When Virtue Comes in Color: The Historical Implications of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s Voyage to South Africa

By Camille Davis

The Duke and Duchess in South Africa. Photo Courtesy of Yahoo News.

Recently, the world watched Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, and their four-month-old son, Baby Archie, as they spent ten days touring South Africa. The media images of a royal, Western, interracial couple visiting a country that is notorious for its recent, segregationist past presents a poignant and powerful message about the progress and transformation that is present in both the British royal family and in the former apartheid-ridden, South Africa. Even more so, the racial context of the Duke and Duchess trip is palpable because of the criticism Markle has faced for her racially mixed heritage. The royal family has fully accepted Markle, but the British press has not.  There are also those within the American press who are relentlessly indignant about the African blood in Markle’s veins.  During her tenure as a royal, the duchess has not spoken explicitly about her ethnicity, until her most recent visit to South Africa. While addressing a crowd in Cape Town, she referred to herself as “a member of the royal family, a mother, a wife, a woman, a woman of color, and as your  [the people of Cape Town’s] sister.” This statement is powerful because it attests to the ability of Markle to represent multiple components of herself simultaneously. In essence, she exhibited that being a woman of color and being a British royal are not mutually exclusive. One can be both — and represent both—exceptionally well.

One of the great Western misconceptions about people with non-European heritage or racially mixed identities is that they are incapable of filling roles outside of those traditionally prescribed for them. For those who think this way, it is difficult to conceptualize a person of color operating in a position that has been historically preserved — either by law or custom — for those who are white. The Daily Mail’s infamous reference to Markle as being “straight out of Compton” and other pejorative comments of that sort are rooted in the idea that a black woman could not effectively navigate the responsibilities of a British royal. Her ethnicity and/or the culture that the ethnicity represents imbue her with a limited capacity.  In short, a woman of color is not fully a woman.

The Duchess of Sussex guest editing British Vogue. Courtesy of @SUSSSEXROYAL

Such marred perceptions create a proverbial tight rope for which Markle must walk. With each step, she must carry multiple layers of her identity with dexterity and grace because a misstep means that one or all of those layers will be marginalized and diminished by a jeering, chanting critical onlooker. A misstep means that she is criticized about her race, her role as a wife, her role as mother, her role as a royal, her identity as a woman — she is critiqued about her success or failure at being all of these things at once. The cynicism about her race creates a sense of dubiousness about the other parts of her. “Can a black woman be a  ______?” This is why Markle’s public, multi-faceted identification of herself in her various roles is so important. By simultaneously claiming her familial roles, her royal role, and her race, she asserts her awareness of the tight rope and her willingness to walk it. And what better place to do this than in a country that is still healing from its deeply embedded, historical, racial wounds?

The Duchess cooking at the Hub Community Kitchen, a place for victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fires. Photo Courtesy of the LA Times via Jenny Zarins/ AFP/Getty Images/Kensington Palace
The cover of the September issue of British Vogue.
M.M’s birthday cake by Luminary Bakery. Photo Courtesy of Marie Claire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A thank you note from M.M. to Luminary Bakery for her birthday cake.

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

As is the case with all of us, the ultimate test for the Duchess of Sussex is what she does — not just what she says. In Markle’s case, the ease in which she delivered her Cape Town speech was indicative of the life she is living and has lived. During her two years as a member of the royal family, she has accomplished a tremendous amount. The most well-documented achievements include working with fashion designer Misha Nonoo  and the charity Smart Works to create a clothing line for unemployed British women who are attempting to re-enter the workforce; being a co-author and royal patron of the Together: Our Community Cookbook to raise money for victims of the  June 2017 fire in  the Grenfell Tower high-rise; guest editing the September issue of British Vogue and creating a theme for the issue that focuses on women who are creating positive social and political change in the world; also commissioning  her birthday cake from Luminary Bakery, a bakery that hires women who have survived trauma that includes abuse, homelessness, and incarceration. Additionally, she recently flew commercial in order to attend the U.S. Open in support of her friend, another woman of color, Serena Williams.

