Reflections on the urban past and public history

Yuri Gama, recently accepted Ph.D. Student, UMass History

Different from the rest of the city, Parramore was always a mixed-use neighborhood. Now, it’s like pulling teeth, it’s like a skeleton. It’s like the community is being squeezed out. —Vencinia Cannady, senior resident at the African-American community of Parramore, Orlando, Florida.

As I browsed through unconnected pieces of files inside libraries and talked with local residents unveiling the story of Parramore, I slowly gathered information about the historical convergence of urban planning, racial segregation and social inequality in Central Florida. Researching African American history for my Master’s thesis in such an understudied place, brought me straight to a public history alley. The more I would find in my research, the more I would feel the need to reveal it publicly. Now, as a Ph.D. student, I intend to delve into Brazil’s modern urban history with the help of my advisor Dr. Joel Wolfe and the digital and public historians at UMass.

During my Masters studies, I studied the process of urban sprawl in the American South and the history of the Jim Crow Era in the United States. My work combined studies of race and public policy to demonstrate how racial oppression and urban transformations pushed an African-American community into an economic, social and cultural decline in Orlando, Florida. During my research, beyond working with libraries, history centers, and museums, I established a connection with the community that I studied by interviewing residents, and publicly presenting my final work there. The several informal conversations with inhabitants of the city helped me grasp the “common sense” narratives running nowadays in order to understand preliminary issues that I could research in the past. Listening and interpreting the interviews and cross-referencing them with historical data allowed me to build a cohesive narrative out of an understudied city such as Orlando. Although oral history appeared just as a short part of my thesis, it was relevant to sew the broad story of Parramore. In this sense, the community indirectly helped me crafting the narrative.

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

I-4 Construction in Downtown Orlando, 1957

After finishing my thesis, I had the honor and responsibility of giving a feedback to the neighborhood I had studied. Understanding the importance of a community-oriented public history, and with the guidance of my advisor Dr. Julian Chambliss from Rollins College, I presented my research in Parramore to local residents, local leaders, urban planners, scholars, and others. The Orlando Weekly, as well as the internet and social networks, covered the event. Considering such a diverse audience, and a story charged with incidents of violence, disenfranchisement and disparity among social classes, publicly exposing the research was a challenge for me. In the end, as I received positive responses and endless questions, I concluded that publicly displaying the research for the community was an effective way to spread my findings and raise the debate over public policies and racial oppression in Florida.

In order to disseminate Parramore’s story, I have published an article on the websites Tropics of Meta – historiography for the masses and Tweeting about the article resulted in a short discussion on the web about the role of highways in the destruction of African American neighborhoods throughout the modern history of the United States. Besides that, it helped me, as a writer, scholar and student to face comments, suggestions, and critiques about my own research. The discussions online and offline enabled me to be in a position of experiencing public debates and to learn and discuss about my research process. I’m planning on making the audio of the interviews for my research available to the public until the end of 2016. I will publish everything on the RICHES project website (Regional Initiative for Collecting the History, Experiences and Stories of Central Florida) for continued engagement to the discussion created by my historical research.

Now, as a History Ph.D. student at UMass, I’ll be researching Latin America’s past. More specifically, I will study Brazil’s urban history with the guidance of Professor Joel Wolfe. In this journey, an analysis of urban mobility and community settlements appears as a potential subject to be explored. Through an analysis of people’s lives with a detailed investigation of urban planning documents, regional maps, urban biographies, local and federal statistics and the realization of careful interviews and questionnaires, one can comprehend how urban projects such as the construction of roads, malls, and public housing projects affected entire communities. Thus, I intend to research urban transformations developed in the twentieth century and its connection with social and racial inequalities during Brazil’s industrialization process.

Gentrified Area in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pic by Yuri Gama. (2016)

Gentrified Area in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pic by Yuri Gama. (2016)

I am eager to begin my work in the UMass History Department. I hope to forge a partnership with the group of public and digital historians. I also plan to establish connections with different departments such as Architecture and the Digital Humanities Initiative laboratory in order to develop my body of research. In other words, I am excited to delve in a world of historiography and historical theory, and to improve my skills for teaching, learning and exchanging ideas. Throughout this journey, I’ll be working to develop the intellectual sophistication necessary to communicate the disciplinary historical frameworks for different audiences in order to place my knowledge in the service of society.

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