Rethinking diversity: Dr. Rhonda Jones, public history is sexy

This is the fourth post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.

Joshua Trower works a table at the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, North Carolina to provide outreach for the Pope House Museum, under the City of Raleigh Museum, in Raleigh, NC.

North Carolina Central University student Joshua Trower works a table at the Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, North Carolina, to provide outreach for the Pope House Museum, under the City of Raleigh Museum, in Raleigh, NC. Photo credit: Joshua Trower

Dr. Rhonda Jones is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Public History graduate program at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. [1]  As one of the few Historically Black Colleges or Universities offering graduate level study in public history, museum studies, or library sciences, Jones sets a standard for public history instruction, training, and practice. By exposing her cohort of emerging public historians, which is comprised almost entirely of students of color, to innovative, practical coursework and diverse fieldwork opportunities, Jones is committed to training capable, well-rounded practitioners whose skills are coveted in any field. Jones offers fresh perspectives on graduate-level training, public history as it relates to students of color, and the state of diversity in the field.

AT: Tell me about yourself.

RJ: I discovered public history as an undergraduate at Howard University, and I worked with my mentor who directed the program, Dr. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. My first fieldwork experience was working at the Mary McLeod Bethune Museum . . . from there I had [an] experience doing heritage tourism. I was involved with an oral history project with the DC Humanities Council where we interviewed African Americans who had migrated from the South and came to Washington who were living in a senior housing complex. We hosted a series of events that eventually became a documentary. After I graduated, I worked for a little while, didn’t do anything in history, and decided to come back to graduate school and went to Howard for my Master’s in Public History with the intent of working at a museum and doing education and public programming. When I finished the Master’s, I thought, “I’m doing really well, and I might as well just stick with my Doctorate,” because by then 9/11 happened, the bottom fell out, and there was really no place for me to go. Graduating in 2003, my first job was at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke where I managed the Behind the Veil Project.

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Rethinking diversity: Chris Taylor, molding future public historians

2013 Fellows at the MN Historical Society Collections |Courtesy Chris Taylor

2013 Fellows at the Minnesota Historical Society Collections.  Photo credit: Chris Taylor

This is the third post in a series on issues of diversity in the public history field. Each post in this series is based upon oral interviews conducted with public history professionals. Each interview was conducted in a traditional interview question and answer format. All interviews were edited and condensed based on relevancy and to retain a reasonable length for the posts.

In developing this series, I sought out examples of public historians who are combating the diversity issue in creative and proactive ways. I looked for individuals who not only hoped to change the pool of future public historians but who employed tangible solutions that other museums and institutions could build on. One such individual is Chris Taylor, Diversity Outreach Program Manager at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS).

Like many of the students he works with, Taylor took a nontraditional pathway to public history. His background in social sciences and education provided him with a unique opportunity to engage in the year-long Coca Cola Museum Fellows program, which exposed him to topics surrounding diversity and inclusion in museums. The experience inspired him to pursue a History Museum Studies graduate degree at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, which is led by pioneering African American museum professional Gretchen Sullivan Sorin. As a young museum professional, Taylor implemented a program at MHS modeled after the Coca Cola Museum Fellows program, and the MHS program has enjoyed nine years of success. In fact, the MHS Diversity Outreach Program was recently named the Diversity Outreach Department, making the society one of the only historical institutions in the United States to establish a permanent department focused solely on increasing its diversity and inclusion efforts.

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Revealing slavery’s legacy at a public university in the South (Part 1)

This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus.  Image:  South Caroliniana Library

This 1820 watercolor shows an early view of the campus. Photo credit: South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina

Written on the landscape of the University of South Carolina is an untold yet well-documented story of slavery. Enslaved people constructed the buildings of the university’s antebellum predecessor, South Carolina College, attended to the wants of white students and faculty, and performed countless tasks essential to running the college. This story is not unique in the history of American colleges and universities. Even in places where slavery was not widespread, the profits from slavery helped fund institutions of higher learning. Scholars have been slow to examine American universities’ historical association with slavery, and universities have been even slower to acknowledge it. The current momentum, however, favors expanding the discussion of these complicated topics.  Continue reading

Making my thesis work for me

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the nineteenth-century home of the 20th President, is located in Mentor, Ohio. Photo credit: Andy Curtiss

Currently, public history educators are discussing whether their graduate students should be required to write master’s theses. Although some students (including myself) at times bemoan the thesis as impractical and suggest a public history project or portfolio as an alternative, I found my thesis experience to be integral to my development as a public historian. My research inspired me to reach out to scholars and professionals whose work paralleled my own. It has also opened new doors as I transition out of academia and into a career interpreting the past for public audiences.

My thesis research grew out of my experience volunteering and working as a seasonal interpretive ranger at James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the late nineteenth-century Ohio home of the 20th President. I set out to write about the evolution of the historic landscape of the site, and I wanted to integrate my interest in historic site interpretation into my work, especially because a graduate course on this topic would not be offered during my two years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). When I heard about the site’s plans to write a new long-range interpretive plan in early 2013, I asked to participate in the process. Continue reading

Mother of invention; or, what my sons taught me about historical reenacting

Author's son posing in newly acquired World War II uniform and gear. [Posted with Permission.]

Author’s son posing in newly acquired World War II uniform and gear. Photo credit:  Author

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when my sons became interested in reenacting. After all, history is the family business–my spouse and I are historians, and our children absorbed a chronological mindset very early. Still, they have often claimed not to like the subject, perhaps because they have heard us discuss our research and teaching until their eyes glaze over. Willingly or not, they have accompanied me on many history-related outings, including an epic road trip following the path of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, complete with overnight camping on the original Ingalls homestead claim. So maybe all of this got into their blood despite their protests. Or maybe they knew that reenacting was the only way their uptight academic parents would let them play with guns.
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Choosing a public history program survey results

The New Professional and Graduate Student Committee discuss the Public History Navigator in Monterey. Courtesy NCPH.

The New Professional and Graduate Student Committee discusses the Public History Navigator in Monterey.  Photo credit:  NCPH

We asked and you shared! One hundred sixty-six respondents participated in the NCPH New Professional and Graduate Student Committee survey, offering their input for creating a consumer’s guide to public history. Now officially titled “Public History Navigator: How to Choose and Thrive in a Graduate Program,” this exciting project will provide one tool to address shared concerns about the “perfect storm”–the phrase National Council for Public History Past President Bob Weyeneth used to describe the public history training and jobs crisis.

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