2024 Conference on American History Recaps

April 22, 2024

The Organization of American Historians convened the 2024 OAH Conference on American History in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 11-14, 2024. Recaps of the first two days of the conference, courtesy of the editorial team at Process: A blog for American History, appear below.

Thursday, April 11

Andrew Jackson equestrian statue, Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Andrew Cooper.

The 2024 Annual Meeting for the Organization of American Historians opened Thursday. Attendees braved storms and flood warnings to arrive at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans, located in the historic French Quarter on Canal Street. We are lucky enough to be here during the French Quarter Festival, giving attendees the chance to take a break from the conference and enjoy the New Orleans food and music scene.

Your intrepid Journal of American History staff and Editorial Assistants spent the first day of the conference in a range of fascinating panels. Read on to learn more about some of our highlights!

Cookie Woolner (University of Memphis) chaired the panel “Y’all Means All: Doing Queer Southern Public History Now” with panelists Josh Burford and Maigen Sullivan (Invisible Histories Project), Frank Perez (The LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana), and Alysha Rooks (Author). Burford, Sullivan, Perez, and Rooks discussed their experiences working to archive queer histories and stories in the south. Burford and Sullivan stressed the importance of finding ways to create and maintain queer archives in the communities from which they originate and finding ways to empower communities to archive for themselves. They also discussed how crucial it is for researchers and faculty to fairly compensate (both citationally and monetarily) the work of archives. Perez discussed questions of developing effective finding aids, particularly in light of the ways language around queerness has changed and developed over time. Rooks reflected on working on history outside the academy, and the importance of opening access to archives outside university spaces. You can find more on the work and upcoming events from the Invisible Histories Project at their website or on their Instagram at invisiblehistoriesproject and LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana at their website

Cookie Woolner, University of Memphis. She serves on the OAH Committee on the Status of LGBTQ Historians and Histories. Photo by Andrew Cooper.

Elsewhere, attendees packed the roundtable “New Directions in United States Empire,” chaired by Alvita Akiboh (Yale University), with panelists Holger Droessler (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), Sarah Meiners (Cornell University), Adrian De Leon (University of Southern California), and Kristin Oberiano (Wesleyan University). Participants had a robust discussion surrounding definitions of “empire” and how to think through those definitions in a teaching context. They pointed to both the benefits and the drawbacks of particularly capacious understandings of empire, and the necessity of specificity when it comes to grappling with the tactics and realities of U.S. imperialism. Panelists also shared their research experiences, highlighting and problematizing the role of funding, archival access, and language skills in carrying out their work. The session ended with a thought-provoking discussion about how to incorporate histories and historiographies of empire in the classroom. Oberiano and Droessler reflected on their recent American Historian piece, “Teaching U.S. Territories,” and panel discussion turned to the ways teachers and professors might include empire in 20th century U.S. history courses, and how various institutional and political contexts shape the teaching of U.S. imperial history. The roundtable concluded with a reminder from Akiboh and Oberiano to embrace the complexity and paradoxes of imperial history and of historical actors and imperial processes. You can also find Oberiano’s recent piece for Process here, also available as a podcast

In the 12:45 session, presenters Melissa Serio (Education Research Partnerships), Mkunde Mtenga (U.S. History Teacher), Michelle Hofmann-Amaya (PUC Lakeview Charter Academy), and Julie Brown-Bernstein (University of Southern California) explored a framework of “Intercambio” in education between stakeholders at all levels in “Embracing Intercambio as Praxis: How K-12 Educators and Researchers Build Reciprocal Relationships and Root Historical Knowledge in Local Communities.” This fascinating panel, featuring an educational researcher, K-12 educators, and a history PhD candidate explored ways to integrate collaboration between education stakeholders into the classroom and pedagogical approaches. All panelists discussed the value of teaching resources like the Zinn Education ProjectDigital Inquiry GroupFacing History and Ourselves, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Serio detailed the ways PearDeck, a learning and engagement platform, collaborated with teachers and educational researchers to co-develop a new learning technology. Hofmann-Amaya and Mtenga, both K-12 classroom teachers, shared ways they have integrated collaboration and community engagement into their lesson plans. Hofmann-Amaya, an English Language Arts teacher, collaborated with her colleague in history to integrate students’ lessons across subjects and provide ways to better and more deeply understand history and their place as readers and interpreters of primary and secondary texts. Brown-Bernstein, a PhD candidate and former secondary history teacher, demonstrated how she has continued to use the models of community engagement and pedagogical best practices in her oral history and doctoral research with former auto workers in the San Fernando Valley. 

