Member of the Week: Betsy Schlabach

headshot schlabachBetsy Schlabach

Associate Professor of History and African & African American Studies

Earlham College

@schlabetsy

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My current book traces African-American women’s use of policy gambling to navigate racism, sexism, and capitalism in Black Chicago between 1890-1960. Policy structured economic and gender relations there, where participation in the formal economy was tenuous and unstable—or plain back-breaking. Policy was a viable option for the overwhelming amount of women who confronted a lack of opportunities to get ahead legitimately in the primary economy. I rely on archival collections from the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and National Archives, as well as arrest records and police reports from the Archives Department of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, to show that Chicago’s policy women—the wives, the queens, the runners, the gamblers and conjurers—capitalized on both their tenuous relationship to the economy and the men in their lives to capture unheard of possibilities.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I’m teaching a first-year writing seminar on the Underground Railroad, with a focus on Eastern Indiana-Ohio history. I’m also teaching an upper-level survey course, African-American History to 1865. These courses, at first, don’t seem very related to my research on policy gambling but both push students to reconsider the legacies of escape. Escape informs the ways in which gambling, as part of the informal economy, unfolded in major urban centers such as Chicago, Harlem, and Washington, D.C. The Great Migration starts with these radical acts of self-emancipation and results in innovations to capitalism. Isabel Wilkerson charts this amazing chronology in her book The Warmth of Other Suns. I also push my students through various writing and digital assignments to reflect on the ways in which the past informs their present, especially our relationships in urban spaces. For example, my Underground Railroad students have to complete a digital storytelling project exploring the parallels between present-day issues such as Sanctuary Cities and the Underground Railroad.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

Keisha N. Blain, the editor of the wonderful blog Black Perspectives, recently released her book Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (Penn 2018). It is on my must-read list as is Tera W. Hunter’s Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard, 2017). I’m also rereading Rashauna Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis: Unfree Labor in New Orleans during the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, 2016). The latter is helping me craft a collaborative faculty/undergraduate research seminar on the History of New Orleans. I appreciate her use of digital humanities to help us reconceptualize the relationship between race, labor, and the urban geography of New Orleans.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

I can offer words of advice on balancing the demands of your institution while satisfying your own research agenda. I have found that the best way to balance my commitment to research and the demands of teaching at intensive small liberal arts intuitions like Earlham College is to follow academic blogs like this one or others such as Black Perspectives and to start networking on Twitter. This became my way to keep on top of the debates in my fields and keep me informed of relevant publications when I can’t devote a lot of time to reading scholarly monograph after scholarly monograph or traveling to conferences.

I’ll also offer a plea: if you find yourself in a place where you can take advantage of the benefits of tenure-track employment turn your focus to the tireless advocacy for contingent laborers in our field–the adjuncts, visiting assistant professors, and short-term contracts. There is no better place to focus our efforts.

Your current work is on gambling. What’s the best story you’ve seen during your research about how someone spent their winnings? 

Most people who won from policy drawings used their money to place more bets—this was how policy writers (those who solicited bets door to door throughout the neighborhood) made their living. Their goal was hook patrons on the excitement of the drawings and small kickback winnings. But by far the most incredible story comes from the famous Jones Brothers in Chicago. The brothers, with help from their mother, owned and operated several policy wheels all over Chicago pulling in millions of dollars annually. In the late 1940s their family had several run-ins with the Italian mafia forcing them out of the city. The family matriarch, Harriet Lee Jones, moved the family to Mexico City where they opened up a very successful car dealership and textile factory. Harriet and her boys were tireless and very successful entrepreneurs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s