For the past six years, the Sallie Markham Michie Trust has awarded funding to a graduate student within the University of North Carolina’s History Department. Sallie Markham Michie established the trust before her death in 1993, and it continues to be overseen by the Orange County Daughters of the American Revolution and the Magna Carta Dames Society, in both of which she was an active member. Over 25 years after its creation, the trust continues her legacy.
The Trust’s chair, Sarah Snow, outlined in an interview that “the intent [of the trust] is to challenge students to research and publish on the era of the American Revolution, the British/American colonial era, and/or the tradition of rights and liberties established by the Magna Carta.” Thus, scholarships are awarded annually from the Sallie Markham Michie Trust to select applicants whose research fulfills the goals of the Trust. Beyond her associations with the Daughters of the American Revolution and Magna Carta Dames Society, Mrs. Markham was also a longtime resident of Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Thus, she prioritized the allocation of scholarships from her trust to residents of Orange County.
Despite the Revolutionary-era focus of these scholarships, past recipients from the department have applied their funds to projects on Latin America, Europe, and modern America, as well as early North America. Steven Weber, who received a scholarship in 2017, was able to apply the funding toward his project on the coverage of the American Revolution by the French press, exploring the legacy and impact of the American Revolution beyond the continent. The Sallie Markham Michie Trust scholarship allowed Steve to take his first major research trip to Paris, where he worked in the city’s diplomatic archives to develop the direction of his dissertation. Beyond the scholarship itself, he valued “the ability to present my Master’s work to a public audience at the DAR meeting,” which “was really helpful in thinking about what my main contributions were and how they could be presented to a non-academic audience as significant and interesting.”
Another past recipient, Ariel Wilks, applied her scholarship funds to research closer to the American continent. The Daughters of the American Revolution and Magna Carta Dames Society awarded Ariel a scholarship in 2019 for her dissertation project, which investigated the role of privateers in the professionalization of the American Navy, especially in the amphibious warfare of the American Revolution and War of 1812. She noted that “my project fits the DAR goals as it very much centers around developing the scholarship of early America and focuses on an area within that scholarship that is not heavily emphasized.” With the support of the Sallie Markham Michie Trust, Ariel has been able to focus on developing her research topic and comfortably plan to begin her archival research this spring.
In 2021, eight graduate students applied for scholarships from the Sallie Markham Michie Trust, and the department looks forward to seeing how the recipients are able to support their own research, as well as the goals of Sallie Markham Michie, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Magna Carta Dames with the support gifted by the scholarships.
This spring, Professor Chad Bryant published his second book with Harvard University Press. Prague: Belonging in the Modern City has received favorable reviews in The Economist and the Times Literary Supplement, bringing his work to a broader public. As Bryant explained in an interview this fall, he wrote this book for both experts and interested laypeople — particularly those planning a trip to Prague, a city that has become an essential stop on any tourist’s Central European itinerary. Its architecture looks familiar enough to a foreign visitor, while its history and culture are unfamiliar enough for these visitors to attach whatever symbolic meanings they like to its buildings and landscape. At the same time, however, Prague has served as the symbolic center of the nation since the birth of the Czech nationalist movement. Successive political movements and ruling regimes have legitimated and consolidated their power by transforming the city’s physical and symbolic landscape. Unlike most other European capitals, where wartime destruction and postwar reconstruction have partially obscured this history, tourists in Prague can encounter the architectural legacies of multiple ideological projects on a short walk. Their guide books are likely to interpret this landscape for them by means of a national story — the story of a nation with a glorious past that fell into decline under foreign rule, resurrected its culture and renewed its independence, but was abandoned to Nazi occupation and then shut up behind the Iron Curtain, only to liberate itself again and reclaim its rightful place in a free Europe.
