Member of the Week: Jessica Elfenbein

unnamedJessica Elfenbein

Professor of History

University of South Carolina

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

I’m working on a community study of a now-disappeared place called Ferguson, SC. In the decades following Reconstruction, Chicago lumbermen Benjamin F. Ferguson (1840-1905) and Francis Beidler (1854-1924) made their way to South Carolina, acquired–at bargain prices–significant land (eventually totaling more than 200,000 acres), and began Santee River Cypress Lumber Company (SRCLC). The forest products the company generated were part of an international flow of commodities and helped make personal fortunes, national taste in home furnishings, and the town of Ferguson, South Carolina itself. Built out of the swamp as headquarters for SRCLC (one of the South’s largest lumber enterprises), Ferguson thrived as a company town for more than a quarter century. At its peak as many as 2,500 people from around the world lived and worked there, including local farmers who recast themselves as industrial workers, lumber experts who relocated from the North and Midwest, and Greek and Italian immigrants recruited by labor agents at Ellis Island.

Abandoned by SRCLC in the late 1910s, two decades later Ferguson became part of a New Deal rural electrification and public works project. The damning of the Santee River to build Lakes Marion and Moultrie, then the largest land clearance project on record, required the labor of 12,670 workers and caused the dislocation of 901 African American families. Lake Marion became the final resting place for the town of Ferguson which has now been submerged along the southwestern shore of South Carolina’s largest lake for more than 70 years.

Collaborative work on a Historic Resource Survey for Congaree National Park led me to this topic. The unexpected ties between largely rural South Carolina and cities like Chicago and NYC in the production of commodities, human capital, and philanthropy are fascinating. I am also interested in the environmental and communal costs of this infrastructure project.

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

After 10 years working in university administration, I returned to the faculty last year. I’m teaching Urban History, Public History, and the American History Survey. Next semester I’ll teach our undergraduate historical methods course for the first time. I have always liked the symbiosis of teaching and research. This semester my students and I are researching the residents of Ferguson in 1910 and following their moves to and from the lumber town.

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

I’m just starting Brian McCammack’s Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. His reconceptualization of the Great Migration looks fantastic.

Recently I have been reading a lot about logging, the history of the lumber industry, and company towns.

My most recent article (with Elise Hagesfeld) is “Philanthropic Funds in Baltimore” in Hammack and Smith, eds., American Philanthropic Foundations: Regional Difference and Change, Indiana University Press, 2018.

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

Invite yourself to the party! Historians have so much of value to add to all kinds of urban and civic projects. My experience is that if you expect to be invited you will miss out. Instead you need to know what’s going on in the places in which you have interest and then find ways to get involved. This is especially true for those of us who study urban topics. Our work is relevant but it’s on us to demonstrate our worth. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst that will happen is that you’ll end up exactly where you started. A little moxie and a lot of imagination are tools young scholars need. Flexibility helps, too.

Were there any places or local businesses that you discovered in Columbia, and might not have otherwise, through serving on the Local Arrangments Committee for UHA 2018? Did the experience influence the way you look at the city you call home?

After nearly 20 years in Baltimore, I moved to USC and Columbia, SC about seven years ago. I was a relative newcomer here when I answered the RFP to serve as host for UHA 2018. I knew there was a lot in Columbia and as Local Arrangements co-chair, I have learned much more about this place that delights and confounds expectations. For example, USC’s GLTBQ archival collection is the second largest in the Southeast. It has great material for all kinds of projects.

I have also been pleasantly surprised by the excellent service the UHA has received from ExperienceColumbiaSC, our convention and visitors’ bureau.

Finally, I suspected that Historic Columbia would be a great partner to the UHA, but again, my expectations have been exceeded by the dedication and commitment of Executive Director (and Local Arrangements co-chair) Robin Waites and her staff. I’m no sports fan, but I know for sure that they “punch above their weight.”

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