By Deborah B. Kallman, PhD Candidate

For anyone contemplating writing a biography, I recommend checking out the Biographers’ International Organization (BIO) and their annual “BIO Lab,” a one-day conference with speakers, networking, and practical instruction. BIO and the tips I learned at the lab proved crucial to my dissertation—a biography of Hazel Hammond Albertson (1883 – 1969).  Albertson owned and operated a farm in West Newbury, Massachusetts from 1909 until her death in 1969, and my project seeks to craft a narrative of her life and to place her and her farm in the broader context of women’s and gender history and American history. 

Chestnut Hill Farmhouse & Barn” from the Berkenbush Family Collection.

The lab, held online on January 21st, was both timely and informative to my research as I develop subjects, sift through a mountain of letters and other primary sources in my possession, and make mindful choices from these sources as I write the narrative of Albertson’s life.  The Biography Lab provided several important insights that will inform my work.  Moreover, I formed connections with other biographers and the question-and-answer periods at the end of each session illuminated many additional tips and tricks that I will apply to my own research.

Dame Hermione Lee opened the lab with the plenary address, “A Biographer’s Choices.”  The author of biographies of Virginia Woolf (1996), Edith Wharton (2006), Penelope Fitzgerald (2013) and Tom Stoppard (2020), Lee presented her “ABCs” for writing biographies, many of which, especially E, F, J, P and R, resonated with me. “E” is “elephants in the room,” which Lee stresses are important to deal with, warning the audience that they will come back to bite you if you ignore them. “F” stands for “fear,” which she advised the assembly is part of the biographical process, stating “it’s what you do with fear that counts.”  Fear can take many forms.  For example, in her biography of Woolf, she was not the first scholar to approach Woolf’s living friends and relatives.  She had to prove her credentials and convince them to speak to yet another biographer. On the letter “J” – “jokes” — Lee advised the attendees to be true to the voice of their subject and not to be too solemn.  She also stressed the importance of place (“P”) and the need to talk to any living relatives (“R”) of your subject, adding that biographers must talk to the relatives and gain their trust while being mindful that they may very well be protective of the subject.

Hazel on the porch in her white bloomer suit “airing” her hair, from the Berkenbush Family Collection.

In his session “Curating Context:  How to Angle for a Subject’s Unwritten Voice from Various Subjects,” Eric K. Washington discussed various methodologies he uses to find the unwritten voices of his protagonists.  The author of Manhattanville:  Old Heart of West Harlem and Boss of the Grips:  The Life of James H. Williams and the Red Caps of Grand Central Terminal, Washington’s work centers around subjects who left little written documentation behind.  Washington discussed his methods for recovering their voices, exploring how sources such as vital records, military records, church records, employment records, census data, and cemetery records can be used to triangulate and reconstruct key life moments from the hidden voices of biographical subjects. 

T. J. Stiles, a double Pulitzer Prize winner for Custer’s Trial:  A Life on the Frontiers of New America and The First Tycoon:  The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, discussed strategies for developing well-rounded subjects in his session, “It’s a Personal Matter:  Characters and their Uses.” He does this by creating a visual sense of the person and place, finding moments of change, seeking out contradictions, and establishing their interests, nature, and desires.  Stiles emphasized that the biographer must be careful not to “over personalize” the subject, meaning that there should remain a certain amount of detachment.  He also urged prospective authors to create a sense of honesty with the reader and be prepared to have your work challenged.

Caroline Fraser concluded the day with a session on incorporating history into biographies.  Fraser’s book Prairie Fires:  The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for biography. In her talk, “Filling in the Blanks:  How to Deploy History in All Kinds of Biographies,” Fraser emphasized the importance of the “wide shot” which provides historical context and builds texture into biographies of a single person.  Fraser emphasized that the historical context must be relevant and is an opportunity to demonstrate how the life of the protagonist fits into the wider perspective of historical events.

“Hazel Hammond,” circa 1901

The forum was well-timed to my own research, and I learned much from this conference. For example, Lee’s comments are particularly relevant to my work.  Many of Albertson’s relatives are still alive and have houses on the farm’s land or live in the farmhouse. I have conducted personal interviews with family members, which are crucial in understanding their interaction with Albertson and daily life at the Farm.  I have also uncovered elephants in the room and must deal with these as I continue researching and writing. 

I have numerous written primary sources at my disposal.  Among these are letters sent to and from Albertson, scanned copies of the farm journals, and her diaries.  Washington’s suggestion of triangulating information encourages me to extend my work to vital records as well.  For example, I discovered that when Albertson married her husband, her mother witnessed the ceremony, as evidenced by her name on the marriage certificate.  I must ask, where was her father, to whom she was very close?

Finally, I will keep in mind the advice Stiles and Fraser dispensed to the attendees and be mindful of the selections and quotes that I incorporate.  I must provide a sense of Albertson’s personality, the way she spoke and wrote, and her interests—without reifying her. Further, I must provide historical context for the period in which she lived. 

My course work at UMass Amherst and the guidance from my advisors have helped me to develop the analytical tools and historiographical background required to write the dissertation, but the craft of life-writing is an old one.  Having an organization that serves writers of biography and offers opportunities to learn from the craft’s leading practitioners will be crucial to my work.

Debbie Kallman holding a fraction of the over 4,000 letters in the Hazel Albertson Collection.

By Meghan Gelardi Holmes

A group of smiling professionals outside of a building. They are all wearing conference badges and have their arms up in celebration.
The 2021 cohort of the History Leadership Institute, including Meghan Gelardi Holmes (top row, second from right), gather in Indianapolis, Indiana.

This past June, I was fortunate to attend History Leadership Institute (HLI), a selective professional development program offered by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) for mid-career professionals working in history institutions. Over four weeks – two virtual and two on site in Indianapolis – I gathered with nineteen colleagues from around the country to discuss issues facing the field. Facilitators led big-picture sessions on mission and vision, on community engagement, and on public history as a tool. We also discussed practical considerations like budgets, governance, and collections. And we took a few local field trips to see how sites in and around Indianapolis, like Conner Prairie, are interpreting their collections and historic spaces to the public.

