Student gets fellowship to research black culture

Katherine Chilton, a student in Carnegie Mellon’s Ph.D. program in history, was awarded a research fellowship from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History earlier this month. The fellowship will help to further Chilton’s research for her dissertation, titled “Gender, Labor, and Family during Slavery and the Transition to Freedom in the District of Columbia 1820–1875.”

This July, Chilton will spend two weeks in New York City in order to conduct research at the New York-based Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. The fellowship will help offset travel and lodging expenses, making the trip possible.

“I’m really excited about this trip,” she said. “[The Schomberg Center] has Southern church records, which aren’t usually seen because most churches keep them locked up in their basements.”

The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, founded in 1994, is a nonprofit organization devoted to the study of history. The institute awards fellowships and teaching awards to history scholars and instructors. It has also helped to establish stronger history programs within schools and has produced print and electronic publications for those in the history field.

This year, Chilton was one of 24 applicants who received a fellowship. The organization received 56 applications from students around the world.

Chilton’s research focuses on the urban African-American experience in the 19th century in Washington, D.C. Her main focus is on labor and family, particularly the living conditions of slave families and the kinds of work they did.

“Most people don’t think of the District of Columbia as a southern city, but blacks from places like Maryland and Virginia moved there, and I think it’s interesting because this was where all the policymakers were, but there were no new jobs for blacks,” she said. “What does freedom really mean if you’re still doing the same work? That’s what I want to find out.”

While at the Schomberg Center, Chilton plans to look at documents such as church records and travel narratives. As most of the documents she has had available to her thus far, mostly censuses and other government records, are what she called “dry and dusty,” she hopes that these documents will “add some color” to her dissertation.

“Lots of northerners traveled to D.C., and they wrote about what they saw and about the slaves working there,” she said. “In church records, you can see what people thought was important and what the communities were raising money for.”

Tera Hunter, Chilton’s advisor and an associate professor in the history department, is equally enthused about the project.

“Her project promises to break new ground,” Hunter said. By looking at this broader time period, she continued, Chilton will be able to discern broader patterns that other historians have missed. This promise of a new perspective is one of the reasons that Hunter recommended Chilton for the fellowship.

Hunter is not the only one who thinks that Chilton’s research is important to the field of history.

“One of the main deciding factors in awarding fellowships is having a compelling topic on an important history subject,” said Eric Sharfstein, communications manager for the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

Other factors include the dependence upon documents located in the historical archives in New York City and the applicant’s credentials as a scholar.

One of the five historical archives in New York, the Schomberg Center is “one of the premier archives of African-American history, art, and culture” according to its website. The archives contain documents on subjects such as the civil rights movement and the culture of slavery.

The other archives in proximity to the Schomberg Center are the Gilder Lehrman Collection, the Library of New York Historical Society, the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Humanities and Social Sciences Library. Both the Humanities and Social Sciences Library and the Schomberg Center are divisions of the New York Public Library System.

This fellowship will aid Chilton in the research process for her dissertation, which has only just begun. Her trip will mark the start of a long but rewarding process. Chilton hopes to complete the project within two years.

She is hesitant, however, to set such a firm goal.

“There is so much written about American history, and in order to find something new, you have to dig. It’s like mining for information,” she said.