The Duchess at the U.S. Open on September 7th. She is sitting next to her friend, Serena Williams’ mother, who is on her right. Photo Courtesy of Fox News.

Do these actions tell us everything there is to know of her? Absolutely not. However, they do say that she has the ability to be a representation of feminine excellence for a woman of any race in the same way that her storied and beloved, late mother in law, Princess Diana was – and still is. By being an excellent woman of color, Markle will contribute to the eventual characterization of women of color as simply and unequivocally “women” by the Western world.

 

T.W. Gregory’s ‘Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan’ as it Resonates Today

By T. Ashton Reynolds

Intolerable and Inexcusable Acts that and All that Made them Excusable…

On July 10th, 1906, T.W. Gregory of Austin, Texas delivered a paper before the Arkansas and Texas Bar Associations entitled, Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan.[1] His opening comments defined the Ku Klux Klan as the “Invisible Empire,” springing up overnight as a dark ephemeral shadow government fielding its own army of 100,000 men bent on carrying out its bidding.  He described this Invisible Empire as one that “passed laws without Legislatures, tried men without courts, and inflicted penalties, sometimes capital ones, without the benefit of clergy.”[2] It defied state and national authorities with impunity and its every act, according to Gregory, was “in defiance of the established order and the spirit and letter of our institutions.”[3]  Indeed, the acts of cruelty and oppression committed by The Invisible Empire (in addition to those committed in its name by others with dubious connection to the Klan) were both intolerable and inexcusable.[4]

Intolerable and inexcusable as the acts of the Ku Klux Klan were, Gregory was thoroughly convinced that, given the conditions of the South between 1866 and 1872, hardly any man assembled to hear his paper “would have been other than a Ku Klux or Ku Klux sympathizer.”[5] Academically speaking, Gregory stated that no one in their right mind could approve of the Klan as an organization.  But, given that the Klan was comprised of individuals hard pressed by the conditions in which they found themselves, the Klan took on the mantle of something more than a simple organization.  The Klan became a collective of individuals, a movement that assumed the “dignity of a revolution, the protest of proud and despairing race against conditions not to be endured…desperate men, challenging fate, and swearing that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be theirs and their children’s at any cost.”[6]

Gregory concluded that Reconstruction created an unconstitutional vacuum of liberty in the South.  Four misfortunes sucked liberty from the post-rebellion South.[7]  The first misfortune was the assassination of Lincoln along with his generously kind plan of Reconstruction for the South.  The hatred and venom “unsurpassed” directed by Republicans and Southerners alike at Andrew Johnson whose political career was “as a matter of fact” marked by “honesty and consistency,” was the second misfortune that befell the South.[8]  According to Gregory, Johnson was “endowed with such a faculty for doing the right thing in the wrong way.”[9] When it came to reforming the Union, Johnson was like a bull in a china shop.  The third misfortune was the passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill which removed from the Southern states the right to regulate freedmen as they saw fit and entrusted it into the hands of the War Department.  The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, in the eyes of many white men in the South, was an intrusive attempt to disorder the inherent and necessary racial stratification of Southern society with blacks on the bottom.[10] Finally, the Reconstruction Acts suspended the constitutional rights of Southern states and their white inhabitants by unconstutionally imposing military rule over them.[11]

Ultimately, according to Gregory, these misfortunes allowed for the disenfranchisement of “substantially all of the intelligent class of the South.” Thus, into the vacuum came freedmen, who, Gregory was careful to point out, were mostly illiterate, and now comprised almost the entire electorate.  To make matters worse, Northern carpetbaggers and Southern Scalawags (who were “composed almost exclusively of the very scum of creation) controlled the black vote.[12] Insofar as Johnson was unable to check Congress, and the Supreme Court unwilling to act as the “bulwark against unconstitutional legislation and executive tyranny” as intended by the founding fathers.  Gregory wrote that, by 1867, “it seemed that every remedy had tried in vain and the limit of endurance reached.”[13]