In the intervening months, I have been reflecting upon my experience at HLI. One of the (maybe unintended) themes of the Institute for me was confronting the culture of burnout, something that is especially prevalent for folks who work in so-called passion jobs. (I recommend reading this fantastic piece by Anne Helen Petersen, “The Librarians Are Not Okay.”)

Professionally, this has meant promoting intentionality in my workplace. It is not just about preventing burnout; it is also about maximizing impact, as we discussed with Randi Korn whose most recent book encourages museums to think critically about how their work aligns with their mission. Korn offers an alternative model of strategic planning, one that prioritizes practice and passion over a binder of five-year benchmarks, and my board president is lucky I had my phone turned off during that session because I was ready to call her and sign myself up to lead the “intentional practice” charge at our institution. I took a measured breath when I arrived home (as it turns out, not everyone lights up at the thought of embarking upon a complicated planning project), but indeed, we are starting with reenvisioning our programming structure, aiming to offer fewer and more thoughtful, mission-driven programs than we have previously. The key is fewer. If we focus our limited time on programs that tie deeply to our interpretation, I believe we will engage more meaningfully with our audience. It is not easy, however, to divest from the perspective that more is more (especially as we continue to feel the effects of the pandemic on our visitation numbers). We’re working on it.

And personally, that has meant slowing down – taking time to read, to visit other sites, to look at the window and think. One of my colleagues at HLI coined this activity “bored meetings” and again, while not so easy to implement, the practice is really valuable to my ability to get to a place of deep work.

That said, I came back energized, too, to bring new ideas to my work. A session on facilitated dialogue, with Sarah Pharaon of Dialogic Consulting, has me thinking about training for public historians. So many of us, in museums at least, focus on the stuff… and then we find ourselves on the job, faced primarily with sharing and co-creating knowledge with the public. I have been wondering if I should scrap my whole curatorial internship model, and have all of our interns do front-of-house training. Wouldn’t we all be better off with an increased ability to dialogue?

I’ll close by putting a little plug in for HLI: if any of this sounds appealing to you at this point in your career, I recommend putting in an application to participate. (There are scholarships available if your institution can’t fund your participation.) Do it as much for the professional development as for the colleagues you’ll meet. HLI reinvigorated my identity as a public historian; it was inspiring to meet so many people working thoughtfully and devotedly on this project of connecting our past to our present. Now, I have colleagues across the country to remind me it’s okay to say no to the wrong projects, so there is room for the right ones; take those “bored” meetings; and approach my work with patience and intention.

Meghan Gelardi Holmes ‘MA06 is curator of the Gibson House Museum & the Colonial Society of Massachusetts in Boston, MA.

Interview by Helen Kyriakoudes and Alison Russell

At the Spring 2021 Graduate History Conference, Alexander Williams presented his paper “Trail of Tears the Remix: Rematerializing and Weaponizing Native Trauma through Rap” along with his EP titled “Trail of Tears.” The album, which draws heavily on both personal and historical source materials, weaves together themes of Blackness, Indigeneity, identity, and trauma. Williams, who has a Masters from University of Colorado, Boulder and began a PhD at UCLA in the fall of 2021, focuses on music, literary criticism and hauntology. UMass Amherst history department alumna Helen Kyriakoudes ‘MA21 and PhD student Alison Russell talked with him about his work and its interdisciplinary uses for history. 

Portrait of Alexander Williams
Alexander Williams. Provided by Williams, 2022. 

How do you see the intersection of music and scholarship in your work and more generally?

Some of my earliest memories were bouncing on my dad’s lap listening to this big sound system that he had, hearing stuff like Lauryn Hill and Marvin Gaye. I just felt like music moved something in me that nothing else could. 

My music and my scholarship have naturally converged and I think it’s really important because I really want to legitimize rap as not only an art form, but as a form of scholarship. When you listen to Nas, when you listen to Rakim, these dudes are giving you a three minute thesis. I wrote my master’s thesis on Childish Gambino, almost 100 pages, but I was barely scratching the surface. There’s such a depth to rap that people either don’t want to recognize or maybe are oblivious to. I feel like as both a rapper and a scholar, my job is to make sure that rap has legitimacy in a lot of different spaces.

With every release, whether it’s a mixtape or an EP, I want to get better, and I want to experiment more. I just want to try different things and tell a story, not only about me but stories that, you know, some people aren’t equipped to tell or voices that get lost in history. I come at rap through an academic angle. I’m very cognizant of the critical theory that I’m trying to put in rap, there’s always a hauntological, trauma theory, or Romantic element. As a musician, all the scholarly approaches that I employ in rap, I do so being a practitioner of the art form. And that has informed my scholarship and my critical theory in a very necessary way.

And just trying to make cool shit, you know? I just want to make things that hopefully people will listen to.

Could you speak a little more about the connection between your work and the past or history, particularly the work you did at the GHA conference last year?

For me, doing “Trail of Tears,” making that, was just something that I feel like I had to do. It was a story that has been brewing for a long time. I like to synthesize things and recognize the patterns of things, so hearing all of the tragedies and the traumas that surrounded my family history, I was curious to see how that was connected to other peoples’ experiences and to historical events. I thought that the Trail of Tears would be a good way of reflecting with the type of rap that I do, with this historical angle…. I wanted to show a different way of encountering Native historical events through the lens of also being Black. 

The Cherokee owned slaves and they brought their slaves with them during the Trail of Tears. There was this whole controversy with the Freedmen not getting Cherokee recognition in the nation. So, even though there are marginalized communities within the structure of white supremacy, marginalized communities marginalize other ones. 

When we see that type of stuff happening, it’s like: “Okay. Who are the people that are involved with this?” Well what happens when you are someone that is Black but also Native that is connected to this? What does that look like? What does that feel like? I just really wanted to showcase that kind of convergence of racial identity and racial history within this higher hierarchical power of white supremacy. 

