948 and a doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1953; his dissertation was Revolution and Decline in Jamaica, 1830-1865.

He also taught at Swarthmore for two academic years, his wife said.

Then he made his mark from 1956 to 1975 at the University of Wisconsin, where he and a colleague began a department of African languages and literature, which the AHA called the first in the nation.

From 1975 to 1998, he was the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In May 1998, shortly before his retirement that year, the Johns Hopkins Gazette reported that he was "perhaps regarded most for [books] focusing on the Atlantic slave trade between 1600 and 1800."

In an appreciation this month, the AHA stated that Mr. Curtin "made himself a name as a brilliant historian who broke away from the dominant Eurocentric models of historiography of other continents to create a critical and pioneering body of scholarship on Africa, the Atlantic world, the British empire, and comparative history."

The AHA stated that among his most important works were The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Actions, 1780-1850 (1964), The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969), and The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (1990).

Image of Africa won AHA's Schuyler Prize.

Besides his wife, Mr. Curtin is survived by sons Steven, Charles, and Christopher; two brothers; and three grandchildren.

An autumn memorial at Kendal-Crosslands is planned.

Contact staff writer Walter F. Naedele at 215-854-5607 or wnaedele@phillynews.com.