Harris’ research makes visible African American women’s contribution in the development of activist traditions

African-American women played an integral and central role in the development of a long- standing activist tradition in the U.S., according to historical studies professor Jessica Harris.

History professor Jessica Harris' book “Before the Panthers: Black Women, Tempered Radicalism and the Fight for Racial Justice in Oakland, California, 1900-1940” will be published next year.

Harris’ research on the activism of black women in Oakland, Calif., prior to World War II and in the conditions for the development of movements such as the Black Panther Party, resulted in her book entitled “Before the Panthers: Black Women, Tempered Radicalism and the Fight for Racial Justice in Oakland, California, 1900-1940.”

According to Harris, from the mid-19th century, there existed a progressive community of black Oaklanders who established their own institutions and actively challenged racial inequality and helped set conditions for black freedom movements, such as the Black Panther Party, to develop.

The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland in 1966 at a pivotal moment in U.S. history, seeding “a new racial consciousness that placed black identity, communal power and self-determination at the center,” according to Harris.

”I concluded that, from the start, African-American women played an integral role in contouring this narrative,” Harris said. “I found that the further I went back chronologically, the more visible black women became.”

The book that will be published next year is an extension of what, according to Harris, she does in her classes.

“I use education as a tool to motivate students to activism and to champion a cause,” Harris said. “Whether that be racial or other forms of inequality, my hope is that in learning about the experiences of others, students and others will reflect upon their own place in society and think of ways they can contribute to new and ongoing struggles for racial justice and human rights.”

According to Aldemaro Romero, Dean of the College or Arts and Sciences, the study of those movements helps understand how different social, political and economic conditions shape those intolerant responses in different times in our society.

Romero said racism in different forms is a constant in American history and the reactions to it, which have taken many shapes, are important to research.

“The study of African American history is essential to understand American history as a whole,” Romero said.  “Dr. Harris’s research provides a great deal of insights in understanding that history.”

Understanding the formation and expansion of social and political movements, such as the Black Panther Party, can educate us about the post-war urban crisis and our present day urban crisis, according to Harris.

“This country has come a long way in terms of racial inequality but we still have a long way to go,” Harris said. “Institutional and individual racism still persists and young people are very aware of these issues but perhaps are unsure of how to discuss and respond to such issues.”

Harris sees her research as part of a long standing effort by scholars to document the experiences of African Americans in the United States and to make visible their contributions to this nation’s history and culture.

Harris’ book will be the result of Harris’ winning the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation’s Career Enhancement Fellowship for Junior Faculty. She was one of nationwide junior faculty winners in the competitive program. The fellowship is effective from June 1, 2014-June 30, 2015.

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