Cover of Williams' 2021 paper. On the left, a portrait of a white woman with a smile drawn onto her face. On the right, his title, "Trail of Tears (Remix): Rematerializing and Weaponizing Native Trauma"
Cover of Alexander Williams’ 2021 Paper for the Graduate History Association Conference. March 2021. 

How do you approach those marginalized voices and the hierarchy that creates what we historians often call “silences in the archives”?

[As a scholar of literature], to me, everything starts with the canon. The canon is the totality of all of the literature that’s been created, including things that people don’t necessarily want to correlate to literature, such as oral traditions. Then the archive is like the physical space that holds as much of the canon as possible, but, because it’s this physical space that’s different from the canon, the archive can be politicized or manipulated. 

When you have physical space, you can dictate what enters it, what it means, what it signifies, what it represents. So, I think, the Library of Congress’ archive would be different from the Cherokee Nation’s archive. Our job is trying to reconcile the disconnects between these two archives and match them with what we collectively recognize as truth.  

One of my biggest goals and difficulties on the EP and in my research was trying to reconcile two different accounts of the same event to see where the truth lies between these two. And maybe my analysis of the truth is closer to the truth than these two items are, or maybe I’m even further away from it. 

I try to get as holistic or as comprehensive viewpoints as possible. That’s related to why, in the beginning of the video presentation that I created for [the GHA Conference], I included Andrew Jackson’s Second Annual Address to Congress. It’s representative of not just the American archive but also the Native archive, because there’s such a deep relationship with how history was formed from that address. 

Presenting the material [in its unedited form] is something that is really important to me. When you read [Jackson’s address], you can see how racist it is. How hateful. For me, when I encountered a lot of the source materials for this project, I was trying to be as truthful to the materials as possible while reconciling and aligning that with my own personal experience as a result of these [historical] events, systems, and archives wielding their power. That was what was important about having the address in there — those statements had power because they created a historical atrocity. 

Lyrics next to a portrait of Andrew Jackson
Slide from Williams’ 2021 GHA Conference Presentation. March 2021.

Your work is deeply informed by your experience. How, then, does your scholarship reach back out to your community?

I mean, for me, everything that I do has some kind of community angle to it, whether that be my scholarship or my music. I think community is really important because I didn’t get to where I am today by myself. I see it as my obligation to try to return the favor to other people. I think that’s just how I grew up. I was always that kid that just wanted to help people and just be a part of people’s lives and do what I can to be part of the solution. Through my academic projects, music projects, and other things, that’s just always been the running theme.

I went to CU Boulder specifically to work with Dr. Adam Bradley and the RAP Lab (Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture). Through my two years with the Lab, we conducted a lot of educational programming. For example, Dr. Bradley would go to prisons and try to improve literacy there, which is the Three Keys Initiative. We also have another initiative called Pop Lyrics in the Classroom, where we try to show that students are building an analytical relationship with music without them even knowing it and how this relationship can make them better scholars. I continued that work with this educational collective that I co-founded called Lyripeutics. During the pandemic, we were able to work with North High School, and particularly a teacher Carla Carino, to help students understand the intersection of wellness, hip hop, and education. At the end, we got to add the students’ work to the collective’s digital anthology and make them feel like they’re a part of our network. I’m exploring that while I’m at UCLA as well. 

Alexander is currently working on a mixtape titled “The Mixtape Vol. 1” and his dissertation, tentatively titled “From Byronic Hero to Tragic Villain: Examining Rap as Performative Autoethnography.”

Childish Gambino portrait with graph describing his work as "The Black Byronic Hero"
Slide from Williams’ presentation at Pacific and Modern Language Association (PAMLA). Upcoming in 2022. 

By Melanie Meadors

The C/S/X Oral History Project audio cassettes from the Darby Penney papers
The C/S/X Oral History Project audio cassettes from the Darby Penney papers

When processing an archival collection focused on mental health advocacy and activism, as I was this summer with the Darby Penney collection at UMass’s Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center (SCUA), there is the expectation that there will be material that might be challenging to encounter. Darby Penny was a psychiatric patient and survivor who went on to fight for change within the mental health system.  She was a staunch and vocal activist who believed doctors and specialists were not the only voices that needed to be heard in psychiatry. Consumer, survivor, and ex-patient (C/S/X) voices were vital if the people in psychiatry truly wanted to make a difference. As I went through hundreds of pages of ex-patient testimony, letters from people who were desperate for their voices to be heard, and research materials supporting the idea of patient self-advocacy in psychiatry, I saw many things that gave me pause.

In 1999 Penney created the C/S/X Oral History Project, the first and largest collection of oral histories from people whose lives were impacted by psychiatry. The narratives in this collection were heart-breaking, thought provoking, and angering. When I read one particular letter, however, from the mother of an ex-patient to his interviewer, I had to reach for the tissues. The subject of the oral history, a man who had struggled with addiction and mental health issues for much of his life, had passed away, and the interviewer had sent her a copy of her son’s interview. I understood from my previous work that a great many psychiatric patients struggled with addiction once they were released, and many had to go back for treatment that was often misguided and ineffective. This letter, written by a mother who loved her son, who lost him, who was heartbroken, made this understanding concrete. Because of Darby Penney’s determination, however, her son’s voice—his story, his life, his pain, his hope—has been captured and lives on  to help others. Even though the voices of the psychiatric patients were silenced by other institutions who valued other perspectives over theirs, they are still preserved in the archive, where they can tell the other side of history for years to come.

In June, SCUA hosted a symposium to celebrate the life and legacy of Lester Grinspoon, the Harvard psychiatrist and well-known advocate for the legalization of marijuana, whose papers are also in SCUA. In the mid 1960s Grinspoon conducted extensive research to document what were supposed to be the negative and dangerous effects of marijuana. To his surprise, however, no matter how much work he did, he could not confirm scientifically the dangers everyone feared. He went on to write articles and books to discuss his findings. When his teenage son had leukemia and was suffering from the effects of chemotherapy, Grinspoon eased the boy’s final weeks with the use of marijuana, which allowed him to have a quality of life that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Grinspoon began to advocate for recognition of marijuana’s potential benefits, both medicinal and recreational.

