Wilson Center Experts

Mary Ellen Curtin

Fellow
United States Studies

Expertise:
North America
;
United States
Affiliation:
Lecturer, University of Essex, United Kingdom
Wilson Center Project(s):
"From Virtue to Power: Barbara Jordan and the Origins of the Black Female Politician in America"
Term:
Sep 01, 2007
-
May 01, 2008

All of my research has been focused upon the African American experience in the South after emancipation. I've been interested in a wide range of issues including black women's activism, politics, crime, labor history, black voting, southern industrialization, and the newly-emerging and highly-contested southern legal system. All of these themes came together in my first book, Black Prisoners and Their World, a study of how African Americans endured, opposed, and responded to the brutal convict leasing system in Alabama in the late nineteenth century. For over forty years, Black prisoners in Alabama mined coal for the profit of the state, individuals, and private companies. As I show, a disproportionate number of black citizens were incarcerated because of social conflicts related to voting, property rights, and politics. Although this for-profit prison system contributed enormously to Alabama's coal and steel industry, its most significant dimension is how it cemented associations between race and criminality, links that still shape how the criminal justice and prison systems operate today. I'm still involved in research related to southern prison history and I've served as a consultant on two documentary films on the subject of convict labor. My current project also concerns African American responses to political shifts, in this case the opening up of Black voting and political representation as segregation slowly crumbled. My study of Barbara Jordan, her Texas constituents, and her impact on the national political scene traces how Black Texans, and particularly African American women, sought to influence the political process through community activism, formal voting, campaigning, and finally as political candidates and politicians. Jordan was the first Black woman to enter the all-white and all-male institutions of the Texas legislature and her path to power reveals new dimensions to the modern urban southern black experience. For various reasons, voting--as opposed to non-violent direct action--captured the imaginations and energy of Black Houstonians and over a period of decades, they participated in the formal political process. Until Jordan's emergence, however, their rewards were slim. Jordan's success seemed to promise a new day and her constituents seized upon her as a symbol of powerful blackness and black womanhood. In reality, the political arena had limits in its ability to redress the enormous inequalities facing Black Houstonians, but Jordan sustained their hope in the political process. As she became a national figure, she served that same purpose to many Americans disillusioned with politics. My project seeks to understand why this was so.Until eight years ago, the bulk of my training, teaching and research had taken place in the American South. In 1998, however, I moved to the United Kingdom to take up a position teaching history at the University of Essex. Friends and colleagues frequently ask: How is teaching in England different? Limited space does not allow me to delve into a comparison that does justice to either country or system of higher education. However, since living in the UK, I've certainly developed a greater understanding of young people's complex perceptions of America. Teaching in the UK has also made me reflect upon how cultural values shape institutions of higher education and govern how we assess and teach students.
 

Education

B.A. (1983) University of Rochester; M.A. (1988) Duke University; Ph.D. (1992) Duke University
 

Subjects

African-American History,Prisons (U.S.),U.S. Politics,Women's History (U.S.)
 

Experience

  • Assistant Professor of History, Texas State University
  • Lecturer, Department of History, University of Essex, United Kingdom

Expertise

African American history, American women's history, history of American prisons, American politics

Project Summary

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Houston, Texas, was arguably the most famous African American politician of the twentieth century. Born in 1936 and raised under segregation, Barbara Jordan served six years in the Texas State Senate before becoming the first Black Congresswoman from the South as well as a nationally respected politician and orator.

This study explores how Jordan's life illuminates the political history of African American women, particularly their cultural impact as politicians, and the role they played in integrating political institutions steeped in white supremacy. Jordan's early life and career offers a window into how Black women moved from virtuous "uplifters" of their race to full participants in government who exercised power.

Major Publications

  • "'Their Idol, Their Vision': African American Womanism and the Rise of Barbara Jordan," The Journal of Women's History, Volume 20, number 1, (forthcoming, March 2008.)
  • "'Strong People and Strong Leaders': African American Women and the Modern Black Freedom Struggle," in The Practice of U. S. Women's History: Narratives, Intersections, and Dialogues edited by S. Jay Kleinberg, Eileen Boris and Vicki L. Ruiz. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007): 308-328.
  • Black Prisoners and Their World: Alabama, 1865-1900 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000)

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