In Prague, Bryant writes the history of the city from the perspectives of five different individuals at the margins of this national story. The first, “German City,” uses the letters and published work of Karel Vladislav Zap, the writer of Prague’s first Czech-language guidebook, to reveal how middle-class Czech speakers claimed urban space for themselves in the mid-nineteenth century. Zap, an inveterate social climber, rose from obscurity to play a key role in the popularization of the Czech nationalist movement. “Czech City” turns to those Praguers excluded by the middle-class nationalist establishment — like Ferda de Podol, the flea circus manager, or Antoušek, heir to a dynasty of dog catchers — as described in Egon Erwin Kisch’s literary vignettes. Kisch, a German-speaking, Jewish-born journalist, wrote himself into a new vision of Prague as a raucous, bohemian urban landscape full of colorful characters. In “Revolution City,” the diaries of the curmudgeonly carpenter Vojtěch Berger show how left-wing organizers used parades, athletic associations, and protests to establish a social infrastructure that could be effectively mobilized for political purposes. Berger’s meticulous chronicle of his revolutionary life did not hide his disappointment in the transformation of these working-class Communist networks into the official institutions of a ruling party.
For the final two chapters of his book, Bryant was able to draw on personal interviews conducted with his subjects in addition to their written work. In “Communist City,” he examines how Hana Frejková, an actress whose father was a leading Party economist executed in the infamous Slánský trial, succeeded in both fashioning an independent identity and expressing herself artistically despite facing both political repression and social exclusion. Her memoir describes the journey of a loner — a solitér, as she continually described herself in interviews — who finds acceptance and fulfillment through art and through her family. Finally, “Global City” discusses the experiences of Duong Nguyen, whose parents were among the many Vietnamese students and workers who moved to the Czech Republic under state socialism and stayed on after 1989. Her thoughtful and forthright blog about living between two cultures presented a distinct perspective ignored by the broader Czech public as well as the traditional leadership of the Vietnamese community. It offered a picture of Prague as a cosmopolitan city despite itself, whose diversity and pluralism was too frequently overlooked or denied.
Despite their obvious differences, all five characters occupied the city’s social margins. All five shared a modern motivation to fashion their own identities and find a way to belong in their city. And all did so through writing. One of the greatest challenges of this project, Bryant noted, was finding a way to incorporate each individual narrative into his broader historical argument without distorting or dismantling each author’s interpretation of their own experience. Berger’s diaries were a consciously crafted document of the worker’s movement that made little reference to his family or private life. Frejková initially resisted the idea that her memoir could illustrate themes of belonging, and insisted that her story was a purely individual one.
The scope of the book posed another difficulty. Bryant sought both to create a narrative that would keep the attention of travelers or other interested readers, but also to address a broad set of historical questions and engage a different group of specialists with each chapter. In Frejková’s chapter, for instance, Bryant does not only recount the story of a successful actress and victim of state persecution. He also discusses the transformation of the Czechoslovak economy after the Second World War; the development of Prague’s outlying residential districts; popular culture and entertainment during the final years of state socialism; and both the human rights declaration Charter 77 and the official response, the “Anticharter.” Each chapter draws on a wide secondary literature in Czech, English, and German. In keeping with the inclusive themes of his book, Bryant strove to bring the work of Czech scholars to an English-speaking readership.
Bryant emphasized in an interview that Praguers continue to make creative use of their symbolically resonant urban spaces. He spoke admiringly about the memorial to Czech victims of Covid-19 in March 2021 organized by the civic organization Milion chvílek za demokracii (A Million Moments for Democracy). Despite the high quality of its health care system, the Czech Republic has one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in the European Union. The 25,000 crosses painted on the cobblestones of Prague’s famous Old Town Square used both powerful cultural symbols and the eerie desertion of public space under lockdown to make the Czech government’s failure to protect its citizens starkly clear.
But Prague’s cultural and symbolic dominance likely contributes to another form of exclusion that has proven deadly during the pandemic. In the Czech Republic, the virus has taken its greatest toll in the Karlovy Vary region, a peripheral part of western Bohemia that has long suffered from systemic economic and social problems — and whose complex history also does not fit neatly into the dominant national narrative. As hospitals in the area were overrun with seriously ill patients and local political leaders protested that the central government was not distributing the vaccine effectively, the prime minister dismissed their concerns: “It’s always something from the Karlovy Vary region. It’s the absolute worst region, historically, in everything.”