 

The Ku Klux Klan: Defenders of The Constitution and Freedom…

 At the halfway point of his paper Gregory quotes Woodrow Wilson’s History of the American People to set the scene for a full throated apologetic diatribe regarding the Klan:

“The white men of the South were aroused by the very instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of government sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interests of adventurers…There was no place of open action or of constitutional agitation, under the terms of reconstruction, for the men who were there real leaders of the Southern communities…They could act only by private combination, by private means, as a force outside of the government, hostile to it, proscribed by it, of whom opposition and bitter resistance was expected, and expected with defiance.”[14]

It was simply unbearable to be treated like some vanquished enemy fully at the whim of their conqueror.[15]  But, just when all seemed lost, “fate had prepared a potent weapon, and at the critical moment thrust it into the hands of these desperate and despairing men.”[16]

Where Gregory begins his apologetic description of the Klan is important.  He reminded his listeners that at the heart of the story of the Klan is just a small group of young, professional men in Tennessee with time on their hands who formed a secret fraternal organization whose only purpose was to “mystify outsiders and have fun.”[17] Essentially, according to Gregory, for the first year of the Klan’s existence it was not much more than the Kappa’s throwing a raging invitation only kegger while wearing scary looking robes and chanting creepy sounding incantations in barely visible  locations.  Yet, as new chapters, or “Dens,” sprang up all over the South, members of the Klan began to come to the realization that their goal of mystifying outsiders was having an unexpected side effect: it gave the Klan “amazing influence of the unknown over the minds and actions of men.”[18]  Soon members of the Klan shifted their purpose away from a great social prank to the idea that a “great mission awaited the movement.”[19]

The great mission was to take up the banner of the Constitution which existed to protect the weak, the defenseless, and the decent.  Of course, this was based on Southern white men’s understanding of what “constitutional” meant, as well as who was “defenseless” or “weak.”  The salient point here is that the Klan viewed the carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedpersons as the true threats to constitutionality and decent people.  This was an important principle which underlay the Klan’s purpose for existence: for the defeated South, Constitutionality took on a spiritual immutable epistemology that had nothing to do with the government empowered by the Constitution.  As the misfortunes that befell the South during Reconstruction robbed it of its constitutional rights, there were men who would keep the spirit of the Constitution, as they understood it, alive until such time as constitutionality in governmental form could be restored to the Southern states.[20]

In the end, Gregory reiterates that though he does not condone the crimes and excesses of the Klan, the ends and accomplishments of the Ku Klux Klan fully justified its existence as a movement.[21]  Even though the Klan was extra-judicial and acted outside constitutional boundaries, it was a more agreeable than the perceived form of extra-judicial, unconstitutional action imposed upon the South by the Northern states.  In reality, Gregory is not describing a battle to protect constitutional rights as much as he is describing a battle to deprive constitutional rights.  If the acts of the Klan could not be condoned, they could be excused in light of their targets.

In Case You Thought This Kind of Thinking Was Dead and Gone…

For a brief time after the end of major hostilities in the Civil War, Southern whites believed life would return to normal, save they no longer legally owned slaves.  It would not be long before the horrors of the war faded into memory and things would go back to what they were before.  For Southern whites, Congressional Reconstruction put that dream despairingly on hold.  The Ku Klux Klan was the bearer of the banner that things could be great again.  More than a banner holder, they were motivated to action by that banner.

I read this document two weeks ago at DeGoyler Library at SMU.  Though we have seen a uptick in overt and covert racist demonstrations in the last few years, in those two weeks I have repeatedly come across the very ideas Gregory puts forth in this paper he delivered in 1906, some one-hundred and six years ago.  Last week I drove past a man selling dozens of racist flags on the side of the road.  This weekend in Hilsborough, North Carolina, Klan members rallied in public outside a courthouse in full regalia.  And yet, Gregory’s maxim continues to hold true.  Most self-respecting white southerners would never put on a robe and hold a banner in public.  The Klan is repugnant, a bunch of violent fringe extremists.  But, for white southerners racism, isn’t the problem: their problem is that they believe the government is creating an environment where white people’s constitutional rights are threatened in the name of justice and righting wrongs of the past.  This is not a matter of remembering the past so we don’t make the same mistakes today or in the future.  This is a continuation of what has always been in our country.

