Tag Archives: Women’s History

Member of the Week: Valerie Paley

V PALEY COLORValerie Paley, Ph.D.

Vice President and Chief Historian, New-York Historical Society

Director, Center for Women’s History

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

As a public historian working at New York City’s oldest museum, I find that my day job keeps me nimble where research is concerned. Just recently, I studied up on Radio City for an interview about its 85th anniversary with the New York Times. That same week I spent a day or two charting the evolution of Christmas and the holidays in New York for a live satellite radio broadcast with Cardinal Dolan. At this moment I’m fact-checking and editing the text labels for an exhibition of historic shoes called Walk This Way, set to open at New-York Historical’s Center for Women’s History in the spring. It’s my responsibility to ensure that all of this content for general audiences maintains a scholarly underpinning. I am fortunate to have an extraordinarily smart team of doctoral-level historians helping to keep me honest and on deadline with these varied tasks.

But I do value the hours I manage to spend doing sustained work by myself with my own scholarship on the founding in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of what would become some of the most famous cultural institutions of New York City. The New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Metropolitan Museum began as ambitious private projects for the public good and evolved into significant standard bearers not only for the city, but for the nation. I’ve pursued a research thread that places the main responsibility for these endeavors not with the directors or curators, but with their funders and founders. Their mark—bearing grander aspirations for their nascent institutions and, by extension, the character of their emerging metropolis—is still in evidence today. As a born-and-bred Manhattanite, I’ve always been drawn to the culture of the city in its entirety, and consider it almost a guilty pleasure to be able to legitimately spend time researching it for scholarly purposes.

Describe your current administrative, curatorial, and/or public history work. How does what you are working on relate to your scholarship?

I greatly value the skills and knowledge I gained in the academy, but nothing I encountered there could have prepared me for the kind of work that I currently do in the name of History. I have been engaged over the past couple of years in both the administrative and programmatic activities of establishing a Center for Women’s History under the umbrella of the New-York Historical Society. It requires me to think broadly about bringing women’s history into the larger narrative of American history as we convey it through educational and scholarly programming, public lectures, a yearly day-long conference, collecting, research, and a film, in addition to the expected exhibitions. This in turn extends to imparting this vision to our visitors, with my team of scholarly fellows and in collaboration with our CEO and board, and other colleagues like K-12 educators, librarians, art curators, exhibition designers, and members of our communications and fundraising departments.

I’m not sure how directly this relates to my own scholarship, other than by providing me with a framework for understanding the moving parts that make a museum function successfully “on the ground.” The theoretical texts which Museum Studies scholars write and read are all well and good intellectually, in a perfect world. But the challenges and choices I face daily actually working in a museum require me to be far more pragmatic in my approach. There is a struggle to be “pure” while heeding the necessity of being engaging to the public—not to mention getting the funds to make it all happen.

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

No doubt about it: I’ve anticipated Mike Wallace’s Greater Gotham as much as any other New York City history junkie. (In fact I was somewhat happy to come down with the flu last week so I could spend some extended untethered time reading it.) Wallace’s ability to harness the scale and variety of the growth of the city in the early twentieth century while capturing it in such painstaking detail is breathtaking. I also commend his capacity to be a great “crossover” historian that can create significant work that resonates for the general public.

The towering achievement of Mike Wallace with Greater Gotham makes me wonder with anticipation about when the other pillar of New York City history, Kenneth T. Jackson, will finally finish his new works on the late twentieth-century progression of suburbia and the current urban condition.

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

I offer the same advice I give to PhD-level historians: don’t be rigid or unimaginative about where the PhD can take you. There is a need for sophisticated content and critical thinking skills outside the academy. In fact, there is probably even more of a need. Speak and write clearly in a language anyone can understand, not mired in scholarly jargon. It’s harder than you think.

You are given the chance of a lifetime: an endowment to start a new museum anywhere in the world, devoted to any subject, time period, or person(s). Money is no object! What would you devote yourself to collecting, preserving, and curating?

This is an interesting question I’ve posed to my museum seminar students, and it cuts to the core of what a museum is and should look like. Is it a large, architecturally significant building in an urban space, filled with stuff and exhibitions? Is it a place for community engagement, in which visitors are encouraged to consider their place in society or even their very humanity? Is it a locus for an educational experience? Museums historically have been all of those things, and we hardly need another one. Perhaps what we need is a larger forum for collecting ideas that contemplate the history of the human condition. Would we do it in words, artworks, objects, images, documents, audio, video? I’d probably do it with all of the above and more, and ask a multi-disciplinary team of scholars, thinkers, and teachers to come up with a template of questions to spur an online “museum” that crowd-sources ways of visualizing this history and shares it on the web with everyone. Imaginative curators, web designers, and communications strategists can encourage the broadest ways of collecting this content from a diverse international community with access to the Internet. Then I would task museums around the world, large and small, with addressing through their own collections some of the issues the online museum raises. It would be like an abstract version of a History of the World in 100 Objects, but one that minimizes hierarchical curatorial thinking and utilizes a democracy of objects, things, and concepts—and defacto curators—representing a range of ideas and “stakeholders” as opposed to the standard object connoisseurship we expect of the best museums.

