History graduate students can apply for grants to travel to archives for the first time or to visit multiple archives over time. Historically, students who make initially forays to archives have better success in larger grant competitions, such as the Fulbrights and SSRCs.
Here are a few of their stories and their finds!
I spent two months in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, with funding from a Kunstadter Archival Travel Grant. A chapter of my dissertation examines Chengdu charities during the War of Resistance against Japan. From 1937 to 1945 the local gentry engaged in a surprisingly wide range of welfare, such as caring for the sick and aged, and training orphans and the disabled to work in charitable workshops and factories.
The Institute for Blind Children (Gutong jiaoyang suo) contained the most interesting materials about training in music and fortune-telling. Managers, master musicians, and singers of the Sichuanese opera taught the blind and arranged for them to earn money in Chengdu’s famous teahouses and theaters.
This unexpected find significantly broadens my previous assumption of private charity in organizing the disabled, by showing the role of community welfare in turning people with disabilities into economically self-sufficient communities.
With a John Hope Franklin Memorial grant, I traveled to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library, the premiere collection for documents and artifacts related to women in America. I accessed the papers of Edith Spurlock Sampson—a woman of many firsts. The first Black woman elected to be an Illinois judge, the first African American delegate to the United Nations.
As a founding member of the National Council of Negro Women, she help design council goals of Black internationalism, civic involvement, and civil rights. Sampson said “the time has come for us, as Negro women, to take our proper place in the front line of the political life of our country, ballots are powerful lessons” (Edith [Spurlock] Sampson Papers, 1927, 1934–1979. MC297, Box 1, Folder 1, Page 2. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College).
While I have been researching and writing my dissertation for about a year and a half, I still remain curious, intrigued, and indeed humbled by the mysteries uncovered in the archives. The archives function to me as a conversation with my historical subjects, beckoning to me with their words and work.
I study funny women in America, seriously. How did comedians use comedy subversively from the 1960s to the '90s to talk about women and feminism before many kinds of audiences, from LA's famous Comedy Store to women-only music festivals? Some, like Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller, are well known. Others, like Robin Tyler and Ivy Bottini, are not.
I used my Freehling grant to visit eight archives in four cities (LA, Boston/Northampton, and NYC). The more unusual items were recordings of little-known performances by comics such as Robin Tyler, the first explicitly feminist comic in the early 1970s.
One great and unexpected find was the papers of Ivy Bottini (USC). Bottini introduced consciousness raising to NOW but was forced out for homosexuality in the early 1970s. She moved to LA, became a comedian, and eventually performed shows for NOW chapters across the country. She combined the most stereotypical (consciousness raising) and least stereotypical (lesbian comedy) aspects of the women's movement in her repertoire.
My dissertation examines the place of parents in the US juvenile justice system in the early twentieth century. I used my Freehling grant to travel to the Colorado State Archives to find out more about a Denver judge, Ben Lindsey, who was a trailblazer in holding adults liable for their children’s actions.
Among the most surprising documents I found was an unsent letter to Lindsey from a boy of fourteen. Uncovering the voices of children deemed juvenile delinquents is always a thrilling experience in the archives, but this one was confusing.
The boy confessed to falsely accusing Bill Colias of doing “unnatural things.” I knew that Lindsey had convicted Colias, and I knew that the Colorado Supreme Court had overturned the sodomy conviction because Lindsey lacked jurisdiction. But was Colias free on a technicality or innocent? This unsent letter and other documents I found suggest that the boy had indeed lied to avoid a robbery charge and that Colias was indeed innocent.
I just presented my findings at a Stanford Center for Law and History conference.
Decompressing from archive work: Thursday nights at the Louvre
I received the Eric Cochrane Grant for research in France. I spend last summer in Paris (National Archives and the Bibliothèque Nationale) and in Aix-au-Provence (Colonial Archives).
I stumbled into a topic that will become the fifth chapter of my dissertation: the role of indentured immigrants (from India, China, Africa, and Europe) in the French Antilles after slavery.
This was not an avenue of research I had thought to explore in greater detail, but after a year working with legal and civil records for the nineteenth century, I began to see how influential this population was in the social history I am constructing. I used the bulk of my time to study archival records relating to immigration to Martinique and Guadeloupe.
A grant from the Sinkler Fund sponsored my first trip to the archives. I targeted the Captured North Korean Documents at the National Archives in College Park, MD. The documents taught me a valuable lesson for the archives: to shift my gaze from the printed text to the “marginalia.”
Despite being in a hurry to get through a box, I turned over a 1951 Korean translation of the Communist Manifesto. On the back I discovered lyrical verses handwritten by People’s Army soldiers on their southward march during the Korean War.
I was thrilled to glimpse soldiers narrating the war and found myself wondering how the archive can be used to uncover individual voices.
The top verse reads: “Farewell Ongjin. / This body will go to Pyŏksŏng / And remembering your name, / I shall fight courageously and victoriously. / From Changtun-ri.”
The bottom verse in blue ink appears to be written by another soldier, who declares that he, too, will fight bravely in the south.
On a Rio Ferry.
With generous assistance from the Kunstadter Fund I conducted vital dissertation research in Brazil on enslaved women in the nineteenth century.
The Universidade Estadual de Campinas houses a large trove of judicial documents related to slavery in Rio. Trying to locate the voices of enslaved women has been a challenging endeavor. These court cases have proven to be a rich source of information as they are one of the few ways in which historians can access the testimony and experiences of enslaved people in Brazil.
I was delighted to discover that several cases involved enslaved women.
Now I am I am beginning to understand the lives of these women. I’m learning how they created social networks, how they encountered or tried to resist violence, and how their gender underpinned these experiences.
Please consider helping a History student go traveling with a gift!
By Joanne M. Berens, MFA'93, jberens at uchicago dot edu