Going into this symposium, I had no real knowledge or interest in marijuana legalization. Yet after hearing the testimonies of Grinspoon’s family and the professionals on the panels, and talking to other attendees at the symposium, I realized this issue went beyond just drugs. It was about having autonomy over one’s own body and medical privacy. Doctors told stories about patients who drastically improved their quality of life with marijuana. Hearing people talk about Lester Grinspoon and the way he touched their lives made me realize how special a person he really was. It also helped me understand what a great honor it was for this family to entrust SCUA with his work. SCUA organized this event because they value his legacy and are committed to making Grinspoon’s work accessible to everyone who needed to see it. The symposium was educational and full of research and academic rigor, but it was also rich with Lester Grinspoon’s heart and spirit. SCUA has now posted the panels of the symposium to their YouTube channel.

This insight—being touched by the people behind the papers in the archive—surfaced again as I worked to create a processing plan for the Paul Williams collection in SCUA. Williams was the literary executor for the estates of Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon, he founded Crawdaddy!, one of the very first rock music magazines, and was considered one of the foremost authorities on folk rock musicians like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. As someone with a background in science fiction publishing who also loves music, Dylan in particular, I was excited to work on these materials. Because it was a larger collection, and because the work of an archivist is never done, I couldn’t really dawdle on any of the material, though I admit I did linger a bit on a few items.

A few of the 100+ notebooks Paul Williams kept throughout his life, now in SCUA
A few of the 100+ notebooks Paul Williams kept throughout his life, now in SCUA

One thing was clear throughout the collection. Paul Williams was a beautiful and flawed human, someone who touched a great many people in his life that was cut short by traumatic brain injury. He was a lover, a dreamer, someone who battled depression and imposter syndrome, someone who struggled through the tumultuous times of the sixties and seventies with the same worries and concerns as so many others. His collection–superficially about rock music, science fiction, and mysticism–chronicles conscientious objection during the Vietnam War, drug experimentation, exploration of sexuality, the emotions around abortion, feelings of betrayal by those he admired, his love of family and friends, his passion for music, and his desire to make the world a better place. The materials preserved here capture some of what it was like to be in a horrible accident, to struggle with the immense financial burden of medical care while still trying to recover, and yet still manage to touch many lives. I couldn’t help but share some of his words and treasures on my social media posts, which managed to reach his widow, musician Cindy Lee Berryhill, through a mutual friend. Nothing prepared me for receiving a message from her:

“So happy to see Paul’s papers being so lovingly worked. Thank you!”

I freely admit that my eyes prickled a bit when I read these words. In response I told her what an honor and privilege it was to be able to work on his collection. Working in archives is challenging in pretty much every way imaginable. Physically, there are a lot of boxes to lift, carry, and truck to various places in the library. There are collections to unload from the loading dock and haul to shelves in the library basement. Intellectually, every collection has a unique puzzle to solve when processing it. There is more than one way to sort things out, and one needs to make decisions that will affect everyone who wants to use that collection—not a small amount of responsibility. There is also a lot of data entry work at the computer that requires an eye for detail. But knowing this hard work will allow a person’s voice to reach others, that it helps the people in the archive live on in memory, makes it all worthwhile. My experiences with Darby Penney, Lester Grinspoon, and Paul Williams made it clear that archives aren’t just piles of musty old papers. There are people behind each and every collection. If you look and listen, if you pay attention, the spirits of their subjects will indeed talk to you.

Melanie in front of the completed Darby Penney papers
Melanie in front of the completed Darby Penney papers

Melanie R. Meadors is a public history graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, studying archives, book history, and social change in the United States. Meador’s work at SCUA was supported by the Dr. Charles K. Hyde Internship Program.

10 Questions with Garrett Washington

Garrett Washington in the Memorial Hall of Daido Life Insurance Headquarters in Osaka, 2022.

Garrett Washington is the Department of History’s newest tenured faculty member. A historian of modern Japan, women, gender, and religion, Washington published his first single-authored book this January. Graduate student Nick DeLuca sat down with him to learn more.

Can you tell us about your work, in a nutshell? 

My first, super long project—now a book, Church Space and the Capital in Prewar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2021)—was basically trying to answer a nagging question: Why do Protestant Christians, who were a very tiny part of the Japanese population, loom so large in the historiography of modern Japan? I found that Protestant spaces, particularly schools (which have been studied quite a bit) and churches (which have not been studied much in their own right) were key to answering that question. My work reveals where, how, and for whom urban churches were built; how the Japanese educated elite preached, lectured, organized, and mobilized in the church space; and what impact all of this had on Japan. 

Where is your scholarship headed next?

The term “good wife, wise mother” brings to mind the restrictive social roles and rights of elite women in early modern Japan, as well as the reformatted misogyny that the new, modernizing Japan generalized to all women. But a few women still managed to build public and professional lives well beyond the frameworks approved for women. Using the lens of space (again!) and the medium of the critical biography of one exceptional woman, I’m studying how this was possible and how it complicates our understanding of the rigid gender constructs of modern Japan. My project focuses on Hirooka Asako, daughter of the leading banking family in mid-nineteenth century Japan. Although she experienced tremendous pressure to conform, was forbidden from studying, and was married off young, Hirooka educated herself; built a banking, mining, and insurance empire; and was the primary fundraiser, promoter, and benefactor for Japan’s first university for women. And physical and social space were central to the limits that confined her and how she overcame them. I’m slowly chipping away at this project this year while on sabbatical at Le Centre de recherches sur le Japon within the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociale. 

I also just made a quick, action-packed, last-minute research trip to Japan. It was more than two years in the making, and I was able to use the Healey Endowment Faculty Research Grant to travel to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Fukuoka, all in one week, to make progress on this project. In Osaka, the corporate communications director of Daido Life Insurance, a company that Hirooka Asako helped create, welcomed me and allowed me to spend two days gathering materials in the company archives. He happens to be a historian by training, and has been working hard to bring more recognition to the family that founded the company, including Hirooka Asako.