 

Member of the Week: Monica Perales

Monica Perales. Photos owned by PeralesMonica Perales

Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History

University of Houston

@mperaleshtx

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

My current research blends my interests in Mexican American, labor, and food history. I’m working on a book project that explores Mexican women’s food labor in Texas — this grew out of some of the stories I found of Mexican women’s food experiences and entrepreneurship in my first book, Smeltertown. Mexican women played a central role in cultivating, processing, and selling the food that fed Texans and tourists alike. I’m also interested in exploring the cultural dimensions of the work they performed within their families and communities as well as in broader ways to help define a regional cuisine — how Mexican women’s bodies and images, for example, were used to cultivate ideas about authenticity. Building on my oral history interests, I’m also working with my colleagues in the UH Center for Public History to launch an oral history project called “Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey,” which will be a multi-year project to collect the first-hand accounts of a range of Houstonians and how they experienced this historic storm.

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

Over the last few years, my teaching has gravitated towards food and public history, and even more so in my new role as the Director of our Center for Public History (CPH). This coming spring, I’ll be teaching Introduction to Public History — the first time this course has been offered at the undergraduate level in quite some time. In our work at CPH, we see the city of Houston as a vital laboratory, it is a place where the local is global. Through this class, I hope to get students to appreciate the ways in which history doesn’t just exist in classrooms and textbooks, but in our communities. One of or projects will be to work with archivists at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center to examine the changing landscape of Houston’s East End, a historic Mexican American neighborhood that has been undergoing rapid change in recent years.

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

Jerry Gonzalez’s In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles (Rutgers University Press, 2017) offers a new perspective on post-war Mexican American History and suburban history — this is an important addition to both fields. I am also very excited about Miroslava Chavez Garcia’s Migrant Longing: Letter Writing across the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). This book, based on a collection of 300 personal letters exchanged by her parents and family members offers a fascinating look at how people created and sustained lives across the borderlands in the latter part of the 20th century. It is a truly beautiful book that humanizes immigration and immigrants, focusing on their hopes, desires, and sometimes failures.

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

I believe that everyone has an important story to tell. In my research and teaching, I am guided by the conviction that by telling these stories – of everyday people and communities – the historical discipline enables us to move toward a more civil society and a place where we can understand our shared humanity. I think this is especially important when we think about cities and urban spaces, and what they mean to the people who inhabit them. My advice to scholars starting out in this field is to be open to listening to people tell their stories on their own terms, and to be willing to learn from them.

What cookbook (or book about food) should be on every urbanist-foodie’s shelf?

What a great question! I have been reading a lot of food books lately, and food studies is such a rich resource for understanding the history and culture of a city. I love teaching Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Harper 2011), which does a really great job of showing how immigrant cuisine in New York adapted to the realities of urban life. For cookbooks, I’m currently loving Sandra A. Gutierrez’s Empanadas: The Hand Held Pies of Latin America and Lesley Tellez’s Eat Mexico: Recipes and Stories from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets, and Fondas.

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.

Member of the Week: Kenvi Phillips

kenvi RadKenvi Phillips, PhD

Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

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

Among the topics I am currently interested in is the Colored Y Campaign lead by Rev. Jesse E. Moorland in the early 20th century. The efforts of the national and local YMCA offices, local communities, and the Rosenwald Fund acquired enough money to have more than 20 YMCA buildings built for African American men across the country. The construction of these buildings helped to shape urban space and opportunities for its members. I first became interested in Moorland and the Young Men’s Christian Association a few years ago while I was working at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. There I came across one of Moorland’s scrapbooks from the St. Louis campaign. In the book was a photo of the organizing committee on an urban block with which I was unfamiliar. As a native of St. Louis, I thought that I was aware of all of the city’s neighborhoods, but this photo introduced me to an entire community that I had heard of in passing but had never before seen. These organizations through these buildings transformed both the physical and metaphysical landscape for African American men in urban centers across the country.

Describe what you are currently curating. How does this work relate to your scholarship?

I am the Curator for Race and Ethnicity at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. As a curator I am working to expand one of the nation’s best collections on American women to be more inclusive. This means exploring communities, organizations and individuals that have been traditionally overlooked and underrepresented in archives and subsequently in scholarship. Uncovering the lives and stories of underrepresented women, many of them from or influential in urban communities across the nation, is critical to understanding the development of the American city as well as the suburb. Curators and collections managers are constantly uncovering and sometimes rediscovering past people and events that alter our understanding of American culture. Additionally, through our collecting we get to influence the direction of future research and scholarship. Women that we encounter today whose stories we archive, via oral histories, diaries, correspondence, publications and more will be the subject of current and future research.

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

Cheryl Knott’s Not Free, Not For All: Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow, and Daphne Spain’s Constructive Feminism: Women’s Spaces and Women’s Rights in the American City.

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

I would advise young scholars interested in both public and academic tracks not to be dismayed by the broadening of their professional interests because all things are related. A course that you teach on Second Wave feminism or an exhibition that you need to develop on 19th century cooking can and should be influenced by urban history. Making those connections often times will ignite your passion for urban history allowing you to make it more accessible to wider audiences.

What texts or readings would you recommend on the topic of your research?

There are not that many secondary sources that cover the history of the colored YMCA. There are quite a few Progressive era texts and primary source materials that I use. However, Nina Mjagkij has done an awesome job with the following two titles: Light in the Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852-1946, and the book she co-authored with Margaret Ann Spratt, Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and YWCA in the City.