- PhD, History, Duke University, 2010-Present
- MA, History, University of Arkansas, 2010
- BA, History, University of Arkansas, 2008
- Politics, Public Life and Governance
- Labor and Working Class History
- Race and Ethnicity
- Legal History
I was raised in what most folks call the big city, and everyone else calls a quaint little hamlet with history. Fort Smith, Arkansas is a town of some seventy-five to one-hundred thousand people. It was famous as the gateway to the West in the nineteenth century, a military outpost on the border between civilization and the savage frontier territory of Oklahoma. The gallows of Garrison Avenue and the Hanging Judge that made them famous have made my hometown set pieces for both the Wild West and the Old South. As a result, the city has always had identity confusion. It has a fascinating past as a Freedman’s Bureau town, a safe-haven for recently-enslaved African Americans in the midst of white violence in the Ozarks after the Civil War. Still, the city’s sandy streets, seedy saloons, and well-worn gallows all made up an almost caricatured portrait of the Old West, even if it doesn’t seem very Western anymore.
My interest in both geography and history are tied intimately to my city of origin. Fort Smith’s Catholic schools were in a part of town that was in the 1950s on the right side of the tracks. By the time I attended them in the 1980s and 90s, municipal neglect had eroded surrounding neighborhoods and nearby public schools, and us uniformed Catholic-school kids were warned not to venture into nearby streets alone. The city was then and still is deeply segregated, owing to patterns of white flight, race-to-the-bottom municipal taxation policies, and virulent opposition to busing and desegregation in the mid-twentieth century. Even as a young teenager wandering those streets my parents warned me about, I wondered what the fuss was all about. I knew the people they avoided when picking me up from school. My friend lived next door to them, they seemed harmless; we played soldier and rode bikes with their children. Fort Smith looked very different to my parents than it did to me.
Although it took a few years into college for me to cultivate a serious intellectual interest in US history, my fascination with social problems persisted as my academic journey took me through a variety of fields and regional focuses. Throughout, I learned to keep my eye on the present. It took an amazing mentor at the University of Arkansas to help me realize that I really wanted to tell stories about the South, about places and people, and the various ways our environments perpetuate inequalities. The latter question inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree with that same mentor, who encouraged me begin with a question about the present and use the past to answer it. So I began in my home town from a very simple question I always wondered as a naive kid in high school history courses: Why, in an America that had a massive movement against racial inequality and segregation in the 1950s and 60s did I attend what was clearly the white high school, Southside, in the rich part of town, while the black high school, Northside, was in what Southsiders called the ghetto?
Over time, my interests crept farther back into the past in search of answers, to the social justice movements of the mid-twentieth century themselves; to agricultural mechanization and Jim Crow segregation; then to the Civil War and Reconstruction. For my thesis, I asked these questions of a city farther South in the state during the period of Reconstruction for evidentiary reasons. The theme, nevertheless, continued: how have people shaped spaces in ways that give the present its order, that give a railroad track for racial and ethnic groups to arrange themselves or be arranged on one or the other side of? My historical questions are deeply informed by the present, particularly when they involve the hidden aspects of inequality, the invisible structures that pattern the way we know the world and the groups of people in it.