From left to right, primary source documents from Washington’s ongoing research: A photo of Hirooka Asako, C 1900; a 1884 receipt of sale of Uruno Coal Mine signed by Hirooka Shingoro and Hirooka Asako (notably, the document shows Asako’s signature, even though married women were not allowed to own, sell, or buy property); Uruno Coal Mine company store tickets.

What sparked your interest in these areas of work?

When I studied abroad in Japan as a junior in college, a friend from the US visited Japan. And he took me to meet an old family friend in Nagasaki, a ninety-year-old Polish Catholic monk. This monk had lived in Japan for seventy years and only spoke Polish and Japanese, but he sparked my interest in Christianity in Japan. A few trips to Nagasaki later, and I was hooked. So I wrote my year-long research project on the Jesuits in Japan, which then became the subject of my master’s thesis. I then decided to examine Christianity in modern Japan for my PhD. As I worked on my last book project, the name of Hirooka Asako appeared several times. But at the time I couldn’t find any scholarly sources on her, and aside from a dozen specialists tied to the institutions she founded or helped found, no one seemed to have even heard of her. So I started digging and asking and collecting materials back in 2014, and here we are!

How would you describe the evolution of your work over time? 

Basically, I work on a project that interests me and then I become fascinated with some small aspect of that research that then becomes the focus of another research project. So, looking back, I can see the lines connecting my work on Protestant churches to missionary hospitals, Christianity’s relationship with the women’s movement in Japan, Buddhism’s spatial response to Christianity, and my current project on entrepreneur, philanthropist, and late-life Christian convert Hirooka Asako. Over the past ten years, my work has been more and more focused on Buddhism and Shinto as well. I’d like to write a history of the rebuilding of Shinto Shrines in postwar Japan, which would really bring things full circle, I think. 

What is one, or multiple, things you are proud of thus far in your academic career?

I’m proud to have tenure but especially at UMass Amherst, where I have amazing colleagues, tremendous research and teaching support, great students, and lots of freedom to grow.

I’m proud to have published my first single-author book. It was a long road and COVID didn’t help, unsurprisingly. Publishing the edited volume Christianity and the Modern Woman in East Asia a few years ago was outstanding as well. But the monograph is the fruit of many many years of research, and so it is the one I’m most proud of.

And I’m proud of the relationships that I’ve built with students at the places I’ve taught. It makes me happy to get postcards, recommendation letter requests, and emails from former students. 

Are you digesting any history media these days, like podcasts, shows, movies, blogs, books, and the like? 

Not a lot. I just watched a movie on the Danish expedition of Ejnar Mikkelson and Iver Iverson and I’m reading Women and Networks in Nineteenth-Century Japan, an edited volume on which I’m writing a book review. But I don’t consume much history media. This will probably change when I get back from sabbatical though. ☺ 

And you also produce your own podcast, too? 

Yes! I published a podcast series myself this year, although it is not directly related to history (aside from its potential as a source for future historians). It is called “Black Men We Know.” In it I introduce listeners to black men succeeding in a variety of fields that defy common assumptions and stereotypes while trying to maintain positivity and humor. I’ve talked with an architect, a life coach, an artisan woodworker, a non-profit founder, a Silicon Valley IT executive, a circuit court judge, and a therapist, and every conversation was illuminating and inspiring. Hopefully my fifty or so listeners thought so too! 

What are you looking forward to most when you return to UMass after your sabbatical year?

I’m looking forward to teaching. I have given a few lectures in person and on Zoom, and they remind me what I’m missing! By the time I get back to campus, I will have been away from the classroom for two years (because of a year of remote teaching followed by my sabbatical)! That’s a long time. 

What is something you want students to know about you? 

That I used to play professional rugby, and that, as of right now, I’m still playing at the amateur level. It’s been a part of my life since I was eighteen, so I think knowing that reveals a lot about me. 

Rugby Club USO Massif Central 2021-2022 Season Team Photo

What is one piece of advice you would offer to students?

My PhD advisor used to say: “This is YOUR education, and it needs YOU in it.” Old-fashioned but still excellent advice. Study what interests you, write about topics that interest you the most, raise your hand, make sure you take the time to do the readings, make sure you talk to the professor during office hours or in passing, think about what you want out of your education, and figure out how you can go get it. We’ll do all we can to help you do all this. 

Objects are crucial to understanding the past. They can speak to us and pull at us, unlocking histories eclipsed by written sources, at times with unique depth and resonance. In this series of micro essays, four members of the UMass Amherst history department share sources of significance to their teaching and research.

The Story of Two Shells

From Left to Right: Nautilus cup, c. 1630–1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Nautilus Pompilius Shell from the Wreck of the Dutch East India Ship Witte Leeuw, 1613, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

These two nautilus shells are quite different, but they are part of the same story. They both originated in the Dutch colonies in southeast Asia, now the independent nation of Indonesia. The cup was produced by an anonymous artisan in the Netherlands some time in the middle of the seventeenth century. The gleaming, nacreous shell was mounted in a gilded silver stand featuring mythical sea gods, snails, crabs, dolphins, and other marine motifs. It combined a wonder of nature with a wonder of art. It also reminded its owner of the wealth and power of the Dutch seaborne commercial and colonial empire.

The unadorned shell is another reminder of that empire. It was recovered in 1977 from the wreck of the Witte Leeuw (White Lion), an Indiaman (large cargo ship) that belonged to the Dutch East India Company. En route from what is now Indonesia to the Netherlands, the ship’s convoy was attacked and sunk by Portuguese forces near St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, in 1613. For over three and a half centuries it lay on the ocean floor. Had it completed its voyage, it too would have been transformed into an art object. Instead, it reminds us of the costs of empire to both the colonized people who originally caught it and the common sailors who sank with it to their doom. 

Brian W. Ogilvie, Professor and Chair, UMass Amherst History Department

A Chest to Rest One’s Head

Seventeenth-century pine chest, collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Foundation. Photo taken by author.

