Tag Archives: US South

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.

The South Isn’t Exceptional, the People Are: New Orleans and Prisoner Rights Activism

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Slave prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, Arnold Genthe photographer, between 1920 – 1926, Arnold Genthe Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana more generally, are often held up as the worst examples of policing and criminal justice. It’s where the Angola 3 were incarcerated, alongside Zulu Whitmore, as political prisoners. It’s where Amnesty International has focused much of its anti-carceral state activism. Angola often gets held up as “a modern day slave plantation” and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is constantly in the news, most recently for healthcare-related violations. I’m not arguing that these offenses aren’t bad and that they should go unrecognized. But in many ways, all these statistics and examples from Louisiana perpetuate ideas about the backward South, the eternal other of the great United States. For this reason (and many others) many historians of the carceral state have shifted their focus to incarceration and policing in the North and West (Captive Nation by Dan Berger , Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Kali Gross’s two books on Philadelphia). This is laudable and these stories need to be told. But for those of us who want to write the stories of the South, how do we do this without reinforcing false notions of southern exceptionalism and northern innocence? (This is not to say that people are not successfully doing this: David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery and Robert Parkinson’s Texas Tough). In “Blinded by the Barbaric South: Prison Horrors, Inmate Abuse, and the Ironic History of American Penal Reform” from the edited edition The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Historian Heather Ann Thompson writes “First and foremost, interpretations that emphasize the “exceptional” nature of the southern justice system obscure the extent to which historical penal practices in northern and western states also have been inhumane and deeply racialized. Seeing criminal justice practices in the South as divergent from national standards fundamentally distorts understandings of how race and power played out across the United States after the Civil War.”

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African American prisoners at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana ( Leadbelly in foreground); Prisoner with guitar, at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana, Alan Lomax photographer, between 1934 and 1940,  Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead of focusing on the many instances of inhumane treatment and abuse in the Louisiana prison system, especially against people of color, I am focusing on prisoner rights activists inside and outside of prison and their creative and intellectual production, their prisoner-rights organizing, and their spaces of activism. I aim to write about anti-carceral activism in New Orleans without furthering mythical notions about the South as “other.” I hope to avoid making New Orleans out to be the bad guy, when in fact the entirety of the United States is the “bad guy” when it comes to incarceration. From Lead Belly’s performances to lawsuits brought by the ACLU to Robert Hillary King’s memoir From the Bottom of the Heap, New Orleanians have fought incarceration in Louisiana. Though I’m writing a story of activism and agency now, I came to this project because I thought Angola was the “worst prison” and, in the way of an immature, budding historian, I thought something was only worth writing about if it was the worst. Tasked with choosing a research paper topic in my first semester of graduate school, I did exactly what I was told not to: I googled it. I landed on the Wikipedia page for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which included a short paragraph on the Angola 3. While oft written about in popular culture, there didn’t seem to be much academically written about these men, locked in solitary confinement in the “worst” prison. I expected to write a tale of gross human rights violations and the aberration of the South. Instead I found a story of strength, activism, art, and love in the face of brutality. A story of friendship and organizing and people fighting for the lives and rights of these men at great personal risk. I wrote my thesis on the Angola 3, but as I traversed archives across Louisiana and conducted oral histories with activists across the country, I decided that I would focus on the uncommon strength and organizing of these men and women instead of dismissing an entire region as backwards.

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Angola Landing, State Penitentiary farm, Mississippi River, La., Detroit Publishing Co., Between 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co. Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like many urban historians, sociologists, and other scholars, my focus is on the carceral state. I’m writing about activists, both historical and modern, who have fought for the rights of incarcerated people in New Orleans. In many cases, these activists had little in common beyond the commitment to the rights of the incarcerated. When prisons were being created across the country in the late 19th century, some of these activists fought for the creation of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Others belonged to the NAACP and focused on the racial injustice embedded within Louisiana’s jails and prisons. Still more were involved with Black Power, education reform, and anarchist organizing. My project will follow prisoner rights activism in New Orleans from the late 19th century through to modern day organizing.

