May 24, 2019

Below we share an interview with our new SHGAPE president, Dr. Albert S. Broussard.

Dr. Broussard is a professor of History at Texas A&M University, where he has taught since 1985. He will serve as SHGAPE president from 2019-2021.

Could you tell us a little bit about your scholarship?

My recent scholarship explores civil rights, African American activism and racial justice in the western states and territories. My first book, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Justice in the West, 1900-54, based largely on my doctoral dissertation, explored many of these questions in a far western city with a global reputation for tolerance and civility toward racial minorities. I argued, among other things, that while western cities like San Francisco, and you could include Oakland, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland, were clearly more progressive than cities in the South, the progressive mystique that they portrayed was largely a facade. My work also revealed the presence of an active civil rights movement in the western states dating from the mid-nineteenth century and continuing well into the new century. I made this claim long before the slogan “the long civil rights movement” became fashionable. I also revealed the presence of a strong relationship between the left, labor and African American leaders in San Francisco. Harry Bridges, the renowned labor leader, who integrated the waterfront during the 1930s, serves as but one example, but perhaps the most well-known.

I am currently completing a manuscript that raises many of these same questions in the far west, but I have also included the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, and I have expanded my research to include the post-World War years when African Americans and other racial minority groups flocked to far western states like California, Oregon, and Washington in pursuit of economic opportunities and better lives for their families.

How did you come to study racial equality in the West?

I came to study racial equality and racial activism in the West almost by accident. When I attended Duke University as a graduate student in the early 1970s, the study of civil rights was all the rage and I had assumed that my career would also move in that direction. But Raymond Gavins, the first African American professor in Duke’s history department, encouraged each of his graduate students to consider writing dissertations about the African American experience in the cities where they grew up. And many of us did. At that time, there was no scholarly study of African Americans in any major west coast city, as strange as that sounds today. I knew of one study that was underway by a University of California, Berkeley, student who was studying social and cultural aspects of San Francisco’s black population, and that gave me pause. But my advisor convinced me that my focus on community building, civil rights, and racial activism would set me work apart, and he was right.

When did you become involved in SHGAPE? Why?

I became involved because of the influence of Robert Cherny, a former president of SHGAPE, who I regard as a mentor and a friend. Bob knew my work on African Americans in San Francisco, and he had invited me to present papers as part of panels that he had organized at professional meetings over the years. I cannot say for certain, but I suspect it was Bob who nominated me for the SHGAPE Council in 2015, which I accepted. From there, I was nominated for the office of Vice-President/President Elect, which I regarded as an honor. I had known of SHGAPE, to be sure, but had served as an elected officer of the Organization of American Historians, the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, the Western History Association, the Southern History Association, and the Oral History Association, where I served as president in 1992-1993. I offer this background only to suggest that I did not have time to take on another professional responsibility for many years.

How has the GAPE field changed since you first received your PhD in 1977?

The academic fields of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era have changed significantly from the time I entered graduate school in 1973. Many of these changes reflect some of the sweeping changes that I have witnessed in the four decades since I entered the profession in 1977. The study of women, African Americans, non-white immigrants, Latinos, and the LGBT community are among the most notable. There has literally been an explosion of scholarship in these fields in the past two or three decades, and these groups, which were once marginalized in the historical scholarship, have now moved to the front and center of scholarly inquiry. I regard this as both a welcome and a long overdue change. In addition, biographies of prominent and lesser known or neglected individuals from these areas continue to appear in historical journals and monographs, as well as important syntheses of historical eras. Richard White’s excellent two books, Railroaded and The Republic for Which it Stands, readily come to mind, as well as David Blight’s magnificent biography of Frederick Douglass, which was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history. Despite what many predicted incorrectly, biographical studies will remain important sources for Gilded Age and Progressive Era historians. Finally, historians, to their credit, have expanded or reevaluated the long-standing periodization in many fields that was present when I entered the profession in 1977. We think about the start and the conclusion of the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and many other periods in American history much differently than we did forty years ago.

What do you see as the future of SHGAPE and the GAPE field more generally?

I see the continued integration of new, fresh voices in the study of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in much the same manner that we have seen since the creation of SHGAPE thirty years ago. The JGAPE certainly, to my mind, reflects this trend with the many special issues as well as the journal’s reevaluation of older scholarship and historical figures. New works on such topics as American Indians, conservation, the environment, and comparisons between the first Gilded Age and our current era are in the works and portend a bright future for this field. I also do not think we have heard the final word on topics such as immigration, race relations, or politics, so I predict a bright future for SHGAPE, and the broad base of scholarship associated with these fields.

Thank you to Dr. Chelsea Gibson, SHGAPE Blog Editor and H-SHGAPE Editor-in-Chief, for conducting the interview.

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