The material culture of the past contains countless objects with unintended uses; what an object was explicitly created to be or do is not always what it will be actually used for over the course of its lifetime. A plain six-board pine chest residing in the collection of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum in Hadley, Massachusetts is one such object. 

As part of a NEH grant this semester, I am working to study and reinterpret collection objects at this museum to center histories of labor, both free and unfree, in future site interpretation. Originally a late seventeenth-century construction, this chest’s eighteenth-century uses shifted from a vessel for household goods like textiles to a vessel for human beings. In 1775, a ten-year-old enslaved girl and resident of the home named Phillis fell ill with tuberculosis. Elizabeth Phelps, the house’s mistress and Phillis’ enslaver, recorded in her diary that after several unproductive consultations with doctors, she placed this chest by the kitchen hearth and made it into a bed for Phillis. Cramped inside the thick wooden walls of the chest, Phillis passed away. The next explicit mention of the chest’s use as a bed was later in 1809 (and for all we know, other times in between, as portable beds were not unusual in early America) when a recent widow named Mary Andries who had been on the Phelps’ property needed nursing. 

The story of the chest’s transition to something akin to an adult cradle is also legible in the material itself; the 5 foot chest originally had an outside lock that was removed and patched, and the interior lidded tills that were used to store more valuables were also likely removed to make room and comfort possible for Phillis and Mary.* 

Archival documentation like Elizabeth Phelps’ diary offers filtered historical information about women like Phillis and Mary Andries—that is, it is documentation created about them rather than by them—but when combined with the surviving chest, their experiences are brought to life for visitors at the museum site. 

– Emily Whitted, PhD Student, UMass Amherst History Department

* Portable beds allowed infirm members of a household to be close at hand–more convenient for caregivers than a bedroom in a remote chamber, and more pleasant for their occupants, who could recline near the warmth of a fire, and near the hustle and bustle of the household. Our understanding of this object is indebted to the scholarship of Nicole Belolan, Public Historian in Residence, Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), Rutgers University-Camden.

Famine’s Pages

Kaifeng Municipal Science and Technology Committee, ed., Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides, August, 1960.

My current book project is titled “Heritage and Survival: The Power of Agricultural Knowledge in the People’s Republic of China.” One chapter focuses on a campaign launched during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) to produce “native insecticides” (土农药) using traditional medical knowledge about the properties of wild plants—one of many initiatives to overcome scarcity and boost production by mobilizing local resources.

One of the sources I’ve collected for this chapter tugs at me, and I find myself returning to it repeatedly—before the pandemic, I even brought it to class to share with students. In August 1960, in the midst of the worst famine in world history, the Municipal Science and Technology Committee of Kaifeng, Henan published this handbook, Compilation of Resources on Native Fertilizers and Insecticides. The book was hand-written and mimeographed on low-grade recycled paper that is soft, fibrous, and speckled with darker bits of pulp and the occasional scrap of bark or twig.

The book’s pages—not just the text, but the stuff on which it was inked—speak to resourcefulness and bring home the true significance of the campaign slogan “make do with available materials” (就地取材). And they speak, painfully, to the deprivation that made frugality ever-more necessary. As land that once supplied paper mills was converted to food production, the mills turned to inferior sources for their raw materials. In especially hard-hit places like Henan, rural people resorted to eating bark, twigs, and some of those same wild plants described in the Kaifeng handbook, sometimes poisoning themselves in the process. Touching the pages of this relic from a time of desperation and determination, my students and I feel the history more deeply than words alone could convey.

Sigrid Schmalzer, Professor, UMass Amherst History Department

A Camera and Cloak

Leica Camera, courtesy of the Freedman family.

“When I was a kid, I always wished I had one of those rings or cloaks that made you invisible. Then I realized years later, I am invisible behind a camera. I am a camera.” —Jill Freedman (1939–2019).

Last winter break, I took an exhibit design course with Professors Marla Miller and Traci Parker. My classmates and I explored the personal and digital archives of New York City-based street photographer Jill Freedman, a prolific and hard-scrabble documentarian who sought out the gritty aspects of everyday life. She lived in Resurrection City, a Washington, DC protest encampment by the Poor Peoples’ Campaign in 1968, embedded for a year with firefighters in Harlem, and spent time in a traveling circus to capture the experiences of carnival workers, just to name a few examples of her commitment to her craft.

Our class had the privilege of meeting her family and friends over Zoom, and they generously shared memories, stories, and images from her personal archives, including photos of her cameras, including this Leica camera, dating to the 1970s. Her many cameras were well-worn and heavily used, and their variety proved that she was not married to a particular brand or model. Rather, Freedman’s family said that she always adopted the latest technology, shifting from film to digital to even using an iPhone in her later years. This practical and receptive attitude towards technology reflects the approach she brought to her photography as well—of rolling with the punches and becoming “invisible” behind her camera—but always maintaining a distinct point of view.

Helen Kyriakoudes ‘21MA

After the winter 2021 class ended, one student in the class — W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies and Public History student Yelana Sims — assumed the role of lead curator, developing the exhibit over the course of the ensuing year, with support from a Charles K Hyde Internship Fellowship. The resulting exhibit, Theater of the Streets was on display at the UMass Amherst Augusta Savage Gallery through March 11, 2022. It is currently available online. Yelana Sims reflects further on the exhibit in her curatorial note, Theater of Perspectives.

By Emily Whitted

Person in pink shirt sitting at a dining room table covered with photographs and other materials objects.
One narrator’s collection of material culture—photographs, ephemera, and objects—that documents her family’s agricultural history in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

The setting of my first oral history interview this past summer—a large farmhouse kitchen table—was barely visible underneath a mass of family photographs, objects, and other ephemera that documented over seventy-five years of agricultural life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Planting tools, certificates for growing tomatoes, and photographs of farm buildings, equipment, and family members in their daily work all materially illustrated both a way of life and a landscape that had morphed and adapted significantly in the wake of growing development. But what role can these materials play in an oral history interview, recorded over audio and processed as a written transcript?