Picture taken in North Zulch, Texas by author
Klan Rally in Hillsborough, North Carolina that happened last Saturday, August 24th.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gregory ended his talk with an ominous threat for those in the future who might try and disturb white hegemony again:

“The Ku Klux machine has been stored away in the Battle Abbey of the Nation, as obsolete, we trust, as the causes which produced it; it will stand there for all time as a reminder how useless the prostitution of forms of law in an effort to do that which is essentially unlawful; but it will also remain an eternal suggestion to the vigilance committee and the regulator.”[22]

 

[1] Thomas Watt Gregory. Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan : a Paper Read before the Arkansas and Texas Bar Associations, July 10, 1906 / by Mr. T.W. Gregory. Austin, Tex: s.n., 1906.; T.W. Gregory graduated from the University of Texas with a Law Degree, was a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas, a Trustee for Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and was actively involved in the UT Ex-Students Association serving as head from 1926-1928.  He served as Attorney General of the United States under Woodrow Wilson and was active in state and national Democratic politics.

[2] Gregory, Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan, p 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gregory, at one point in his paper differentiated between a revolution and a rebellion, noting that a “revolution is a rebellion which succeeds, while a rebellion is a revolution which fails.” p. 3. So, while in his estimation the KKK movement was a revolution,  by his same logic the Southern cause was a rebellion.

[8] Gregory, 4.

[9] Ibid, 5.

[10] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: the United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 50.

[11] Gregory, 6.

[12] Ibid, 7-8.

[13] Ibid, 11.

[14] Ibid, 11.

[15] It is fair to note that there was a certain whiplash to the treatment of the South during Reconstruction due to the competing understandings and goals of Reconstruction between Johnson and Congress, and even within Congress.  The everyday lesson here is, if you have a petulant child, both parents have to be on board or it just makes everything worse.  For more on Reconstruction see Negro Militia and Reconstruction by Otis Singletary and This Republic For Which It Stands: The United States and the Guilded Age 1865-1896 by Richard White.

[16] Gregory, Ibid, 11.

[17] Ibid, 12.

[18] Ibid. 13.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The Klan held an organizing convention in Nashville, TN in 1867 and adopted three (painfully ironic) points of action:

 

  1. To protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from the indignities, wrongs, and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal; to relieve the injured and the oppressed; to succor the suffering and the unfortunate, and especially the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers
  2. To protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and all laws passed in conformity thereto, and to protect the States and people thereof from all invasion from any source whatever.
  3. To aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws, and to protect the people from unlawful seizure, and from trial, except by their peers, in conformity with the laws of the land..

Gregory, 14.

[21] Ibid, 21; Though earlier he goes out of his way to show that 90% of the time the Klan used what he described as the ignorance and superstitious nature of freedmen and poor whites to simply scare them into falling in line, but if and when they did use deadly force they gave their victims at least a days warning to leave.

[22] Ibid, 22.

Echoes of the Bracero Program During California’s Primary Election Debate

By Jonathan Angulo

Before California’s gubernatorial primary election, four Democrats and two Republicans faced off in a televised debate on January 25, 2018. Moderators Jorge Ramos and Ilia Caldéron asked candidates Antonio Villaraigosa (D), Delaine Eastin (D), Gavin Newsom (D), John Chiang (D), John Cox (R), and Travis Allen (R), about many issues, including immigration in general and in particular—they asked questions on sexual assault against undocumented women, on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and on immigrant farm work. Candidates Chiang and Cox alluded to the Bracero Program, a guest-worker program enacted between 1942-1964, during the debate. The discussion demonstrated how the program is remembered and how guest workers should be treated. The comments suggest the United States should remember workers’ hardships, so they are treated humanely when legislators propose immigration policies.

