Woodrow Wilson Foundation awards Harris Junior Faculty Career Enhancement Fellowship

History professor Jessica Harris will bring awareness to racial inequality movements in the western U.S. due to receiving the Junior Faculty Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Harris received the award, for which she will take a one-year sabbatical beginning in the fall, to turn her dissertation on the activism of black club women and collegiate women from 1900 to 1940 in Oakland, Calif., into a manuscript.  Her work addresses how women challenged racial inequality before World War II and uses “[the women] as a bridge between two different generations of activists in the East Bay.”

“During the late 19th Century, around 1895, 1896, there was an organization called the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs that was created,” Harris said, “and basically it was a coming together of all these local organizations that had been created by black women in various cities across the country and organizations that were focused on self-help, so providing aid and support to members of the African American community.”

While the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship is an “important step” in Harris’ own career, she said it also gives her an opportunity to complete a book that will shape “the ways in which we think about civil rights organizing.”

“A lot of times we focus on the north and the south and we forget about the west,” Harris said. “So it’s an opportunity for me to bring into focus these communities of African Americans in a western city and what they did to challenge racial inequality there.”

Margaret Washington, Cornell University history professor, served on Harris’s dissertation committee and will act as Harris’s mentor during the fellowship period. Harris, according to Washington, took on controversial historiographical issues, which would make others take notice.

“I was pleased [that she received the fellowship], but I was not surprised,” Washington said. “I just thought that I know it’s a very, very competitive fellowship, but I also had tremendous confidence in the work she had done up until that point.”

Washington said Harris’ dissertation was “excellent,” in part, because Harris is conscientious and creative.

“She was an absolute pleasure to work with,” Washington said.

One addition Harris plans to make to her manuscript is the inclusion of Oakland’s Chinese community. She said the Chinese population during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which outnumbered African Americans, effected treatment of African Americans and how African American women challenged inequality.

“Because of the presence of the Chinese, there were, I think, more opportunities for African Americans to try to bridge the gap between themselves and whites,” Harris said.

Harris has always had an interest in African American history. She originally planned to write her dissertation on the Black Panther Party, but discovered an interest in events before the party’s founding in 1966, which spurred the interest in the women’s organizations that had not been previously explored.

“One of the things I had not seen in the literature is conversation about those African Americans that were already in Oakland in 1940, before 1940 and what their contributions were and had been to the struggle for racial equality,” Harris said. “And so in trying to figure that out, I kept coming across all these women, and these women I had never heard of before.”

Harris said she hopes to have a book proposal and revised manuscript completed by summer 2015.

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