Two floors down, attendees gathered for “Environmental Justice in Postwar America,” with panelists Adam Quinn (University of Oregon), Elodie Edwards-Grossi (Université Paris Dauphine and Institut Universitaire de France), and Paul Rosier (Villanova University). Joseph Hower (Southwestern University) provided comments. The panelists shared their papers, which considered various examples of environmental crisis and justice in the postwar United States. Quinn shared his work on the labor and environmental histories of computers in the United States, arguing that mythologies of “clean” and merely “virtual” computer technology obscure the fundamental continuities of pollution and resource extraction between industrial capitalism and supposedly “post-industrial” capitalism. Edwards-Grossi told the stories of pollution and white flight in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, describing the arrival of petrochemical companies and the ensuing environmental hazards there. She showed how shrinking state infrastructure rooted in austerity measures left space for private philanthropy that invisibilized the social and environmental costs to rapid industrialization. Finally, Rosier offered a narrative of the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, focusing particularly on the motivations and tactics of Indigenous attendees. He called for a “moral and financial accounting” of the sources and implications of pollution and environmental racism. In the words of Edwards-Grossi, the panel left attendees to grapple with the past–with environmental crises and injustices that persist–as “not another country but as a legacy that still lives and breathes with us” today.

What are the costs of coercive and or racist work conditions inside the nursing profession? The afternoon panel “Nursing for the Common Good? Health Activism, Social Justice, and the History of Nursing Work” grappled with this question as the panelists presented papers focused on various efforts made by nurses to address concerns of sexual assault, integration, and health inequalities in the 20th century. Charissa Threat’s (Chapman University) paper “The Need for Nursing Service is Universal” discussed how the American Nurses Association encouraged its members to participate in public welfare and social justice movements post–World War II by presenting integration of the nursing field as integral to national defense. Karissa Haugeberg’s (Tulane University) “On a Quiet Warpath” focused on how nurses confronted sexual harassment during the 1970s and 1980s. She argued that some nurses went beyond just calling for more protections against sexual assault by pushing for respect from physicians and more control in patient care. Cory Ellen Gatrall’s (Elaine Marieb College of Nursing, UMASS Amherst) paper “Dynamics of Prejudice” revealed nurses’ efforts to address health inequalities in Black and brown neighborhoods through cultural diversity initiatives. She uncovers the ways that white discomfort has been weaponized to derail anti-racist public health work. The panel revealed how nursing has always been a political profession and that working in unsafe, coercive, and discriminatory conditions impacts nurses’ ability to care for others. Moving forward, all the panelists agreed that more work needs to be done to understand how the nursing profession can make sense of racism as a public health crisis. 

In the 2:45 session, Laura Westhoff (University of Missouri–St. Louis) chaired a panel to reflect and build on the most recent edition Textbooks and Teaching in the March issue of the Journal of American History, available online for free. Panelists and JAH contributors Natalie Mendoza (University of Colorado Boulder) and Andrew Koch (Gardner Institute) talked collaboratively with panel attendees about ideas and projects of curricular redesign. In particular, discussion centered on applying the ideas about curriculum and course structure from the JAH in small and shrinking departments. Panelists and attendees explored how small departments might approach questions of curriculum and degree mapping through working with other departments and thinking about curriculum as an interdisciplinary process, working with students as collaborators, taking advantage of conferences on teaching introductory history courses, and using frameworks like Decoding the Disciplines. Participants worked on thinking critically about the ways students navigate degree structures and requirements, and shaping curriculum maps to reflect how students actually navigate degrees. 

Panelists at the plenary session, “Amidst and against a Patriarchy: Women as History-Makers, Advocates, and Defenders of Rights.” From left to right: Anthea Hartig, Shirley Ann Higuchi, Leona Tate, Diana Sierra Becerra, and Sarah Adams-Cornell. Photo by Andrew Cooper.

The plenary session, chaired by OAH President Anthea Hartig, closed out the first day of conference programming. Titled “Amidst and against a Patriarchy: Women as History-Makers, Advocates, and Defenders of Rights,” session attendees heard from Leona Tate (Leona Tate Foundation for Change, TEP Center), Shirley Ann Higuchi (Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation), Diana Sierra Becerra (University of Massachusetts), and Sarah Adams-Cornell (Matriarch), who spoke passionately and thoughtfully about their own work and experiences, the multivalent role of history in navigating and uprooting patriarchal structures and ideologies, and the importance of women as historical and contemporary change-makers.

Panelists began by sharing their personal experiences and community work. This included Tate’s childhood experience integrating her public elementary school and later reopening and repurposing the building as an educational community center; Higuchi’s family history of incarceration during World War II and her efforts to preserve and share the broader history of Japanese American incarceration; Becerra’s research and advocacy surrounding the historical and contemporary role of working class women in social movements and revolutions; and Adams-Cornell’s work with the organization she co-founded, Matriarch, which focuses on empowering inter-tribal Native women through education and community.

