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How I became a historian

I hated history when I was in high school. And I didn’t really like it that much in college, either. So how did I become a historian?

I entered history by way of a highway exit sign.

I was a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And I was taking a class on the history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. We were studying African Americans’ long struggle for freedom and dignity. And we had read about case after case of racial injustice and brutality and about the heroic efforts of ordinary black folks to overcome these legacies of slavery and white supremacy.

And even though we read great books and had rich discussions—Mississippi seemed like a foreign country. A place so far away, with a history so distant, we might as well have been talking about ancient Rome—or Mars.

So we asked our professor to take us there. He was pretty cool and said, “ok!” We planned a trip for Spring Break and about 12 of us hopped into University-owned vans and drove south. Our plan was to meet with local movement veterans to get first-hand accounts of the movement and to visit the local archives to do research for our final papers.

We had just crossed the state line from Tennessee into Mississippi and we all saw it. We had been joking around, singing, and laughing and we all fell silent.

It was the exit sign for Duck Hill.

In 1936, Roosevelt Towns and “Bootjack” McDaniel, both black men who were about 20 years old— were accused of murdering a white man. A mob of 300 people formed—including women and children—and they dragged the two men to a clearing in the woods. They were chained to trees and then members of the mob took turns torturing them with a blowtorch. They burned off each of their fingers and then their ears and then finally shot them and threw them on top of an enormous bonfire.

We had all read about what happened in Duck Hill. But the sign, for some reason, made it real in a way that it wasn’t in the book.

Suddenly ‘history’ came to life. It was real! It was there!  It wasn’t just about words on paper or about a world so distant from my own. The past seemed very much alive. And it was electrifying.

The rest of the trip reinforced this feeling. I met with veterans of the Mississippi civil rights movement and was amazed by their dedication to human and civil rights. In the midst of this unspeakable violence and against all odds—they fought back—and they won.

The history of the black freedom movement awakened something within me—something mental and elemental—and I haven’t really been the same since. My parents thought I was nuts—you know, what’s this white girl studying black history? But black history IS American history. It’s ultimately about coming to terms with our nation’s original sin of slavery and white supremacy. It’s also an inspiring history of resistance because in many ways the civil rights movement—indeed, the entire African American freedom struggle—is about demanding that America to live up to its promise—essentially that we are all created equal and we have the right to liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness.

Too often we fall short of these goals. We may be equal on paper, but in reality, we are surrounded by inequality, unequal access to opportunity and continuing injustice.

And that is why I am interested in African American history—especially the civil rights movement—because it has incredible lessons to teach us. But we have to get the history right…