A fourteen-year old, Benjamín Zepeda, asked the candidates, “How can you help families like mine that are scared to be separated due to deportation?” this prompted Chiang’s indirect reference to the Bracero Program. As he highlighted immigrants’ contribution to California’s development, he recalled that during World War II the nation invited Mexicans to labor in our farms. Acknowledging the country’s failure to advocate for fully just immigration policies, he declared that our economic future would be shaped by immigrants. In recalling braceros’ contributions, the candidate pledged his support for immigrants because our country should represent dignity, decency, and respect for all people. He accordingly vowed to solve such issues with all governors by pushing Washington D.C., to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Thus, Chiang’s comments alluded to the significance and importance of the Bracero Program. 1

Candidate Chiang is seen answering a question during the debate.

 

Chiang’s statement referring to this country’s failure in advocating for just immigration policies had merit even in regard to the Bracero Program, whose resurrection is sometimes promoted as a solution to current immigration problems. The binational agreement originated when the agribusiness and railroad industries lobbied Congress for a guest-worker program. President Franklin Roosevelt subsequently signed an executive order which caused Mexico and the United States to create the Bracero Program from 1942-1951; Congress later extended the program from 1951 to 1964. Contracted Mexican workers, known as Braceros, traveled from their homes to migratory stations in Mexico before reaching the border. Then, they traveled from the stations to U.S. reception centers where they were formally contracted. Braceros were to be paid a minimum wage, provided with housing, given food, and promised a small pension from deducted funds in their paychecks.2

The program brought numerous laborers to the United States; however, there were not enough jobs for them, which led the applicants to take desperate measures. For example, on June 13th, 1958 a bracero bought a peer’s identity, so he could move up in the waiting list. Contracted by the Ventura County Citrus Growers Committee, the bracero, after his six-month contract, used the peer’s name again. Migratory officials, however, found that he was using the fraudulent identity. Thus, Mexicans who could not attain a contract through formal measures used such informal means and increasingly crossed the border as undocumented immigrants. The Eisenhower administration, subsequently, enacted Operation Wetback in 1954 which resulted in the deportation of over a million Mexicans. Mexican officials were upset at the deportations as they argued that the U.S. had invited workers to cross the border, then punished undocumented workers, instead of the employers who hired them.3

Moderator Ilia Caldéron later in the debate asked John Cox, “Do you know that more than 60% of the people harvesting fruits and veggies here in California are undocumented immigrants? Isn’t it pro-business to give them a legal status?” The candidate answered by sympathizing with Central Valley Farmers. According to Cox, the farmers advertised higher wages; however, they continued to endure labor shortages. The candidate then argued for a labor importation program, basically another Bracero Program already shown to be flawed. He claimed that Latinos came from dysfunctional and corrupt countries such as, Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, and Guatemala. Cox continued by describing them as nations where special interests, cronies, and monopolists receive government favors. The candidate ended by stating that Latinos come to the United States because it is a country of laws. But some farmers’ actions during the program tell a different story.4

Candidate Cox addresses Trump’s comments about African Nations and Third World countries.

 

The Bracero Program demonstrated that the United States often acted as a nation without laws, as the government frequently served farmers’ interests despite written agreements. For example, in November 1942, a frost damaged pea crops in the Imperial Valley of California. At the time, braceros were contracted to harvest peas, but were instead ordered to tie carrots. In addition, farmers paid braceros and domestic workers six cents per bushel instead of the normal eight-cent piece rate which challenged the prevailing wage agreement in the program. Objecting against such “cheap” labor, discontented domestic workers organized a strike on January 9, 1943 advocating for the original rate. In response, the California Farm Labor Transportation Program and the Imperial Valley Farmers Association worked together to deport braceros who refused to be strikebreakers. Thus, forty workers were deported between January 9 and February 3. The tying season finished before the strike gathered momentum.5