As Bryant explained, however, his work seeks not only to tell a different story about Prague, but also to explore ways of understanding history that are more open, inclusive, and dynamic. By presenting the history of one city through the lives of those excluded from the narratives that have shaped its symbolic landscape, he encourages readers to imagine a different future.
Shields is firmly committed to active learning. “What I learned from being a parent and teacher to my kids is that students don’t remember the things that they read or hear, as much as the things they figure out, and it’s especially true with people who learn like I do. I can read multiple books and don’t remember as much as I’d like until I actually have to use the ideas and information in them—for writing and teaching.” Shields puts active learning into practice in the classroom by getting students to think about historical themes through the prism of something concrete. In Iraq beyond Conflict, her course on Iraqi history, Carolina students organized a conference to introduce Iraqi arts to K-12 teachers. “The students wrote the program, introduced the speakers, and summarized the issues for the teachers,” she recalls. For these students, communicating information about Iraqi culture to a wider audience made the experience of taking the course memorable and meaningful.
Shields, whose survey course on the Modern Middle East has become a staple of the history curriculum at UNC, has never shied away from experimenting in the classroom. She strives not only to help students move beyond false narratives about the region, but to think about history in terms historians don’t always employ. “While most history courses on the region follow the region’s history from the end of the 18th century to the present, Shields shifted from teaching history in a linear trajectory to thematic modules,” notes Emma Harver, Outreach Director for the UNC-Duke Consortium for Middle East Studies. “Dr. Shields stands out as an exemplary educator who is genuinely passionate about her students, her courses, and teaching.”
In recent years, Shields has applied the same spirit of originality, and the same verve, to a new seminar on water in the Middle East. She attributes the idea to her daughter, Kate, a UNC graduate who is now working in the Aral Sea Basin in Uzbekistan as part of her dissertation research on political ecology and water resources at the University of Oregon’s Department of Geography. “Kate told me I had to teach water courses: ‘How can you teach the Middle East without water?’” She has now offered courses on water in the Middle East as a First Year Seminar, an Honors Seminar, and, most recently, as a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE) class, gives students the opportunity to use mapping technologies (including ArcGIS, and the “amazing resources” available on the second floor of Davis Library) to explore the human consequences of dams. Using story maps, the students were able to chart how dams resulted in the dislocation of people. Many were surprised by the results of their projects. “What the students were most impressed with wasn’t so much the environmental consequences of dams, but the human consequences of changing the course of rivers. The communities that were completely flooded out tended to be minority communities like the Nubians [in Egypt] and the Kurds [in Turkey], while majority ethnic groups would end up with more water to use for agriculture and electricity.” In short, the students ended up with a lot more than they bargained for in a history course on water. “They were completely fascinated by how dams are not a natural choice; they are always a political choice with political and human consequences.”
Harver notes how Shields’ courses have successfully “demonstrated why understanding history is so essential to resolving current crises in the region.” While echoing Harver’s assessment concerning Shields’ “long-lasting contributions to the field of undergraduate education in Middle East studies,” the department community looks forward to the new topics and methodologies she will introduce into the classroom closer to home
This September, History Department professor Lloyd Kramer received UNC-Chapel Hill’s Thomas Jefferson Award, a yearly award recognizing faculty members who “best exemplify the ideals and objectives of Thomas Jefferson” through their scholarship and teaching. At a meeting of the Faculty Council held over Zoom, chair Mimi Chapman related that numerous people had raised objections to the award over the previous year: “Why were we giving an award named after someone who enslaved people [and] who had a relationship that, by definition, could not be voluntary with an enslaved woman?” The Faculty Council, she explained, is currently considering the future of the Thomas Jefferson Award in consultation with other university committees, including the Faculty of Color and Indigenous Faculty Group at the Institute for Arts and Humanities and the Commission on Race, History, and a Way Forward. Since the award had been endowed by a donor outside the university, they would not be permitted to change its name. However, the Faculty Council could choose either to abolish the Jefferson Award and return the money associated with it, or alter the award’s language to better reflect its purpose and relation to Jefferson’s complex legacy. As Chapman concluded, Lloyd Kramer’s scholarship and public engagement made him an important participant in any discussion at UNC-Chapel Hill about Jefferson and his place on campus and in broader society.