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Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground, Alan Lomax photographer, Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did people of color and other prisoner rights activists use writing, art, and music to express the injustice of the carceral state? How did they carve out spaces, often informal, to fight these injustices politically? These people are exceptional: not because they are Southerners, but because they are fighting, every day, to end incarceration and injustice in Louisiana. By focusing on these activists and their stories, I hope to add nuance to the stories of incarceration in the South. Louisiana has Angola and the OPP, but it also has the longest continuously active chapter of the NAACP, Women with a Vision, NOLA to Angola, and Books to Bars. These organizations, and the activists who make them work remake the story of incarceration in New Orleans every day. It’s a story of injustice, civil rights violations, and abuse, but is also one of art, strength, and organizing.

Holly Genovese is a PhD student and public historian at Temple University interested in Southern history, Intellectual history, Gender, and the Carceral State. She is also a blogger for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History and a contributing editor at Auntie Bellum magazine. You can read her work at https://www.hollygenovese.com/ and follow her on Twitter @HollyEvanMarie. 

Scholar-Activist of the Month: Catherine Fosl

Cate with Anne pic 2016
Cate Fosl at the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, sorting materials for an exhibit and framed by a photograph of activist namesake Anne Braden.

Catherine Fosl, Ph.D.

Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director, Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research

College of Arts & Sciences, University of Louisville 

I entered the academy in the early 1990s after spending much of the 1980s working in journalism and community organizing.  About the same time I graduated from college in 1979, I got involved in feminism and in southern peace and justice movements, so that is what inspired me to become a scholar.  Nearly all of the research and writing I have done is related to some aspect of the search for social, racial, and gender justice.

What has animated and sustained me in those passions has way more to do with others’ activism than with my own, and as a young woman I found myself drawn to telling the stories of people and currents that weren’t otherwise getting told. My PhD is in history, which I got interested in through growing up in the South in the turbulent years of school desegregation and seeing the people I loved choosing what looked to me early on like the wrong side of the issue.

Today I write and teach oral history, an interest that originated with my interviewing people as a student reporter for my college newspaper in my original hometown of Atlanta.  In fact I began writing history as a journalist, before I ever even heard of historiography.

For most of us who care deeply about social justice and who work in the academy, especially from the relatively privileged position of a tenured professor, thinking of oneself as an “activist” is complicated and does not feel quite right.  As a scholar of social movements, I have chronicled people who made profound contributions to social change.  I have also participated in some of those movements but only as one of many and in episodic, extremely modest ways.

I rarely call myself a scholar-activist, but I suppose that is mostly how others see me, particularly in the 11 years since I became founding director of a social justice research institute at the university where I teach.  The Anne Braden Institute (ABI) is named after one of Louisville’s most committed anti-racist activists, one of six white southerners Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. praised as a dedicated ally in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  We try to work in her tradition to bridge the gap between scholarship and action for social justice, especially in regards to racial justice and especially at the grassroots level.  I had the good fortune of serving as Anne’s biographer, and that is what brought me to Louisville, Kentucky, and caused me to put down roots here and to begin to think deeply about justice and equity locally.  I moved here in the midst of writing Anne’s biography, and although her activism covered the South and nation, she was an ardent lover of her native Louisville who had her finger on the pulse of virtually every local racial injustice.  It was through her eyes that I began to really know this community.  I also had family roots here, and the stories I had heard from my grandmother in my growing-up years were always set in this river city situated at the border of south and midwest.

Although we are a part of regional and national conversations, our work at the ABI is primarily local.  It often (not always) involves a kind of public history deployed in service of illuminating contemporary inequities. With the help of a small team of student assistants, one phenomenal staffperson, and a handful of faculty pulled into various projects, we  respond to requests from a variety of community partners and advisers drawn to us in part through our namesake.  The result is a little bit of a lot of kinds of research and community engagement.  As an oral history practitioner for more than 30 years now, I have put the method to many unconventional uses in the work of the Braden Institute.  Who would have ever imagined that a fair housing action plan for metro Louisville funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could be oral history-based? Our partnership with the city’s human relations commission and a local affordable housing advocacy organization made that possible.