The United States, nevertheless, continued to break laws. Before 1952, the U.S president and the Mexican government informally re-approved the Bracero Program. Once President Harry Truman signed Public Law No. 78, the program required Congress’s approval every two years. The next renewal was accordingly discussed in 1954. Although both countries had failed to come to an agreement in early 1954, U.S. Border Patrol officials encouraged Mexicans to cross the border under an undocumented status. Tony Gose, a resident from the Imperial Valley, verified this claim in a House Agriculture Committee report. On one occasion, he witnessed a Mexican official grab a former bracero to prevent him from being hired as an undocumented laborer. A U.S. official, however, in a tug of war fashion, grabbed the laborer in an attempt to take him from the Mexican agent. Finally, both governments after tense negotiations agreed on a new renewal in 1954.6

Los Angeles Times Photographer Frank Q. Brown’s Imperial Valley Border Picture, 1954.

 

After the program, society has demonstrated that braceros have been remembered, but policymakers need to study their experiences more closely. Providing assistance for such study, the National Museum of American History has created the Bracero History Project to tell the complex history of braceros. Also, the Bracero Justice Movement has sought to recognize the exploitation and injustices guest workers faced, as well as to recuperate pensions and wages withheld from them. Policymakers should remember that braceros often found ways to alleviate the wrongs they experienced. They also developed agency when confronting state power in ways that might give politicians pause in promoting new guest worker programs As Mireya Loza argues in Defiant Braceros, braceros participated in deviance and defiance when they participated in the vice and sex industries along the border. Their shared leisure experiences gave them agency but also demonstrates that the importation of temporary male workers might be less preferable than admission of permanent residents in families.7

Policymakers, nevertheless, must agree that the United States and California was built on the backs of immigrants, that our country represents dignity, decency, and respect for all people, and that our nation should recognize and avoid repeating historical injustices when composing new immigration laws.

 

  1. Univision Noticias, “Forum with California’s gubernatorial candidates 2018.” YouTube video, 1:36:14, January 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcWa-X0RxwA&t=2044s&index=13&list=WL.
  2. Henry P. Anderson, The Bracero Program in California. (New York: Arno Press, 1976),43, 108.
  3. Peter N. Kirstein, “Agribusiness, Labor and the Wetbacks: Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor,” The Historian, vol. 40. no. 4 (1978): 651; Richard B. Craig, The Bracero Program Interest Groups and Foreign Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 4.
  4. Univision Noticias, “Forum with California’s gubernatorial candidates 2018.”
  5. Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle Over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 35-36; Warne D. Rasmussen, A History of The Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program 1943-47(Washington D.C., Agriculture Monograph No. 13, U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Agricultural Economics, 1951), 202.
  6. “Valley Hopes for Border Labor Pact,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 1954; “Violence Halts Wetback Crossing,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 25, 1954; “Policy Shift Traps Mexican Farm Workers,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 1954; Robert S. Robinson, “Taking the Fair Deal to the Fields: Truman’s Commission on Migratory Labor, Public Law 78, and the Bracero Program, 1950-1952,” Agricultural History84, no. 3 (Summer-2010): 394-398.; House of Representatives, Committee on Agriculture, Mexican Farm Labor. 83rdCong., 1954, 67, 69.
  7. Mireya Loza, Defiant Braceros: How Migrant Workers Fought for Racial Sexual and Political Freedom, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 17, 173, 182.

The Grad Experience at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting

Andrew Klumpp is a Ph.D. Student in American religious history in the Graduate Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.

Shortly after ringing in the new year, I made my way to Washington, D.C. for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The weather was unusually frigid, which made trekking between hotels a bit of a chore. Charter buses did shuttle us between venues, resulting in some of both the nerdiest and best bus trips that I’ve ever taken. Luckily, though, the charter busses full of historians weren’t the conference’s only highlights.

