Jacqueline Jones is the Ellen C. Temple Chair in Women’s History and Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History in the Department of History where she served as chair from 2014-20. She is the author of many books. A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America (2013) and Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present (25th anniversary edition, 2010) were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize; and Labor of Love won the Bancroft Prize. Jones won a MacArthur Fellowship (1999-2004) and is the American Historical Association’s 2020 president-elect.
Education: B.A. American Studies ’70, University of Delaware; M.A. American History ’72 and Ph.D. American History ’76, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Hometown: Christiana, Delaware
How has the narrative of U.S. history changed to acknowledge the realities of slavery and other uglier aspects of our country’s past? And do contributions from non-historians, such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project, help or hinder these efforts?
I am distressed that some people believe that enforced ignorance about our country’s past is a virtue. As historians, we aim to provide an accurate view of the past, even if that includes topics that are uncomfortable or upsetting to us now. Any effort to eliminate or ignore certain aspects of history does our students a disservice. The profits wrung from the labor of enslaved peoples helped to make the United States a prosperous nation — or rather, a prosperous nation for a few. The New York Times’ 1619 Project (and several historians contributed, by the way) provoked a wider conversation about the founding of the nation, and although that conversation has at times been contentious, it is a good one to have.
Do you think recent protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the United States’ reckoning with its past will increase interest in learning U.S. history?
I do hope that that will be one of the outcomes of the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement aims to bring to light the history — and protest against the present-day reality — of police brutality. The American Historical Association crafted a statement providing historical context for this issue, which has been co-signed by 95 scholarly societies. Over the summer, I hosted a webinar for history teachers and professors who might want to use the statement as a teaching tool in the classroom. It’s essential that we all learn the history behind today’s headlines.
How does your knowledge of history shape how you look at current events?
I do tend to take a long view, although I am a news junkie. I am concerned that the global economy has left so many people behind, here and around the world, and that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow. I worry that the impulses driven by anti-intellectualism and anti-science play such a major part in shaping our political landscape today: The fate of the planet, the well-being of our democracy and the health of our (and the world’s) population all hang in the balance. Although my job is bringing the past to light, I am also fearful for the future for my grandchildren and all of the generations to come.
Who are some of the most overlooked individuals or groups in U.S. history?
People of modest means. Many of these families were resourceful and resilient. For a variety of reasons, no matter how hard they worked, they found it difficult to own their own land or homes. Their stories are inspiring, and also illuminating, as we are reminded of the vulnerability of certain groups of people, especially people of color, in accumulating assets over the generations. Discrimination in employment, housing, bank loans, education and health care are some of the factors that have affected these families. Many privileged Americans seem oblivious to these facts, and want to believe that merit alone is the deciding factor in whether or not individuals prosper. To a great extent today, we are our zip codes; in other words, where we live helps to determine access to quality public education, health care, and police and fire protection. Impoverished communities and families do not enjoy a “level playing field” in their striving for a better life.
What are the challenges and benefits of telling social histories?
Social historians have to be resourceful in finding evidence that will reveal the lives of people who did not leave much in the way of a conventional written record (diaries, letters, speeches and so forth). For example, I wrote a book on sharecroppers in the 19th-century U.S. South, The Dispossessed (1992); and though I had very little material written by them, I did find a great deal of information in the U.S. Department of Agriculture annual and special reports. These USDA materials detailed families’ work, household structure, diet and dwellings. In addition, I was able to piece together a larger story that highlighted how often these families moved — in search of a better annual labor contract, a school for their children, a place closer to their kin.
Although writing social history is a challenge, it is also tremendously rewarding, as we give a voice to people who for too long have been left out of the historical record.
For your most recent book, Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical, how did you go about piecing together the story of Lucy Parsons, a figure who was not especially forthcoming with details of her own history?
Lucy Parsons remained something of an enigma to me. Although she delivered a lot of speeches (which reporters transcribed for newspapers) and wrote articles, essays and stories, she was not very forthcoming about her interior life. Lucky for me that the late 19th-century press covered her obsessively and found her fascinating. She was a fiery anarchist, and her rhetoric was often raw and violent; at the same time she prided herself on her fashion sense (she was a talented seamstress) and she was the mother of two children. So I had to rely a lot on what people said about her; and everybody who met or heard her seemed to have an opinion.
What historical figure do you find inspiring?
Alas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg qualifies as an “historical figure” now.
What project are you currently working on that you’re most excited about?
I am currently writing a book on the Black laboring classes in Boston during the Civil War era. Most people think of antebellum Boston as the site of radical abolitionism and enlightened thinking on a whole host of issues. That’s true to an extent. Yet even white abolitionists and other reformers were indifferent to the plight of Black workers who could not find decent jobs. That disconnect — between a rhetoric of equality and a reality of prejudice — characterized not only mid-19th century Boston, but to some extent certainly the history of the United States in general. In the course of doing research for this study, I have encountered a lot of fascinating people including porters, waiters, servants, laborers and activists. I’m excited about bringing their stories to a larger audience.
Check back for more interviews with our 2020 Pro Bene Meritis recipients. The Pro Bene Meritis award is the highest honor bestowed by the College of Liberal Arts. Since 1984, the annual award has been given to alumni, faculty members and friends of the college who are committed to the liberal arts, have made outstanding contributions in professional or philanthropic pursuits or have participated in service related to the college.