Tag Archives: Crime and Criminality

Member of the Week: Tammy Ingram

B&W_Web--2Tammy Ingram

Associate Professor of History

College of Charleston

@tammyingram

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

I’m working on a new book that’s tentatively titled The Wickedest City in America: Sex, Race, and Organized Crime in the Jim Crow South. It’s about Phenix City, Alabama, a small city in the southern part of the state that served as the headquarters for a large organized crime network during the first half of the twentieth century. Most people had never heard of Phenix City before the summer of 1954, when a crime-fighting local attorney named Albert Patterson was assassinated just days after winning the Democratic primary to become the state’s new attorney general. The murder inspired a Hollywood feature film and forced state officials to intervene and clean up the city after years of looking the other way. More than 700 people were indicted in the cleanup, including the three prominent public officials charged with Patterson’s murder. One was the attorney general of Alabama. He checked himself into a mental hospital in Texas to evade prosecution, but the highly publicized trials of his accomplices, the deputy sheriff and the circuit solicitor, exposed the sordid details of the city’s long history of crime and corruption and kept Phenix City in the news for nearly a year.

Like most people I have always associated organized crime with urban centers outside of the South, so the revelation that a small city of 20,000 people in Alabama was run by a homegrown mob surprised me. But I only decided to write a book about it when I realized that this sensational murder story was but the ending to larger and more important story about white crime in the Jim Crow South. Generations of ordinary white citizens and elected officials in Phenix City participated in criminal enterprises that ranged from gambling to narcotics to a black market adoption scheme, and they were shielded from prosecution by the same Jim Crow governments that were criminalizing black southerners. The reverence for local control among white supremacists in the South protected criminal regimes like the one in Phenix City from outside scrutiny or criticism. I think this also helps to explain how Phenix City remade itself in the wake of scandal. Newspapers and tabloids called it “Sin City, U.S.A.” and the “wickedest city in America” after the Patterson murder case exposed its secrets, but less than a year after the murder Phenix City received an All-America City Award for the crime cleanup. Everyone wanted to forget what had happened there, and almost everyone did.

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

I teach both graduate and undergraduate courses on the modern South, race and politics, and crime and punishment, so there’s not much space between what I do in the classroom and what I do at my desk. And I love that. My current research into sex trafficking and illegal adoptions in Phenix City in the 1940s and 1950s inspired a new seminar on modern slavery and human trafficking that I taught last year while I was a research fellow at the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale. While those students were developing their own research papers, I worked alongside them on my own. That paper ended up being an article that I completed over the summer. In my regular courses, I incorporate new scholarship into lectures and class discussions, but I also do primary source workshops with things I’ve found in the archives. Students seeing those sources for the first time have sharp questions and insights that I incorporate into my research and writing all the time.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about?

Right now I’m also reading everything I can find on underground economies. I love LaShawn Harris’s new book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, but I’m also really excited to read similar work by non-Americanists, like Andrew Konove’s Black Market Capital: Urban Politics and the Shadow Economy in Mexico City. If anyone reading this has more suggestions, send them my way.

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

The most important piece of advice that I can give to any young scholar is to write a lot and share that work widely and often. Submit to journals and presses, sure, but write shorter essays and op-eds and blogs for the kinds of media outlets and general publications that you like to read. Give conference papers or brown bag talks or lectures even when your work is not yet polished, as scary as that is, and do it with scholars and citizens and policymakers outside of your main field of interest. This is especially important in this challenging job market—a sore subject, I know—because you may discover job opportunities or publishing opportunities that you wouldn’t know about if you stayed in the same lane all the time. And you’re bound to get feedback that you are never going to get if you only share your work with your closest advisors and classmates and colleagues.

Your first book was on the Dixie Highway, the nation’s first interstate highway system. Can you suggest a road trip itinerary that urban historians would enjoy?

Oh, I love this question. Of course I have to recommend at least a portion of the Dixie Highway. Very little of the original roadbed is left, but you can drive much of the original route between Chicago and Miami. Whether you choose the eastern or western division of the highway, it’s a meandering route that will take you through ghost towns and railroad towns and straight through the middle of major urban centers like Indianapolis and Atlanta, so it’s a great way to see how towns and cities were linked in the 1910s and 1920s, when long distance automobile travel was a newfangled concept. Motorists skipped from town to town hoping their cars would get them to the next fueling station or hotel or auto camp before dark. I especially love the route through middle Georgia, where portions of the original roadbed survive, and in South Florida. I’ve never driven the entire thing, but anyone who wants to make a long road trip out of it should call me. If they want to do it on motorcycles, even better.