First and foremost, AHA offered some of the most robust programming for graduate students that I have seen in my conference travels as a grad student. It provided frequent opportunities for graduate students to receive mentoring from established scholars, attend sessions about the job market, or explore career diversity for historians.

In particular, I managed to attend two sessions that focused on work for historians in the federal government and in think tanks. These sessions highlighted several excellent opportunities outside of the professoriate that are available to historians. In each case, the panelists shared their experiences and also how they used their skills as historians in the current roles. Historians from the National Museum of American History, the Center for American Progress, and the Heritage Foundation all shared about their journey to and work in their current positions.

On Saturday these opportunities conversations about career diversity extended into a career fair. During this event, graduate students could meet individually with historians working in a variety of fields. I chatted with a historian working in the Office of the Historian in the U.S. House of Representatives, a historian at the Department of State, curators at the Smithsonian Institute, and many historians working in exciting roles. I learned about opportunities like the Council on Library and Information Resources Fellowships and the Presidential Management Fellows Program. In each case, these historians offered examples of how to use skills as a historian in fields beyond the professoriate.

Beyond grad student-focused sessions, AHA also offered particularly engaging panels on digital history. Each of the panels on digital history that I attended gave excellent examples of current digital projects and also identified some of the challenges faced by those employing new methodologies. I got to hear more about a number of projects, such as Lincoln Mullen’s America’s Public Bible Project, Kyle Robert’s Jesuit Libraries Project, and Denise Burgher’s work on the Colored Conventions Project. These projects offered outstanding examples of what can be done through digital methods and also helped to emphasize some of the particular challenges of working with digital methods in research, writing, and in the classroom.

In addition to these digital history panels, I also made sure to take in a panel on urban history while at AHA. Admittedly, I am a rural historian, yet one of my favorite things to do at a large conference like AHA is to attend panels that discuss urban history. I always find myself interested in the methods and explanations being used by urban historians. These types of panels sharpen my own analytical approach.

This year I attended a panel focused on urban environments on the edge of what some deem urban. The panel discussed ranches in Nevada, the Black Hills in South Dakota, and the Burning Man festival. Of all of the panels I attended throughout the conference, this is the one that has stuck with me the longest because I continue to wonder if I agree with the whole panel’s basic premise. From my perspective, the spaces explored in these papers appear more rural than urban. What is more, even if they are situated between rural and urban space, as my colleague Joel Zapata reminded me, they may be better understood as borderlands.

I came away from the panel with a bevy of questions. Does any built environment constitute an urban space? Are a cluster of ranches in Nevada really urban or are they a small town like those found throughout rural America? What makes these rural and borderlands spaces appear urban? What are the benefits or drawbacks of such a classification? I still wrestle with the premise of classifying rural communities as simply the edge of urban ones; however, the panel has certainly driven me to examine many of my own presuppositions.

Finally, the last panel I attended got heated, providing some fireworks for the close of the conference. During the question and answer session on a panel focused on religion and good government, a debate broke out about the negative tone taken toward conservative political and cultural figures. An audience member argued that many scholars present the conservative agenda in a negative light while presenting more progressive movements in a more positive light. The audience member highlighted that eight years ago, there were no panels ending with the phrase “in the Age of Obama” while there were multiple panels ending with the phrase “in the Age of Trump” at this year’s meeting.  One of the panelists—a Democratic congressional candidate—shot back rather forcefully and a spirited debate ensued.

By nature, I am inclined to stay out of the fray and did so during the debate. Nevertheless, the moment reminded me that many of the tensions that continually bubble up in our current political environment are not far from the surface even in professional meetings.

As AHA concluded, I happily traded frigid D.C. for Dallas’s temperate winter weather, and I left with a much better sense of the field and the opportunities available to me as a graduate student. I’m grateful for the financial support from my department, SMU’s office of Research and Graduate Studies and the American Historical Association that made the trip possible. Ultimately, I leave grateful for the trip, enlightened by the conversation, and looking forward to continue to pursue my future as a historian.