What all the panelists had in common was a shared commitment to community and the role that we, as historians, teachers, and advocates, can play in fighting oppressive and patriarchal structures. Becerra, for example, exhorted listeners to see history as a tool “to understand how we got here and how to change the conditions under which we live.” She argued that history has the power to give us hope, and that there is nothing inevitable about crises and collapse. For Becerra, history has the potential for collective healing and mobilization, and can be used to inform the “analysis, vision, and political strategy of social movements”–though she reminded the audience that history in itself cannot be a substitute for organizing.

For her part, Adams-Cornell warned of the limitations of history, pointing out the ways that Western and colonized histories supplanted Indigenous knowledge and practices. Suggesting that history can be at times a “harm to be overcome,” Adams-Cornell challenged us to grapple with the ways colonized histories might be an obstacle to liberation, and called for us as historians and advocates to center the needs of historically marginalized communities and to hold ourselves accountable to those communities. She encouraged attendees to “be an accomplice, not an ally,” and to lean into the complexities surrounding questions of community, equity, and advocacy, rather than appeasing the urge to “make things palatable.” Like any good panel, the discussion raised more questions than it answered, and the topics will remain relevant throughout the weekend and beyond. 

After the plenary session, attendees were invited to continue to be in conversation and community at the opening reception in the exhibit hall, where participants enjoyed live jazz and refreshments. The exhibit hall will remain open until Saturday at 5 PM. Conference attendees can stop by for refreshments at 12 PM on Friday, and for breakfast at 9 AM on Saturday. Publishers, presses, and exhibitors will be available throughout the weekend–stop by to peruse books, chat with other conference attendees, and check out the work of the exhibiting organizations!

Friday, April 13

Day two of the 2024 Annual Meeting for the Organization of American Historians brought sunny weather and another slate of great panels, presentations, and events. Participants ventured out into the beautiful French Quarter to explore local history and take advantage of the tours and offsite sessions offered by the conference. The day opened with a morning mixer in the exhibit hall, where participants enjoyed a free breakfast and each other’s company. Attendees spent the evening honoring the accomplishments and incredible work of friends and colleagues at the OAH Awards Ceremony. In between, conference-goers had the opportunity to attend a wide range of panels and roundtable discussions. The JAH staff and Editorial Assistants once again set out to bring you bite-sized summaries of the day’s events.

At a Friday morning session focused on the Native South, panelists Dixie Haggard (Valdosta State University), Denise Bates (Tufts University), and Angela Hudson (Texas A&M), alongside chair, Robert Caldwell (State University of New York) and commentator, Daniel Usner (Vanderbilt University) explored the ways in which twentieth-century Indigenous Southerners navigated the marginalization and segregation of the Jim Crow era. Research presented in “Neither the One nor the Other: The Native South in a Black and White World after 1900” emphasized the resilience of numerous Native communities (such as the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians and the Pascagoula River Tribe) through their establishment and maintenance of churches and schools, which became sites of meeting and organizing. In addition, the panel discussed the ways in which outsiders positioned members of these communities, including non-Native southerners and western Native activists. 

Participants of the “Linking Legal Pasts to Legal Presents” discussed the ways their work moves the legal history field away from studying how law has impacted marginalized communities and towards how marginalized communities construct and enact legal agency and consciousness through kinship and community networks. Panelists included Hardeep Dhillon (University of Pennsylvania), Kasha Appleton (Indiana University, Bloomington), Margaret Huettle (University of Wisconsin Oshkosh), Katrina Jagodinsky (University of Nebraska–Lincoln), Erika Pérez (University of Arizona), Honor Sachs (University of Colorado Boulder), and chair Dylan Penningroth (University of California, Berkeley). Though the panelists had very different geographic and temporal focuses, they all agreed that there needs to be a push for a more expansive understanding of the “law” and the ways marginalized individuals make use of it. When asked “what is a legal document?” Dhillon argued that anything can be part of the legal archive and that legal documents should be an entry point to analysis and not the sole focus of legal history. Other panelists agreed that when attempting to access people on the margins of society it is important to be creative — the Archiverecreates the hierarchies of white supremacy through its very ordering. The panelists also discussed how the legal past and present are in a dialectic relationship. Appleton expressed how Black women have always had an intimate understanding of how society attempts to control what they can and cannot do with their bodies. She pointed out how they have been creative in working around those restrictions to enact bodily autonomy. She called for participants to look back in order to understand how we can navigate through and respond to this current moment of legal threats to bodily autonomy. 