This summer I interned at the Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle, two concrete castles built by millionaire collector and Arts & Crafts tilemaker Henry Chapman Mercer in Doylestown, Pennsylvania that are operated by the Bucks County Historical Society. To support a future exhibit at the Mercer Museum which will focus on the history of agriculture in Bucks County, I conducted eighteen oral history interviews with a wide variety of residents—dairy farmers, grist millers, orchardists, even ice cream makers—as part of the project “Documenting the Voices of Bucks County Agriculture.”

Using only audio recording and photography, I had hoped to capture histories of local events, personal experiences and perspectives on agriculture, and change over time, but I did not anticipate the outpouring of material culture that narrators offered alongside their oral histories or its impact on the project as a whole. When considering oral history interviewing as an indispensable curatorial tool, my time at the Mercer Museum revealed how intertwined material and oral evidence can produce richer oral histories for future archives and potentially lead to future museum acquisitions.

“Documenting the Voices of Bucks County Agriculture” was intentionally designed to incorporate material culture, in part because of its future intended use in a museum exhibit but also because the agricultural experience is intimately tied to material. The built environment of Bucks County farms has changed significantly over the last 100 years, and complexes of farmhouses, barns, silos, and workspaces have fluctuated alongside shrinking numbers of farmable acreage in the face of rapid housing development. With COVID-19 safety precautions in place, this project was still able to move forward with in-person interviews and document the built environment as part of the pre-interview process for narrators still actively working in the agricultural sector. For many farmers, their primary material interactions were also with the crops they grow or the animals they raise, and that relationship was a key research theme in each oral history’s line of questioning. When farmers are considered as skilled makers rather than unskilled workers, experiences of handwork, technological advances, seed or animal sourcing, and yearly farming schedules are also evidence of the intensive, careful labor behind the food we purchase. 

A person with blue pants, a blue shirt and a legal pad speaks with a person in a red shirt and khaki pants inside a mill-race.
Emily with a narrator standing inside a mill-race during a pre-interview conversation. Photo courtesy of the Mercer Museum.

For the interview process itself, I asked every narrator to include material culture they thought would be relevant to their oral history on the table. These objects ranged from photographs and family paintings to scrapbooks and farm tools. Memories shared during the oral history interview were punctuated with visual references and even explanations of how certain objects worked. All visuals were digitized and objects were photographed, then cited in the transcript when they were referenced so that future researchers could view the audio, transcript, and referenced images in tandem. For the exhibition, these visuals and objects may appear on display as valuable aspects of Bucks County farming life in the twentieth century. In some instances, objects and images from this project were also donated to the Bucks County Historical Society collection, and the provenance information for this acquired material culture is greatly enhanced by the oral histories of its living owners, makers, or users.

At the end of my first interview, I was handed three ripe peaches, a generous gift with an extremely limited lifespan in comparison to the gift of their recorded oral history which will stay preserved in the Mercer Museum’s library for future generations to access. I remain conscious that the success of this particular oral history project that involves material beyond what is captured on audio hinges upon local support and trust in partnership with best practices. This project’s methodology was carefully designed in consultation with the Mercer Museum’s curatorial staff, a local advisory committee of Bucks County agricultural community members, and key texts like Donald A. Ritchie’s Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. When conducting interviews in a community that was not my own, clear communication with my narrators was essential, but even then, existing relationships between the Mercer Museum and its local community predated my involvement and made this project possible. Narrators answering my calls, sitting for interviews, or guiding me through haylofts, cornfields and mill races, loaning items for digitalization and even trusting the Mercer Museum with their family’s material history through donation had much more to do with the good faith present in the Mercer Museum’s community interactions and much less to do with my presence this summer. 

But this is where a curator and an oral historian’s responsibilities are most in sync; active collecting and oral history both require right relationships and interfacing with communities. Museums should practice them in tandem more often.

Emily Whitted’s summer internship was supported by a Dr. Judith A. Barter Internship Fellowship from the UMass Amherst Public History Program.

Interview by Asheesh Siddique

Gregg Mitman, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia (The New Press, 2021).

In March of 2021, the award-winning writer, historian and filmmaker Gregg Mitman was the UMass Amherst History Department’s 2021 Writer in Residence. As part of this week-long virtual residency, he delivered a keynote address, “Viral Exchanges: Hotspots, Spillovers, and the Reordering of Life”, co-hosted a writing seminar, held a workshop on nonfiction digital storytelling, met with numerous students and faculty, participated in a screening and panel discussion of his documentary The Land Beneath Our Feet, and more. 

In November of 2021, Mitman, who is Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published his latest book, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia (The New Press), which tells a sweeping story of capitalism, racial exploitation, environmental devastation, and resistance, as Firestone Tire and Rubber Company transformed Liberia into America’s rubber empire. UMass historian Asheesh Siddique, who moderated several of Mitman’s events at UMass Amherst, sat down with him to learn more.

Your book, Empire of Rubber, examines the extraordinary story of the Firestone Company’s corporate empire in Liberia and the environmental destruction that it left in its wake. How did you come to this topic?

GM: I came to the topic unexpectedly. I had been asked to serve as a scholar consultant on a film that was to be made on the colonial roots of international conservation. The production company had archival film from three scientific expeditions, one of which was the 1926 Harvard expedition to Liberia. I was curious about the purpose and intent of the Harvard expedition to Liberia, which had been led by Richard Pearson Strong, a leading tropical medicine expert in the United States whose career had followed the paths of American empire in the Philippines and Latin America. I then discovered that Strong and his team were guests of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, which, at that time, had recently been granted access to up to one million acres of land in Liberia to grow rubber free from British control. I traveled to Liberia over the course of seven years, retracing parts of the expedition’s route, interviewing elders and retired Firestone workers along the way, and visiting the plantations. Through my travels to Liberia and to archives in the United States and Europe I was able to piece together this story of capitalism, racial exploitation, environmental devastation, and resistance as Firestone transformed Liberia into America’s rubber empire.

The theme of this year’s Feinberg Series was ‘Planet on a Precipice: Histories and Futures of the Environmental Emergency.’ What lessons do you hope readers of Empire of Rubber will take away from the history of Firestone in Liberia in order to think about the future of the climate crisis?