Member of the Week: Joe Merton

P1000726Joe Merton

Department of History

University of Nottingham

 

 

 

 

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

I’m currently working on a project which examines a perceived crisis of crime, particularly street crime, in 1960s and 1970s New York City, and its role in transforming the city’s politics, public policy norms and modes of governance, built environment and media cultures. You can find a recent example of my research in the Journal of Policy History, which examines the role of public and political anxieties over crime in undermining a culture of expertise in New York politics and policy during the Lindsay years. I was initially hooked in by the image of the infamous ‘Fear City’ campaign run by some of the city’s police officers during the fiscal crisis and widespread austerity of the mid-late 1970s, as well as the symbolic power New York holds in shaping the image we hold of the contemporary city and the promise and perils that lie within it. Yet there’s also something about this period more broadly which seems so fluid, so transformative, and so crucial to the making of our own times and our own cities today: it really is a critical juncture in contemporary history. I wanted my work to be part of that.

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

I teach a final year, full-year course on narratives of crisis and decline in the 1970s United States called Life During Wartime (I’m a Talking Heads fan). We look at the construction of various political and cultural narratives of crisis in the 1970s, from Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of imminent environmental disaster to neoconservative warnings of the impending ‘Finlandization’ of the United States; the pathologies of the urban crisis to the perceived failures of public policy in areas such as welfare or prisons. This is what we in British history departments call a Special Subject, with a strong emphasis on the analysis and discussion of primary sources. It is extremely rewarding to teach, as each year my students come up with new and amazing ways of conceptualising or making sense of the 1970s from their readings of original sources, much of which work to inform my own research (even if they also regularly complain how “gloomy” and “depressing” the content is!).

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

I really enjoyed Brian Tochterman’s recent book on cultural and political representations of post-war New York, The Dying City. It offers such a diverse and wide-ranging insight into the various narratives of fear, pathology and even death which worked to construct a particular image of New York, taking us from film and literature to planning documents and public policy discussions. I also enjoyed the recent collection of articles in Journal of Urban History on New York City after the fiscal crisis, edited by Jonathan Soffer and Themis Chronopoulos, each of which do much to challenge many of our prior understandings of the crisis and the rather loose or imprecise labels – neoliberalism, conservatism, gentrification – we use to conceptualise it. The series also, like Kim Phillips-Fein’s recent book, finally gives us an account of how ordinary New Yorkers experienced the crisis, and its role – sometimes deliberate, at other times inadvertent – in establishing many of the city’s contemporary problems and inequalities.

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

Put yourself out there. It’s not easy, and often intimidating, when you’re starting out, but attend conferences and seminars, submit your work for review, and don’t be afraid to approach others, even senior scholars, with questions, advice, or simply to introduce yourself and your work. The encounters and exchanges you have will undoubtedly enrich your work. On a similar note, don’t forget where you have come from. You were once that irritating undergraduate determined to perfect their coursework or borrow that book. Likewise, you were once that sessional teaching assistant on a poorly-paid, fixed-term contract with little time for marking and teaching preparation, let alone research. Provide counsel and advice, lend support – especially to those new to the game or on short-term contracts – and be as giving of your time as others were to you.

What item/idea/trend/attitude would you bring back from the 1970s, and what enduring item/idea/trend/attitude from that decade do you wish hadn’t followed us into the present?

What a question. I would certainly argue that our diminishing faith or trust in a particularly academic or professional form of expertise – a trend whose genesis I would trace to the 1970s – has had a destructive impact on public life since the 1970s. Equally would anyone argue that the individualism of the 1970s identified in Tom Wolfe’s (admittedly limited) “The ‘Me’ Decade” – now manifested in selfies, Instagram feeds and #YOLO – has really enriched our lives?! As for what I would like to bring back, greatly reduced income inequality would be nice. Or how about a socialist Labour government?