Tag Archives: Women’s History

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.