GM: Perhaps the biggest point I hope readers will come away with from the book in relation to the climate crisis is an understanding of how capitalism, as both an economic and ecological system, is dependent upon inequalities that produce different valuations of life. The racial geography of the Anthropocene—an epoch in which humans have become a geomorphic force in planetary-scale change—is marked by “the uneven and unfair distribution of death,” in the words of geographer Laura Pulido. In the case of Firestone, we see clearly how the different valuation of life, calculated according to enduring racist logics, was built into the industrial ecologies of the rubber plantations, such that people of color were subject to the greatest toxic exposures and environmental burdens. For decades, the threats posed to life on a warming planet have already been felt by many, mostly non-white, people. We cannot address the climate crisis without attending to the ways in which structural racism, inequitable environmental burdens, and inadequate access to medical care produce glaring racial health disparities, both within the United States and across the globe, as we are seeing with the current COVID pandemic.

Due to COVID-19, the Writer-in-Residence events, like so many other meetings, were all conducted remotely via Zoom. This format seems to have both advantages and disadvantages—less opportunity for in person interaction, but benefits for the environment in terms of reducing air / car travel. What are your thoughts on the future of remote meetings as academia grapples with its own impact on the climate crisis?[1] 

GM: I think it is too soon to tell whether the ecological footprint of academia will change in light of the COVID pandemic. I am heartened by the ways in which virtual meetings have enabled people from across the globe, particularly from lower- and middle-income countries, to participate in webinars and events like the Writer-in-Residence Program. I am also seeing colleagues with many frequent flyer miles making conscious decisions not to fly internationally for meetings in response to the climate crisis, decisions made easier by the possibilities for virtual interaction realized during COVID-19. While computer servers certainly generate carbon emissions, a recent study estimated that a one-day virtual conference for 200 people resulted in emissions 66-times less than if the conference took place in person. Nevertheless, we are already seeing professional societies like the American Historical Association, the American Association of Geographers, and the American Society for Environmental History, and others hosting in-person meetings in 2022, indicating a strong inertia for in-person social interaction, although many meetings will include hybrid sessions that will make accessibility easier and reduce carbon footprints.

– Asheesh Siddique

The History Writer In Residence Program is presented annually by the UMass / Five College Graduate Program in History with support from Five Colleges, Inc. The 2021 residency was offered in partnership with the 2020-2021 Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series, Planet on a Precipice: Histories and Futures of the Environmental Emergency.

By Allison Smith

Three-story historic brick home in Downtown Boston.
Exterior View, Harrison Gray Otis House, First, Boston, Mass. Historic New England Collections.

During the spring of 2021, I was a women’s history research intern at Historic New England (HNE), an organization committed to sharing New England’s home life and history with national audiences by preserving houses and their landscapes alongside archival items and stories. Working under the direction of Dr. Alissa Butler, manager of the HNE Study Center, I was responsible for two main projects. At Casey Farm, a rural historic site in Saunderstown, RI, I researched women who had lived in the family home. At Otis House, a brick historic house in Boston, MA, I researched the experiences of women in the nineteenth-century Boston medical community.

Due to the remote nature of this internship, I researched Emma Weir Casey using Historic New England’s vast digital collection. Unfortunately, the Casey Family Papers has few of Emma’s first-hand accounts; however, it has dozens of her son’s letters. I read Thomas Lincoln Casey Jr.’s letters from 1877 to 1896 to find information about Emma’s life, hobbies, and personality. By sifting through her son’s perspective, I was able to learn about Emma’s frequent travels to New York, her ability to provide for her sons, her interest in music, and more. I ultimately wrote a subject guide about Emma for Casey Farm staff to incorporate her story in interpretation of the house and farm.

A white two-story historic rural farm site in Rhode Island.
Casey Farm. Image courtesy of Allison Smith. 

For Otis House, I read secondary source literature on the Boston medical community to contextualize Elizabeth Mott, an alternative medicine practitioner who lived in the house in the early to mid-nineteenth century. With little information available on Elizabeth, Otis House staff hoped to learn more about the world she would have been living and working in. I wrote subject guides on numerous topics that docents could use to illuminate Elizabeth’s role in alternative medicine including women and medical education, medical societies, feminism, and more. 

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By Melanie Meadors

Banner image with text "Get Historical With Me! Fashion, Freedom, and Function: Women and Bicycles in the 1890s, Part Two" imposted over an image of women turning a bicycle pedal.

A version of this article was originally published by GeekMom. This is part two of a three-part series.

As years went by, more experimentation in bicycle design took place. Gearing systems and chains were introduced, better braking systems were implemented, and springs were installed to cut down on vibration issues. The wheels of the bicycle, rather than having one huge wheel and one small, became more equal in size. Finally, the tire on the bicycle went from a solid rubber tire to one filled with air, which solved multiple issues, including vibration and traction. The safety bicycle had finally come to be, evolving over the course of about eighteen years (the very late 1870s-the early to mid-1890s) to become the bicycle we are more or less familiar with today.

With the safety bicycle being lower to the ground and much easier to ride, it became accessible to many more people, including women. Advertisers latched on to women as a target audience for the bicycle right away, taking advantage of the stylish aspects of it, the fact that it was popular among the upper classes, and using artwork to suggest not only that the bicycles were aesthetically pleasing, but women who rode on bicycles would be decorous as well. While there were detractors and many people who disapproved of women riding bicycles, once women started to ride, nothing seemed to discourage them.

Painting by Alfred Choubrac [Public Domain]

One source of disapproval of women riding was the medical field. Many doctors claimed women were not physically able to ride a bicycle safely. Much of this stemmed from the fact that women had to straddle the bicycle in order to ride. Doctors claimed it was too stimulating for women, that it would affect her childbearing by disfiguring her reproductive organs, and that any sign of slouching in the seat of the bicycle was a sign that a woman was giving in to her devious sexual nature. This is one reason images of the time depicted women sitting straight and tall on their bicycles while their male counterparts are bent closer to the handlebars for better aerodynamics.

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