During the 1:30 session, attendees gathered for the Graduate Student Research Lightning Round. Chaired by Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders (University of Colorado Boulder), the panel saw six graduate students at various stages of their dissertation work sharing brief overviews of their research. Andrew Aldridge (Emory University) opened the session with his work examining Blackness and criminality through the prism of cultural products like novels, comics, music, and TV. Jameson Baudelaire (Texas Tech University) followed, speaking about her research on Black women’s motorcycle history and how considering race, gender, and sexuality can challenge the mainstream symbolism of the American motorcyclist as a fundamentally white and masculine figure. Eric Chavez (University of Texas at El Paso) turned the conversation to his work on public art, muralism, and graffiti in the borderlands region of El Paso, highlighting questions of community-based rural art production and the tensions between sanctioned and unsanctioned forms of art. Sarah Lee (University of California, Berkeley) discussed her research on the criminality and corruption of the Fresno Police Department, and how rural areas serve as laboratories for technologies of racialized space and criminality. Taneil Ruffin (Princeton University) shared her work on Black freedom seekers in the antebellum United States, discussing the tenuous and fragile legal status of freed people and the ways freedom was a constant navigation. Finally, Georga-Kay Whyte (Brown University) discussed her research on Black custodial staff at Southern universities and the ways they carved out their own spaces in predominantly white campus communities. Attendees then participated in a lively and generative Q+A session, exploring the themes of criminalization and carcerality, race and racialization, gender, and labor that arose in the panelists’ work.

The 1:30 session saw another all–graduate student panel. Chair Sara Evenson (University at Albany, State University of New York) talked with Austin Hall (University of Cincinnati), Samuel Hernandez (University of Illinois at Chicago), and Benjamin Susman (West Virginia University) about their work and experiences as graduate students in public history, broadly defined. Panelists discussed the merits and challenges of pursuing public history projects as a part of their graduate programs and dissertation projects. Susman explored how public history can be understood not just as professional historians sharing traditional historical works, but also as crafting narratives with and for the public, and crafting history within and for particular communities from the outset. Panelists stressed the importance of faculty and institutions supporting the kinds of projects graduate students want to pursue and looking for ways to develop public history education infrastructure, driving the discipline forward in new and exciting ways. 

Yevan Terrien (Visiting Instructor of History, University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and Amy Ransford (Assistant Editor, Journal of American History). Photo by Andrew Cooper. You can read Yevan Terrien’s recent JAH article here, or listen to his JAH podcast interview with Ransford here.

The final session of the day included a panel discussion called “Partnering for Queer History: Community-Based Archive/Oral History Work in LGBTQ+ History.” Participants gathered to hear from Harlan Greene (College of Charleston) and Stephanie Yuhl (Holy Cross/Worcester Historical Museum) about LGBTQ+ archive and oral history projects. Panelist Hooper Schultz (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) could not attend in person, but Yuhle read his paper out loud. All three panelists discussed the various obstacles and opportunities they’ve encountered in doing their work archiving and oral history work. They shared the limitations of archival practices, especially when it comes to collecting a diverse array of oral histories within historically white institutions. Yuhle and Greene pointed to some of the difficulties involved in community-based LGBTQ+ oral history work, including the challenges of forming community advisory boards, navigating the differences between public and private funding, how to implement collecting practices that are both ethical and accessible, and how to create sustainable rather than personality-driven projects. The highlight of the panel was the Q+A session, in which attendees shared their own experiences and questions about LGBTQ+ oral history projects. The atmosphere was collaborative and generous, as attendees and panelists alike exchanged expertise and advice.

OAH President Anthea Hartig presenting the Friend of History Award to Executive Director of National History Day Cathy Gorn. Photo by Andrew Cooper.

Friday afternoon’s roundtable, “Sovereignties in the Atlantic World: Black and Indigenous Intersections,” began with the assertion that historians of early modern Indigenous peoples and the African diaspora do not, for the most part, engage with each other’s work enough, and that doing so would allow for a more robust and nuanced conversation of sovereignty and enslavement. Chair Miguel Valerio (Washington University) alongside panelists Alycia Hall (Yale), Matthew Kruer (University of Chicago), Hayley Negrin (University of Illinois at Chicago), and Shavagne Scott (Ohio State University) called on historians to consider the frameworks of sovereignty and slavery as conceptually compatible. Participants engaged in a robust dialogue about the language of sovereignty, including concepts of relational sovereignty, sovereign enactments, communal sovereignty, and territoriality. Further discussion centered on the tension between self-determination and sovereignty, as well as the variety of ways in which Indigenous and maroon communities continued to act sovereign even when land was no longer in question. 

Friday evening, conference attendees honored the best in American history at the OAH Awards Ceremony. Honorees included Earl Lewis, recipient of the Roy Rosenzweig Distinguished Service Award for his dedication to the OAH and service in the field of history more broadly, and National History Day, recipient of the Friend of History Award. Executive Director of National History Day Cathy Gorn accepted the award, and emphasized the importance of protecting the ability to teach “unvarnished history,” and shared the wide reach of National History Day programming – former National History Day students include National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to celebrity chef Guy Fieri. A full list of 2024 award recipients is available here.