Another project involved partnering with several museums and the city’s visitors bureau to develop a local civil rights history tour, which now has more than 20,000 copies in circulation, along with a volunteer training guide made available to local educators and community groups. The tour introduces Louisville’s vibrant movement history and makes a start at bridging its tenacious racial divides, which are most savagely visible in its housing patterns.  Right now I am working with colleagues in Public Health and in the mayor’s office on a youth violence prevention research project to develop a citywide social media campaign that challenges negative messaging aimed at African American youth in part by including positive accounts of their own community histories.

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Cate Fosl with two graduate student assistants, Kelly Weaver (L) and Nia Holt, staffing a booth with children’s activities at a Spring 2017 street fair sponsored by the University of Louisville’s Youth Violence Prevention Research Center. Kids were invited to make Nobel peace prize badges explaining what they would do to make the world a better place.

My work has a distinctly urban flavor.  But Louisville is the largest and most diverse city in an overwhelmingly rural, white, and poor state.  So addressing the urban-rural divide is also vital, and organizations we have worked with that enact that mission through activism include, for example, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalshop, an eastern Kentucky media collective with whom I served as a humanities adviser for a documentary film about Anne Braden’s life. My most recent project was a collaborative public history project to research LGBTQ historic sites both in Louisville and across the state and then to write a statewide historic context narrative documenting Kentucky’s LGBTQ heritage.  Part of a recent initiative to better preserve our nation’s LGBTQ past, that research was supported by a small grant from the National Parks Service to the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based organization for LGBTQ equality, and to Kentucky’s state historic preservation office.   The project centered in part on Louisville, which was home to the state’s first gay bar, Beaux Arts, established in 1947.  Documenting that site for the National Register of Historic Places was one project outcome. Yet the research was also quite a departure for me because it got me out of Louisville and traveling the state with the Fairness Campaign’s director and a team of students.  To identify sites and collect archival documents and oral histories connected to still relatively hidden histories required unconventional investigative research as well as cultivating new networks of allies, often in small rural communities.

Lexington History Harvest
January 2016, Lexington KY:  one of several “history harvest” sessions in which LGBTQ Kentuckians convened to reflect on community histories and to contribute archival documents. Cate Fosl is speaking at rear of photo, with Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman at right.

I have written three books of history, and I loved writing them.  I plan to write more!  But I would have to say that over the past decade, the diverse collaborations I’ve discussed here have reshaped my own research agenda substantively.  Historians traditionally have not worked collectively, but nearly all of my recent projects are interdisciplinary and typically unfold as part of teams that are also interprofessional and intergenerational.  I have 2 books-in-progress now.  Yet my individual research pursuits do not overlap much with the local community engagement work that also absorbs me, and I cannot seem to make substantial progress on a new book because of my accountability to the more immediate presses of community-engaged collaborations.  Most recently I am a co-leader in creating a Transdisciplinary Social Justice Research Consortium that crosses 7 colleges and schools at my university to support–with the help of one major internal research grant dispersed to multiple small research teams–a broader spectrum of community-engaged research aimed at addressing structural inequities.

Scholar-activist work is powerfully important. I cannot even imagine an academic career without social justice at its center, especially in the neoliberal, retrenchment climate in public universities today.  But I also think any early-career scholar contemplating doing it must be mindful of the time and energy commitments relative to the rewards structures for earning tenure at their particular home institution.  Anne Braden used to speak of an “other America.”  She referred not to the poverty culture described by political scientist Michael Harrington but to the generations of dissenters throughout U.S. history who have worked for a more just country since the first slave ships landed here. As 2016 demonstrated, we have an awfully long way to go and we need more social justice-minded scholars to be able to stick around.

Catherine Fosl is the author of three books:  Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky (2009,  co-authored with Tracy E. K’Meyer); Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (2002; republished in paper 2006; winner of Oral History Association’s 2003 book award);  and Women for All Seasons: The Story of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1989). Fosl’s recent community-engaged and collaborative scholarship completed with multiple community partners includes “Kentucky Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer Historic Context Narrative 2016,” a public history project that will become available digitally in 2017; “Black Freedom White Allies, Red Scare: Louisville, 1954,” a  2016 digital history exhibit; and “Making Louisville Home for us All: A 20-Year Action Plan for Fair Housing (2014).