The Robert Earll McConnell foundation endowed faculty awards in Thomas Jefferson’s name at multiple American universities during the 1950s and 1960s, including Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia, the University of Colorado, and William and Mary. McConnell, a mining engineer who made his fortune in finance, was a friend of presidents Hoover and Eisenhower, and held a number of advisory positions during the Roosevelt administration. As a committed advocate of industrial development through capitalist enterprise, he may have intended the award to build a bulwark against academic leftism. UNC-Chapel Hill officials fretted that McConnell might turn out to be “a John Bircher” seeking to use his fortune for political influence within the university. Regardless of his motivations, his foundation did not institutionalize an ideological interpretation of Jefferson’s ideals, instead leaving it up to a faculty committee. Recent citations for Jefferson Award recipients have discussed their history of service to the university and community, their commitment to public education and academic freedom, or their love of macaroni and cheese, which Jefferson is said to have introduced to the United States after encountering it in France.
For Kramer, the Jefferson Award provided an opportunity to reflect on the contemporary significance of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas and to make a case for the importance of historical education. “Engaging with Jefferson requires an acceptance of historical and human ambiguities,” he said at the beginning of his acceptance speech. Historically informed public debate argued, must address these ambiguities directly. According to Kramer, Jefferson’s ideals were best summarized by the list of achievements on his tombstone: author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and founder of the University of Virginia. But, as the Black abolitionist writer David Walker pointed out, Jefferson held that only white men had the capacity for self-rule, and denied education and religious freedom to those he held in bondage. Kramer’s acceptance speech extensively cited Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, published in 1829. Walker effectively employed Jefferson’s rhetoric and ideals to argue against Jefferson’s theories of Black inferiority and the racial tyranny that he supported.
In his acceptance speech, Kramer discussed different occasions where North Carolina’s political authorities sought to protect racial hierarchy by restricting freedom of inquiry and access to education. When Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World began circulating in the state after 1829, North Carolina’s legislators banned “seditious” abolitionist literature and criminalized teaching enslaved people to read or write. The first modern edition of Walker’s Appeal was edited by the radical historian Herbert Aptheker. Aptheker played a role in overturning North Carolina’s Speaker Ban, which excluded visiting speakers with “subversive” connections from UNC campuses. Enacted in 1963, this law was motivated by racist paranoia about Communist influence on the civil rights movement. In 1966, UNC-Chapel Hill student activists invited Aptheker to speak on campus, hoping to create a test case that might challenge the Speaker Ban. They were successful. Although Aptheker had to address the students from behind a low wall on Franklin Street, the law was overturned by a federal court two years later. Kramer also pointed to recent political interference with the UNC faculty’s recommendation to appoint Nikole Hannah-Jones to a position in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at Chapel Hill. Her work on the 1619 Project at the New York Times again stirred up fear and anger among proponents of the racial status quo. Like the fight against the Speaker Ban, he said, the campaign on behalf of Hannah-Jones was also part of a struggle to achieve the Jeffersonian ideal of free inquiry and debate.
We should neither ignore Jefferson’s racism by whitewashing his crimes nor simply reject his ideas wholesale, Kramer explained in an interview later. Rather, engaging critically with the ambiguity and complexity of Jefferson’s ideas will help us develop both a better understanding of the past and a greater sense of our own place in history. Kramer argued that we can use Jefferson’s ideas about human rights, popular self-government, and public education to attack the systemic racism that is also a part of Jefferson’s legacy. These ideas, as David Walker showed, are crucial in the continuing struggle to defend and expand democracy.
Thanks to Matthew Turi from University Libraries for assistance with locating documents about the history of the Thomas Jefferson Award at UNC-Chapel Hill.